I was recently in a co-op in a town about an hour away from my house. They have a pretty decent asian section, so I spent about an hour carefully looking around for things my pantry was lacking. This was where I found a package of brown rice ramen. Usually they are made with wheat, which is fine, but my mother is allergic to wheat, so I try to avoid cooking with it when possible. So I was very excited to find ramen made from rice instead of wheat and I grabbed them without having a real plan for what to make with them.
Personally, ramen noodles are my favorite out of all the noodles in Japan. If you're thinking of instant ramen, popular both in America and Japan, real ramen isn't the same. The broth is fatty and it takes a very long time to make and the noodles are a little different. Ramen is served with toppings, which vary depending on the region and shop, but they often consist of pork, scallions, eggs, nori, and other things just as yummy. You should watch the episode of The Mind of a Chef that is all about Ramen, it will make your mouth water!
Is there anything more quintessential to Japanese food then the noodle? I think we tend to think that way in the west, and to a certain extent it might be true. Soba, udon, sōmen and other Japanese noodles have had a long and happy life, dating back to the 700s. However, ramen, a noodle that we in America tend to think of as the greatest Japanese food innovation, is a fairly recent addition.
The Tokugawa Period, also known as the Edo Period, was a great time for food in Japan. Two hundred and fifty years of relative peace and a push toward urbanization had created a culture of excellent cuisine. Samurai and daimyo held lavish banquets and the ordinary people of Edo ate at hundreds of new food stalls and restaurants. The country had been isolated by decree since 1635, meaning that no foreigners were allowed in, and no Japanese citizens could leave, on pain of death. This ended after the Meiji Reformation and Japan saw an influx of new foreign foods.
Ramen was a noodle created to mimic the noodles that the Chinese brought to Japan in the late 1800s. Originally they were called shina soba (Chinese soba) but today they are more commonly called chūka soba or just ramen! What started as a dish in Japanese-Chinese restaurants has developed into an art form. There are more Ramen shops (ramen-ya) in Tokyo then there are restaurants in New York City.
I learned all of this recently while listening to The Great Courses lectures on Japan, which I highly recommend. While talking about ramen's entrance onto the world stage, he mentioned a dish that is popular in ramen shops in the summer, hiyashi chuka. The teacher described it as a meal made with chilled ramen noodles with toppings such as cucumber, tomato, kinshi tamago (ribbons of egg crepe) and sliced ham.
I immediately did a search online to see if I could find a recipe, and not only did I find one, but it was on one of my favorite Japanese cooking sites, JapaneseCooking101.com! The women on this website had even made an instructional video, which is fantastic.
Hiyashi Chuka is an easy meal and especially good for a hot summer day. The noodles cook quickly and the rest is just chopping and mixing the sauce. For toppings I did kinshi tamago, ham, tomato, blanched bean sprouts, pickled ginger and cucumber. In fact, this was my first ever Japanese cucumber, which was given to me by my new friend, and a reader, who grew it in her garden. I've been using English cucumbers, because they are a little bit more similar to Japanese cucumbers then the regular ones. I tried to plant some this year, but they got eaten by an unidentified critter! I was so happy to try a real Japanese cucumber and it did not disappoint!
The most difficult part of the meal was making the kinshi tamago, which involves making thin egg crepes and then rolling them up to cut into ribbons. The effect is beautiful and delicious. I used the recipe for them out of the cookbook Everyday Harumi, because I liked the look of her recipe. In one way, I had an easier time then I might have, because making the crepes is similar to making tamagoyaki (Japanese rolled omelet) which I do everyday for breakfast. On the other hand, it's always difficult to try a new technique. If you watch the video below, you will see me struggle with the first crepe, but I think after that I did pretty well.
I think that you should try making this dish while the weather is still warm. It had a wonderful mix of flavors and textures. The eggs are sweet, the ham is salty, the sprouts are crunchy and the cucumber and tomato are fresh. Add into that the simple cold noodle, clean flavor of the sauce and the sweet bite of the pickled ginger, and you have a wonderfully balanced meal.
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