August 31, 2021
By Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley
Ramen is Japanese soul food. Composed of noodles, soup, and toppings, Japan’s second-most recognizable dish—after sushi—is nothing like the salty bags of Top Ramen that most Americans know. Regardless, ramen is considered “fast food” in Japan, and the country’s weary working class doesn’t have to go far to find an affordable bowl of soup and noodles. One slurp of the silky, rich stock and you immediately begin to feel the weight of the day wash away—at least for a moment.
Despite the assortment of colors and textures that adorn a bowl of ramen, it’s really the soup that gives ramen its elixir-like quality. When my husband and I traveled to Japan a couple of years ago, ramen was our first meal after landing and the last dish we ate before departure. Jet-lagged and sleep-deprived, the first bowl set us on the right path to conquer our jam-packed visit to Kyoto, and the last bowl fortified us for our continued journey into Southeast Asia.
Ramen soup is made of gelatin-rich bones, meat, and aromatics that are simmered for a long period of time. While the components of ramen soup are not unlike bone broth or stock, ramen soup is distinctly Eastern. Westerners value clarity in their broths and stocks, whereas in preparing tonkotsu—which translates to “pork bones” in English—a pristinely clear stock is the opposite of what you want to achieve. Even recipes for Vietnamese pho, my birth country’s national dish, are obsessive when it comes to stock clarity.
Tonkotsu soup is unlike any stock I’ve ever made. To make it, the stock is kept at a boil for a full 12 hours. This high-heat, rapid-boiling action emulsifies the gelatin, fat, and water, creating tonkotsu’s creamy, almost white, thick texture. The cloudier and thicker the stock, the better for ramen.
Pig’s trotter is the cut of choice for preparing tonkotsu stock. Loaded with cartilage and skin, this cut is necessary for creating a creamy ramen soup. If you have the knowhow—and fortitude—to clean wild boar trotters, go for it, but buying them is obviously a lot less work. Don’t fret if you’re beginning to think this recipe isn’t “wild” enough. You’ll get the opportunity to use up the bones you’ve saved from the hams, shanks, shoulders, and neck of your wild boar, which will add even more flavor to the stock.
Next, let’s talk about the toppings. Don’t be intimidated. Seriously. Focus on the noodles and the pork chashu. The rest—although nice to have—is more or less optional. The most commonly used cut for chashu is pork belly, which is conveniently flat and easy to roll into a pretty, neat log. If you are fortunate enough to shoot a wild boar with that much fat and belly on it, use it. But if not, you’ll have to make do with a fatty piece of deboned shoulder or hindquarter, which you’ll find is impossibly asymmetrical.
I’ve had some practice tying meat, and after several adjustments, I finally achieved the shape I wanted with a piece of boneless pork shoulder—although the amount of kitchen twine I used would’ve made a French chef grimace. If you’re less experienced and nearly reach the point of pulling out your hair, don’t. The roll is mostly for looks. Just throw the whole lot in the pot and call it good. The meat will taste absolutely fine.
I won’t pretend that my recipe will rival that of a Japanese ramen chef, who spends day in and day out making this dish and a lifetime in perfecting it, but hopefully you’ll get the idea. Delicious ramen is a balance of flavor and texture, achieved through time and patience. It’s where instant ramen got its inspiration. People love ramen because it’s hot, irresistible, and soul-satisfying—and a little bit of a guilty pleasure. Except with homemade ramen, the flavor is multiplied by 10.
How to Make Wild Boar Tonkotsu Ramen
This is a weekend-type cooking project. Give yourself an entire day to prepare tonkotsu ramen. Actually, it’s better if you don’t expect to serve it until the day after. For this recipe, I finished the soup on a Saturday night, left it to cool on the stove overnight and strained it the following morning, which also allowed the chashu time to firm up and the eggs to marinate. I refrigerated the soup in quart-size containers and reheated it to serve Sunday night. Tonkotsu stock freezes well.
Prep time: An entire day
Cook time: 12+ hours
Ingredients for Tonkotsu Broth:
- 3 pounds wild boar bones
- 3 pounds pig’s trotters
- 1 leek, washed, cut lengthwise
- 5-inch knob of ginger, sliced
- 1 large onion, cut in half
- 3 shallots, cut in half
- 1 whole bulb of garlic, top sliced off
- Kosher/sea salt, to taste
- Tamari/soy sauce, to taste
Ingredients for Wild Boar Chashu:
- 2 pounds boneless pork shoulder
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1½ cups water
- 1 cup sake
- 1 cup tamari/soy sauce
- ¾ cup mirin
- ½ cup sugar
Ingredients for Ramen and Toppings:
- 6 servings of uncooked ramen noodles (frozen or dried)
- 6 soft-boiled eggs
- 1 green onion, thinly sliced
- 1 package enoki mushrooms
- 1 can corn
- Shichimi togarashi (Japanese spicy powder mix)
- Seasoned nori (dried seaweed)
- Chili oil
- Special equipment: kitchen twine
- To make the tonkotsu broth, place the wild boar bones and pig’s trotters in a large stockpot and cover with water, about 2 inches above the bones. Bring to a hard boil and continue boiling for 10 minutes. Stir to prevent the trotters from sticking to the bottom and burning. Remove from heat and drain. Scrub residue off bones, trotters, and the inside of the pot. Return cleaned bones and trotters to the pot and submerge with about 8 to 9 quarts of new water. Add leek, ginger, onion, shallots, and garlic. Bring to a boil and maintain a boil for 12 hours, partially covered. Stir occasionally and keep an eye on the water level, adding more water as needed to keep the bones and trotters submerged at all times. Shoot for 5 to 6 quarts of finished stock at the end of 12 hours. Strain and season to taste with salt and soy sauce.
- Meanwhile, prepare the chashu. With the fat side down, tuck and roll the wild boar shoulder/ham as best you can into a tight, uniform log to fit inside a 4- to 5-quart heavy-bottomed pot. Secure the log with kitchen twine. Preheat a heavy skillet with 1 tablespoon of oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is shimmering, brown the tied wild boar on all sides. In the cast iron pot, combine the remaining chashu ingredients. Add the wild boar and bring to a boil. Then reduce heat to a simmer, cover partially, and cook for 2½ hours, flipping the meat every 30 minutes. Cooking time will vary.
- When the wild boar chashu is finished cooking, allow to cool. Transfer to a zip-top bag, add ¼ cup of leftover chashu liquid, and remove air. Completely chill in the refrigerator before slicing. Do the same with the peeled soft-boiled eggs to marinate, preferably overnight. Strain and refrigerate the remaining chashu cooking liquid for later.
- Reheat the tonkotsu broth before serving. Remove the cooking twine from the chilled chashu and slice thinly. Slice the marinated eggs in half. Cook the ramen noodles according to package directions. Ladle the hot tonkotsu broth into bowls and season with 2 to 3 spoonfuls of the reserved chashu cooking liquid. Float the cooked ramen, sliced chashu, sliced egg, green onion, enoki mushrooms, and corn on top of each bowl. Stick a couple pieces of nori on the side and top with a pinch of shichimi togarashi and a few drops of chili oil. Serve immediately.