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Ramen, reimagined

Instant ramen has long been a go-to meal or snack for college students.  

But the ramen being ladled up now in dining halls and other noncommercial venues is culinary light-years beyond those cellophane-wrapped packets. The broth alone can take a couple of days to make, the ingredients may be sourced from Japan—or at the very least, from an Asian distributor—and even the noodles may be made from scratch.

Authenticity is key. Or is it?

Ramen fuels a new concept

The Omori Ramen Bar debuted at Boston University in January, with input from the BU community to nail the concept’s authenticity and appeal. Three ramen bowls are on offer: Chashu Pulled Pork in a tontkatsu broth with crispy onions; Curry Chicken Katsu in a curry broth with bok choy; and Mushroom Miso with shoyu shiitake mushrooms and corn. All three also contain a soy egg, nori and scallions. There’s also a create-your-own bowl for students seeking customization. The recipes were developed by Aramark, the college’s foodservice provider, but ingredients are sourced locally.

Student focus groups remarked on the authenticity of the ingredients and taste, as well as the way the dishes were prepared, says Robert Truman Flynn, marketing manager for Boston University Dining Services. “For three days [before the official launch], the ramen bar was opened as a pop-up within BU’s Taking it to the Streets concept in the George Sherman Union Food Court,” he says. “The ramen was the best-seller out of 11 different concepts over those few days.”

With more than 34,000 students from more than 130 countries attending the university, authentic global flavors are in demand, Flynn says. To promote Omori Ramen Bar, BU is encouraging students to share photos of their bowls with the incentive of discounts and prizes. Flynn’s department has created sample tweets and posts, video ideas and hashtags such as #ShareMyBowl, #OHMYOmori and #BURamen to keep the conversation going.

Learning at the source

Arkansas Heart Hospital in Little Rock sent its former chef Coby Smith to Tokyo to learn the art of making ramen firsthand. After visiting 40 ramen bars and picking up tips from Japanese masters, he set to work in the hospital’s kitchen. Eight months later, he and his 10-member team were satisfied with their recipe and the hospital cafe began serving ramen three times a week for $6 a bowl. Word spread and lines soon formed out the door, with customers coming in from all over the city.

“There is no end to the flavor profiles a broth soup with long alkaline noodles can handle.” —Matt Caruso

Smith has since left the hospital, but the ramen is still a huge draw, selling 100 to 400 bowls a day, says Casey Atwood, director of food and nutritional services. The kitchen follows the same recipe, spending a couple of days roasting bones and simmering ingredients for the broth. Two cooks are dedicated to the time-consuming ramen prep. The noodles come from a Japanese company based in the U.S., a broadliner supplies other authentic ingredients, and vegetables including watermelon radishes, Asian greens and herbs are grown in the hospital’s garden.

To control food costs, the cafe serves just one ramen variety per day; a picture and description are posted on Instagram. To meet demand, the hospital launched a food truck that now has expanded its run to four days, parking near the city’s clinics and office buildings, Atwood says: “Volume drives profits, but the truck also markets our facility in a good light, showing how the hospital is different and innovative in every way.”

Tossing diversity into the bowl

At Bank of America’s corporate cafe in Chicago, ramen is a popular option at the Chef’s Table pop-up station, says Matt Caruso, Compass USA district chef manager. “We run it as an action station—not an everyday option,” he says.

Caruso and his team make the broth from scratch, source Asian ingredients from Chicago’s Chinatown and sous vide eggs to poached perfection, but “we don’t have the time or manpower to hand-pull noodles in house,” he says. The more commonly available frozen noodles are not an option either—they get mushy in the hot broth, Caruso says. Instead, he purchases angel hair-width fresh noodles from a local Asian purveyor. The noodles are placed in the bottom of the bowl, and when the hot broth is poured over, it heats them through to the right slippery texture for slurping.

Caruso prefers pork belly, flank steak and other soft meats for the protein component “so they don’t get too tough in the hot broth,” he says. He also serves a veggie version based on a lemongrass-infused broth. When the ramen station operates, the cafe sells 70 to 80 bowls, and up to 100 on a cold winter day.

While authenticity is a priority, Caruso also says that ramen “lends itself to change, whimsy and the intense flavors of the world.” He suggests melding Mexican chiles, lime and long-poached octopus into hot porky broth, along with the noodles and fresh herbs, to render new elements into the dish. Or go Italian with a garlic and Parmesan-laced tomato broth, fresh basil, poached meatballs or crispy pancetta.

“As Americans, we can’t wait too long before we start to incorporate the melting pot of world flavors into the foods we serve,” he says. “There is no end to the flavor profiles a broth soup with long alkaline noodles can handle.”

Photograph: Shutterstock/ Olivia Dorencz

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