You never forget your first time. Picture this. The year is 2007. A young Italian woman makes her way to the lower east side of Manhattan onto a small, dark, and empty street. She meets a man who leads her through a flimsy, unmarked door into a small, steamy room. Immediately, she’s intoxicated by the wild activity, the joyful chattering, and the slurping.
And so began my love affair with ramen. That woman was me. The man was my friend, Michael. The door led to Minca, still my very favorite ramen I’ve ever had. The steam and wild activity came from the open kitchen, if you can even call it that. It really felt more like a giant stove with gargantuan metal pots of bubbling broth, and that was just fine with me. The slurping emanated from the giddy guests packed into a tiny dining area, and grateful just to have a place to take in the goodness from their piping hot bowls.
Since then, Michael and I have had many bowls of ramen together. He’s my ramen guru, alerting me to the latest and greatest on the art of ramen scene. He and his wonderful wife, Min, are two of my favorite dining companions. They’ve introduced me to all kinds of new foods, mostly Japanese, Korean, and Chinese, and I have happily taken it all in. I keep threatening to go visit them in China, and eventually I’m going to make good on that. I plan to eat my way through that country and enjoy every second of it!
I will admit that when Michael first asked if I wanted to go have ramen, I started laughing. “You mean those 25 cent packets of crunchy noodles with a salty flavor packet wrapped in cellophane?” I asked. Michael laughed. He said something akin to “you don’t know what you’re missing.” And he was right.
That bowl of ramen at Minca was heavenly. I was struck by the number of hours it takes just to prepare that rich and flavorful broth. I learned to appreciate the just right chewy bite of the noodles cooked perfectly to the second. And then there are all the toppings. I could go on and on, but I’d never do it justice with words. Ramen must be experienced to fully appreciate its value. To slurp it is to love it. It’s the most comforting of comfort foods.
I wrinkled by nose on Sunday when I read in the New York Times Cooking section about how to make the perfect bowl of instant ramen. “Instant ramen?” I croaked. Phineas looked over at me from his bed with an equally disapproving expression. “Look, it’s bone broth or nothing,” I said to him. He nodded approvingly and went back to snoozing. But, was I missing something? I mean, if Chef Roy Choi tells me how to make perfect instant ramen in the New York Times, then who am I to tell him he’s wrong without at least trying it?
I was at the grocery store yesterday to pick up a couple of items, and I passed by those sad-looking instant ramen packets. I picked one up, chuckled to myself the way one does when they think they know better, and put it back. Instant ramen. Ha! No way. I got to the checkout lane and at the last second doubled back. I just kept thinking about that instant ramen. Maybe it was worth a try. So I picked up the package again and decided to put Roy Choi to the test.
I’m gad I did. I used his simple recipe with a poached egg and butter. I further doctored mine using pepper jack cheese instead of American, a few dashes of hot sauce, soy sauce, and sesame oil, and topped it with a little thyme and tarragon. The result was something far different from the instant ramen I grabbed off the shelf of my grocery store. It was transformed into something delicious and satisfying that far exceeded my expectations. Not anything like Minca but certainly a fine lunch. And Phineas, my little sous chef, concurred so it must be true. Roy Choi, you win. I’m sorry I ever doubted you.