As any ramen expert will tell you, truly good ramen is "all about the broth." Well, that's where vegetarians are often S.O.L. How can boiling a bunch of vegetatable scraps compare to the pure, carnal appeal of eating a milky-white, uber-fatty broth of slowly simmered pork and beef bones?
Yes, making a truly delicious vegetarian ramen broth is slightly more challenging than making a delicious, meaty one -- but it's definitely not impossible. I've had some great bowls of vegetarian ramen in my time that pack just as big of an umami punch as their pork-y counterparts. Plus, they leave you happy-full, instead of holding-your-stomach-and-gasping-for-breath-full.
When I set out to make my perfect bowl of vegetarian ramen, I decided to attack the problem head-on. I threw together all of the tongue-tingling (vegetarian) ingredients in my flavor arsenal, covered them in water, and then let the whole thing get friendly on the stove for a couple hours. Then I kept adjusting until I had something I wanted to sip by the ladleful. I threw in a generous portion of springy, chewy noodles, a hefty dose of greens, and a soft egg, and lo and behold: I had found my ramen nirvana. And you can too. Here's how:
1 cup dried mushrooms, preferably shiitake 2 carrots, cut into thirds 1 onion, cut in half (you can leave the skin on) 2 stalks celery, cut into thirds 6 to 8 garlic cloves, smashed One 2-inch section of ginger, smashed 2 stalks lemongrass, cut into thirds and smashed (optional) 1 sheet kombu, wiped with a damp cloth 2 tablespoons bonito flakes (not vegetarian, see Note) 1/2 cup mirin 1 cup shoyu (Japanese soy sauce) 2 tablespoons brown sugar 1 to 2 squirts of Sriracha, or a pinch of red pepper flakes
For the ramen bowl:
4 eggs 1 package of extra-firm tofu, pressed to extract excess moisture 1 tablespoon oil with a high smoke point, like peanut or grapeseed 4 packages ramen or udon noodles, preferably fresh Thai basil Lime wedges Green onion, sliced
NOTE: Bonito flakes are made from tuna, and are therefore NOT vegetarian. If you are a pescetarian (as I am) and are okay with adding them, do so! They contribute a nice, funky flavor. However, if not, the broth will still be excellent. You can also try adding more dried mushrooms, upping the soy sauce levels a bit, or pre-roasting your vegetables if you want to really increase the umami depth of your broth.
It all starts with the broth. Add the mushrooms, carrots, onion, celery, garlic, ginger, and lemongrass (if using) into a large stock pot along with 8 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer. Add in the kombu and bonito flakes, if using. Simmer stock for 2 to 3 hours.
Pour the stock through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl. (You can discard the vegetables and kombu, but I do recommend reserving the mushy, cooked carrots for snacking.) Return the stock to the pot, then add soy sauce, mirin, brown sugar, and Sriracha. Stir, then taste for seasoning: Add soy sauce for more salt, Sriracha for more spice, brown sugar for more sweetness. If the flavor is too strong, add some more water to dilute it. Play around until you have a flavorful, balanced broth. Turn down the heat to keep the stock warm while you prepare your other ingredients.
Boil a large pot of water with a pinch of salt and cook the eggs (I like to make one per bowl) to desired doneness -- I like mine cooked for 6 minutes so the yolk is nice and gooey in the middle. Remove the eggs from the pot (reserving the water for cooking your ramen noodles and bok choy) and place them in a bowl under cool, running water. Once cool, peel your eggs and drop them gently in the broth while you prepare the rest of your ingredients.
Next, thinly slice your drained tofu. Heat your oil in a wok or non-stick skillet until smoking, then layer in the tofu, making sure no pieces are overlapping. Cook for a minute or two until brown on the underside (be patient!), then flip and cook for another two minutes. Drain tofu on paper towels.
Blanch bok choy for a minute or two in the same water you used to cook your egg. When it's a bright, vibrant green, remove it with a slotted spoon and reserve for later. Next, drop the noodles into the same water and cook according to package directions. Drain.
Now, assembly time. Divide the broth between four bowls, then divvy up the noodles, eggs (I cut them in half before serving), and fried tofu. Garnish with Thai basil, green onions, and squeezes of lime. Slurp away.
Note: If you want an even heartier bowl of vegetarian ramen, consider adding roasted vegetables like sweet potatoes, eggplant, or tomatoes. Cube the vegetables and roast in a 425° F oven with salt and pepper until wrinkled, soft, and caramelized, then add them to the broth.