I was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area long before the Asian invasion. At school kids made fun of me for eating ‘gross’ sushi. My mom packed bentos which was super weird. Rice? Who eats that? Me. That’s who. I remember feeling sorry for myself for being born to immigrant parents. Why was I forced to speak Japanese? Why did we have to take shoes off at home? Why couldn’t we eat fish sticks for dinner every night? Oh woe is me.
As tragic as my life seemed, my mother had her own struggles with food too.
Our family was fortunate to arrive to California (from Canada, where my brother and I were born) when the Japanese economy was booming. There were many Japanese companies head quartered in San Francisco and the Silicon Valley and a robust Japanese community.
Lucky for us the Japanese culture is very food-centric. Because groups of very important people from Japan were forced to live abroad to head international branches, foods and ingredients from Japan were quickly exported and made available for purchase. There was even a tofu man who moved to California, built a mini tofu factory and distributed fresh handmade tofu on a truck.
Despite our good fortune living in an area and time where almost all basic ingredients needed for Japanese home cooking (including fruits and vegetables) were accessible, my mother would endlessly complain. What is wrong with this daikon Japanese radish – why is it bent like this? The skin on these nasu eggplants are too tough. Why can’t we get yuzu here? What is wrong with the quality of [beef, chicken or pork]. The fish sold here smell. Why are they not fresh? Why aren’t there more choices for [konbu, katsuobushi, niboshi, sake, mirin, vinegar, soy sauce, miso, salt, insert whatever condiments and seasoning]. On and on the complaints would continue, every day, when grocery shopping. I immediately learned to tune her out and just nod my head in agreement.
My mother was a pretty smart person and an incredible cook (her older sister, my favorite aunt, was the best — she was the one who taught me to cook but that’s a story for another day). And even if most of the foods and ingredients were so terrible they are insulting she said, as the resourceful person she was, found clever ways to hack recipes to transform these bastardized foods and ingredients into sufficiently palatable dishes. Looking back, she was indeed, pretty amazing.
One of the most memorable is her modified instant ramen. There are hundreds possibly thousands of delicious instant or semi instant noodles in Japan. Back in our time, the availability was limited, especially abroad. Since our decent ramen options were extremely few, my mom had no choice but to use what was available, and here is her recipe.
I grew up with these as she said they tasted the best:
Myojo Chukazanmai. Except I remember ‘Oriental’ was named ‘Salt’, and the package was blue not green. I hope it’s the same formula. (I sent an inquiry and still waiting to hear back, will update when I have an answer.)
And here is the way she prepared them.
My Mom’s Perfect Instant Ramen
- 1 package of Myojo Chukazanmai
- a few crumbles of vegetable bouillon
- a drop or two of sesame oil
- a pinch of Ajinomoto Chuka seasoning (Chinese salt) or chicken soup seasoning or a splash dashi. Bouillon is also an acceptable substitution
- Mitsukan Rice Vinegar for drizzling
- 1 heat safe bowl
Boil 2 1/2 cups of water, add noodles
Simmer for 3 and a half minutes
While noodles are simmering, set the bowl for the ramen right next to the stove. Pour contents of wet ingredients (the sesame oil seasoning) and half of the dry ingredient packet. Crumble the vegetable bouillon and a pinch of either the Ajinomoto Chinese Salt, Ajinomoto Chicken Soup seasoning or a splash of dashi.
When the 3 1/2 minutes are up, turn off heat. Fill the bowl with the wet and dry ingredients about third of the way with only the boiling water. Return the pot the ramen was boiling in with the noodles, back onto the stove top — this will continue cooking the ramen noodles. Stir the contents of the bowl with the boiling water until all of the ingredients are liquified, then add the noodles.
Top off with whatever you have on hand (boiled egg, chopped fresh scallions, Asian bean sprouts, char siu, a piece of nori, sesame seeds, etc.). Lightly drizzle several drops of sesame oil and vinegar over the ramen. Too much vinegar will make your ramen sour but the right amount acts as a secret ingredient to make a vibrant bowl of… instant ramen.
Eat while standing up in the kitchen — why not.
Apologies there are no exact measurements for this recipe. It may take a few times to get it to taste as you like but the it’s worth the effort.
This is a light ramen, perfect for lunch. For a heartier bowl, add the entire packet of powdered seasoning along with the extra ingredients.
Some variations to the ramen:
- Add a tea bag (regular Lipton or something) into shio or I guess it’s called Oriental now instead of bouillon, dashi and Chinese seasoning salt or chicken soup for flavor depth.
- Add sliced garlic to the water while boiling the noodles.
- Drop an egg in around the 1 minute and a half mark for a perfectly runny, ghetto poached egg.
The vinegar must be Mitsukan Rice Vinegar and must be purchased at an Asian grocery store — the Mitsukan Rice Vinegar sold in American supermarkets have a different formula. (It’s diluted.) The right one for purchase is pictured on the left.
Rice vinegar is often used in Japanese cooking as a secret ingredient. Just a touch of vinegar brightens up flavors, prevents fruits and vegetables with harsh or bitter tastes (tannic acids) such as root vegetables – rhubarb, lotus roots, gobo burdock, potatoes from turning brown when their antioxidants (polyphenols) hits the air. Rice vinegar is also used as a helper to tenderize meats, neutralize oils and fatty foods, calms the poultry or meat stenches, brightens colors of fruits and vegetables like myoga Japanese ginger that is a beautiful deep red-purple… the uses are endless.
Rice vinegar is low in acetic acids (what makes vinegar taste sour) found in other vinegars simply because it’s made differently — the combination of rice, wheat, corn and sake kasu as the active yeast agent instead of Western or European ingredients and yeasts.
I prefer my noodles with a bite, so I boil the ramen a little under 3 minutes and 30 seconds.