DIY ramen eggs by Kaz
+Japanese modernization post shogunate
I didn’t start eating ramen until my year as a Tokyo-expat when I (and Hazel, of course) would tumble into the Roppongi Ichiran (classy! but open at 3am and close-ish to my Akasaka apartment) for a bowl of very fatty tonkotsu. I can’t say I’m much of a ramen head, but I tried savory sardine ramen in Kichijoji and stumbled across a crab variant in Hokkaido. I learned that not all ramen is thick with collagen and slicked with oil.
Kaz’s ramen eggs
Ramen is omnipresent seemingly everywhere and possibly the most recognizable Japanese export after Pikachu, but it wasn’t until 1910 that Japan had its first ramen shop1. The cooks were scouted from the kitchens of the Yokohama Chinatown that had itself popped up in 1859 following over two centuries of a national lockdown2. To this day, ramen in Japan is often referred to as Chuuka soba (Chinese soba).
Tonkotsu ramen from Danbo
About that Lockdown (Extreme SparkNotes ver.)
The Tokugawa shogunate3 locked Japan down intensely4 starting in 1603 and remained largely closed (with limited exceptions for the Chinese and the Dutch in Nagasaki and the Ryukyu Islands) until Matthew Perry arrived with an American fleet in 1853 demanding that Japan open to trade5.
It would have been hard for a little island country with not much gunpowder to contend with a fleet of warships, so Perry’s arrival was followed by a flurry of trade treaties with western countries6. The full reopening of borders followed over a decade of turmoil involving British and French alliances, opposing feudal clans, and an official civil war that concluded with the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1868. The Meiji Restoration [of the emperor and his cabinet] that followed spurred a period of rapid westernization (complete with western-style armies and western-style imperialism). In the ensuing years of the Meiji Period7, Japan’s modernized army would fight (and win) against China (1895) and Russia (1905)8.
Sardine ramen from Chuuka Soba Aoba in Kichijoji
As Japanese exposure to foreign influences grew during (and beyond!) the Meiji Period, the appetite for exotic dishes such as ramen continued to spread, especially with so many soldiers returning from Chinese territories. By 1923, Sapporo (in Hokkaido!) had its first ramen shop, Takeya Shokudo9. Takeya is credited for its use of the noodle machine and for popularizing soy based ramen broths with a char siu, scallion, and menma topping in Hokkaido. Other regions also adapted the soup + noodle + topping formula10 to suit their tastes and their local ingredients.
Even though the earliest bowls of ramen did not feature eggs, I mainly order ramen for the soy darkened soft boiled eggs on top. Luckily, the eggs are the easiest thing to make at home.
Ajitama (Ramen Eggs)
My brother, Kaz, mastered these while doing a stint in a ramen shop kitchen. When Kaz makes ramen eggs, he soaks eggs from the fridge in warmish water for 10 minutes to bring them to room temperature and cooks them for exactly seven minutes in a vat of simmering water. I’m very much a tekito cook, but here I follow his lead by warming my eggs and setting a timer.
His basic ramen egg template is as follows:
1/4 cup each sake, mirin, soy sauce
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons sugar (I often omit this, as mirin is itself so sweet)
Place your eggs in a large bowl of room temperature water and let sit for 10-15 minutes.
Place your eggs in a pot of simmering water and boil for 7 minutes. Remove into an ice bath and peel in a bowl of water.
Soak in marinade overnight before eating, but you can keep the eggs in the marinade for up to two days. Many recipes say to do this in a plastic bag but that majorly skeeves me out. I put my eggs + marinade in a glass tupperware and give them a turn if I remember. If I don’t remember, it just means that one side of the eggs is a bit pale, but I don’t mind.
To this basic marinade, you can add slices of ginger, garlic, and chilis. Kazu would never deign to reuse a marinade, but throwing away so much seasoning makes me shudder. I’ve simmered fish (namely mackerel) in the marinade (along with slices of ginger), but also, no need to be quite so frugal.
The comments on my recent post on Cup of Jo featured a bit of a discussion of Japanese vlogs. My favorite for when I’m frazzled (all of the time) is:
Choki - 1 million+ and counting, so hardly unknown, but give her videos a view if you too are soothed by playful cats and dried flowers. Her videos are subtitled in English and demonstrate the Japanese love (not me, sadly) for all things covered in ketchup and mayonnaise.
The first bowl of ramen in Japan was allegedly served to Tokugawa Mitsukuni by the Confucian scholar Zhu Zhuyi in 1659. Moreover, there are records of him serving the dish to visiting monks and ministers in 1697. I’s also fair to assume that the shops from which these cooks were poached were also serving noodles, just not to a Japanese audience.
The Tokugawa Shogunate solidified Japan under a feudal system following centuries of warfare by regional clans. The shogunate placed the samurai at the top of the social hierarchy, creating a jarring fall from grace when samurai swords were banned during the Meiji Restoration (+westernization) that followed. The dedication of many samurai to the preservation of their way of life remains much romanticized in media today (hi Last Samurai). I also have a soft spot for the NHK historical drama, Shinsengumi!
True to form, Japan shut down hard during COVID too and has largely banned non-citizens for over two years (and counting).
Absolutely a rough time to be a Portuguese missionary as shown in Shusaku Endo’s Silence (and the Scorcese film), but this extreme isolation is what undoubtedly allowed so many uniquely Japanese elements to flourish. Now that everything is globalized and Tokyo midtown looks a lot like New York midtown (as long as you look up at the skyscrapers and now at the gunk on the NYC sidewalk), we are heading towards a global blandness. It’s common sense, but I’ve definitely also read this somewhere and because it’s vaguely academia-ish I’m wondering if it has a name? Can someone please comment?
During this time, other western countries forced Japan into numerous trade treaties that the Japanese considered unfair and humiliating.
Japan marks its eras by the ruling name of the Emperor. We are currently in the Reiwa Period.
Imperialism of any kind can hardly be looked back at with favor, but Japan’s rapid militarization meant that it was part of the allied cohort during WWI. With a seat at the table at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Japan proposed the Racial Equity Proposal (and was shot down).
Takeya’s Chinese cook 王 文彩 (Oo Bunsai in Japanese) was originally serving a dish more akin to 肉絲麺 (los mien? no idea how to write this not in katakana) with hand stretched noodles, but could not keep up with the demand. Takeya’s owner purchased a noodle machine to produce alkanized noodles and swapped the broth to the lighter, soy based formula more popular to Japanese palates.