“I think we can make this at home,” I said, halfway through eating a large bowl of traditional tonkotsu-style ramen.
“Really?” she asked. “You own two pots.”
We were on a rare date at San Francisco’s Ramen Izakaya Goku, a shop known for cooking everything from scratch while using only the best ingredients. The ramen I ordered, tonkotsu, is traditionally made with a thick broth made from pork bones boiled with fat and collagen for more than sixteen hours before it’s blended with soy sauce and chicken stock. The result is hearty flavor and a creamy, almost milky consistency. The noodles are thin and wavy—not unlike instant ramen—and it is served topped with a pickled slice of ginger called shoga, sesame oil, crushed garlic, sliced pork belly, and a single, tea-poached egg.
And for some reason, after eating it just once, I honestly thought that I could replicate it seamlessly.
“Two pots is enough,” I said (like a jackass). “One for the broth and one for the noodles. And I’m pretty sure I know how to make these eggs.”
“It sounds really cool,” Sara said, patiently. “And we’re always so busy, it would be nice to spend a whole evening together. Let’s try it.”
Sara works in Oakland at a nonprofit and I work in San Francisco as a copywriter. We’re both busy people, made worse by the fact that we both moonlight as writers. Dinner is the time that we get to spend together and so, most of the time, we find ourselves planning where to eat one meal during another. I was excited about making something with her, about mixing up the routine.
We finished our meal, called a Lyft, and began the long journey back to the East Bay. I pulled out my phone and started searching for DIY ramen recipes. This was going to happen.
Weeks later, I found myself standing underneath the hellish florescent lights of a Safeway.
“What do you mean you don’t have pork bones?” I asked a part-time grocery store butcher, dumbfounded.
“We’re Safeway,” he responded. “We just have meat.”
I pulled up a list of ingredients on my phone and started searching for a substitute. Ramen is a dish that hinges on the broth, so I wanted to find the most appropriate substitute available. Luckily, I found a broth that called for chicken stock—tori.
“What about chicken bones?” I asked. The butcher shook his head, frustrated, and moved on to the next customer.
I left the butcher’s counter defeated, trying my best to come up with a new plan. Sara would have to drive me to a smug Bay Area butcher shop, or a farmer’s market, or—god help us—a Whole Foods.
“They don’t have pig bones or chicken bones,” I said. “But I found pork belly,” placing what I thought was pork belly into our shopping cart. Sara had already collected most of the ingredients we needed: fresh celery, onion, garlic, scallions, soy sauce, sesame oil, and fermented soybean paste, along with local eggs for steaming.
“What about noodles?” I asked.
“They didn’t have ramen noodles,” she said. “They’ve got egg noodles and soba noodles and instant ramen noodles, but I don’t think any of that will work.”
“So, you’re telling me they have fermented bean paste, but they don’t have ramen noodles?”
Sara shrugged. “No ramen and no pork bones,” she said. “Looks like Safeway isn’t the gateway to the East that we had hoped for.”
“Sara,” I said, with woe and regret. “I think we have to go to Whole Foods.”
For better or worse, Whole Foods had ramen noodles. They did not, however, have chicken bones, pork bones, or as far as I could tell, the bones of any animal.
“What about a rotisserie chicken?” Sara asked, because she is a genius.
We left Whole Foods, birds-in-hand, and made our way back to my kitchen. Sara started chopping vegetables while I began the gruesome process of butchering two cooked chickens. Ramen broth made from chicken bones, or tori, is pretty simple. You put a few pounds of chicken bones into a pot, add chopped celery, onion, and garlic, and boil the shit out of it for at least four hours.
“It seems like it’s basically chicken stock,” Sara remarked, looking over the recipe. “But with more boiling.”
I looked at my watch, then at the recipe, then at my watch, then at the pot. “Dinner should be ready around 11 p.m.,” I said. “I hope.”
Sara and I stood in silence, stomachs growling, as the water finally started to boil.
I checked on the broth an hour later and realized that everything had cooked down much more than we’d expected. Was I supposed to cover the pot? The internet had given me patchy advice. I stirred the broth and let everything simmer up to the surface. It looked disgusting: a mush of fat and marrow and bone, like some morbid chicken graveyard. The odor of rendered fat filled the kitchen.
As the contents of the pot disintegrated, the liquid thickened to the consistency of gravy or butter or crude oil. This is fine, I thought. It’s supposed to cook down. This is fine.
I opened a bottle of Sapporo and poured a glass for myself and one for Sara. There was nothing to do but wait, so the two of us simply sat down and talked about the day. That’s one benefit of making ramen at home, it’s a process which forces you to wait. Sara told me about new projects at work, I told her about new ideas for articles and adventures. It was something that we hadn’t done in weeks and if felt, to say the least, novel.
By the three-hour mark, my stove was a circus. The broth simmered in one large pot while another boiled the noodles. I was searing the pork belly in a frying pan while the last pot—my smallest—boiled water underneath a steaming metal colander.
“Nick taught me how to make eggs like this,” I told Sara, excited to prepare the only part of this meal that I was confident in.
My cousin Nick is the best cook I know. He reads cookbooks much in the same way that I might enjoy a novel. Nick has this trick for making the perfect egg: six minutes of steaming followed by ten seconds in an ice bath. The results are thoroughly cooked egg whites with creamy yolks the consistency of custard. It would taste delicious on top of our ramen, even though, traditionally, the eggs are poached right in the broth. Surely Sara would be impressed.
“Son of a BITCH!” I yelled as the liquid insides of an egg exploded in my hands just a few minutes later. I had forgotten one crucial step in steaming the eggs.
“You’re supposed to cover the eggs to trap in the steam,” Nick whispered from somewhere in the far recesses of my memory. “Otherwise they won’t get hot enough to cook.”
And then, at this climatic moment, I realized something else. The pork belly I bought was not pork belly at all. Nope. It was a pork chop.
“Safeway is a terrible place to shop for authentic Japanese cuisine,” Sara said, trying to comfort me. “At least the noodles look good?”
“Because we bought those at Whole Foods,” I said. “A fucking Whole Foods.”
Sara helped me steam the eggs again, this time slightly more successfully. We strained the broth and plated the noodles and sliced our well-intentioned pork chops into smaller pieces. I added the fermented bean paste to my bowl with sesame oil and roasted garlic. Sara added soy sauce to hers and an abundance of scallions. There was just enough broth for us both and with the eggs and pork placed on top, the result almost looked like traditional, homemade ramen.
“Hey!” Sara said, emphatically. “It’s not bad!”
She was only being nice, of course, because the “ramen” we had prepared was an unmitigated disaster, a hellscape of tastes, a concentration of salt and brine and regret. It tasted like a porridge made out of a chicken’s worst parts—the gizzard, maybe—with a generous helping of sodium that buried not only the umami, but any flavor that might try and claw its way to the surface. But hey…at least the eggs were good.
Sara and I ate together and talked and laughed and drank. We suffered through our bastardized noodle soup and laughed and drank some more. We’d spent hours trying to replicate a deeply cultural, hugely significant Japanese dish, and it’s safe to say that we failed.
And yet…we had a hell of a time failing. Maybe that’s part of what makes ramen, what makes food, so culturally important — it creates and promotes community. After weeks of being too busy to spend quality time together, it was refreshing to just sit down and enjoy each other’s company.
The food wasn’t great, but the meal was exceptional.