It’s a wintry morning in Calgary, where I am visiting my son and his partner. We are bundled up, standing in line. Even though the chinook is blowing in, the morning is raw, and I am grateful I didn’t make any assumptions and underdress. It’s still deep-freeze Prairie winter.
The restaurant’s door opens at 11 a.m. sharp, and the 30 people in front of us are quickly ushered to benches, chairs and stools. My son reassures me that it won’t be long, that the turnover is fast. I’ve been here before, even though neither my son nor I like lineups.
When I peer in through the front windows a few minutes later, bowls and plates already sit in front of several happy diners. Chopsticks and spoons are deployed. I can’t hear the sound effects, but I can imagine them, because I have made those noises myself — slurping, sighing, lip smacking, the noises deserved by good food.
When I return to our spot in the queue, we pass the time by discussing “Tampopo,” Juzo Itami’s famous “Spaghetti Eastern” movie about a noodle maker in Japan. This wildly funny 1986 movie sendup of “Spaghetti Westerns” involves a stranger who rides into town (in a truck), then sticks around to help a widow learn to make better noodles for her shop.
My appetite is stoked by the time my son’s name is called. We’ve waited outside maybe 40 minutes; this restaurant, Shiki Menya, serves ramen, pale-yellow wheat noodles and the broth-style soup that contains them. A line forms outside its door every day because the noodles and broth are not only scrumptious, but handmade. Daily. When they run out, the door closes. We sit; we consult; we order. Soon it’s us who are smacking our lips, sighing and slurping. Then we leave, so others can do the same.
At home, I dig around in my library and online, reading up on the noodles and broth, then head to the kitchen, curious to see if I can reproduce the textures and flavours that made me so happy.
The short answer: yes, and no. Intrepid home cooks can approximate ramen’s slick texture by adding baked baking soda to an egg noodle dough, but trust me, some things really are best left to the specialists. Best to make the stock and buy the noodles: ready-made ramen — not the dry packaged kind with a little packet of salty seasoning that sustains university students on a tight budget, but fresh ramen — or fat wheat udon or Shanghai noodles, or even soba (buckwheat noodles), any of which are usually available at grocery stores. In a real pinch, spaghetti will work.
Ramen’s rich broth is often made from pork bones, but miso, chicken or fish stock can be used as well. What else shows up in the bowl? Char siu (braised or barbecued pork belly). Negi (spring onion). Soft tamago (soft-boiled egg). Menma (fermented bamboo shoots). Mustard greens, pea shoots, microgreens, spinach. Aromatic sesame seeds or oil, peanuts or cashews. The whole, extraordinarily greater than the sum of its modest parts, is enough to make a grown woman go weak in the knees. So first we eat, and then we decide if we should have more.
Dee’s Eastern Noodle Soup
Chinese char siu is pork roasted with a tangy, often-sweet sauce.
The Japanese version is pork belly too, braised or roasted. Why pork belly? Fat content, which translates into lusciousness in eating. Use this braised version in your own “Spaghetti Eastern” bowls of ramen.
- 2-lb. pork belly
- 6 c. pork stock or chicken stock
- 1 c. soy sauce
- 1 c. sake
- 1/4 c. brown sugar
- 2 onions, coarsely chopped
- 1 head garlic, peeled and bruised 1 bunch green onions, chopped 2 inches ginger, chopped
- 1 carrot, chopped
Soup broth and flavourings:
- Pork braising liquid
- Soy sauce
- Aromatic sesame oil
- Sliced broiled char siu
- Negri (spring onion), minced
- Soft tamago (soft-boiled egg)
- Menma (fermented bamboo shoots)
- Mushrooms, raw or sautéed
- Mustard greens, pea shoots, microgreens, spinach
- Toasted peanuts
- Cooked wheat noodles (ramen, udon, Shanghai) or soba (buckwheat noodles)
Set oven at 300 F. Roll pork belly into a cylinder, tie with kitchen twine and set aside. Combine all braising ingredients in a heavy pot and bring to a boil. Add the pork, then reduce to a simmer. Cover the contents snugly with a piece of parchment paper, then with a lid. Cook in oven for 3-4 hours, or until tender. Leave cooked pork in liquid overnight in fridge. Next day, remove the pork belly from the liquid and slice. Sauté or broil each slice for a yummy nice caramel-edged effect, or reheat the slices in some of the broth.
To make the soup, heat the braising liquid, then add flavourings, garnishes and cooked noodles to suit appetite and palate. Serve immediately.