Saturday, November 7, 2009
Chach and Chang, Episode 1: Real ramen and pork buns
We’d eaten at Momofuku on a trip to New York a couple of years ago and I’d been trying to recreate the experience here, in Chicago, both in restaurants and at home, ever since. A noodle place that many seemed to want to compare to the peerless aforementioned David Chang concept opened up here, a place that specialized in ramen, opened up and we ate there a few times last summer. The food was pretty good, better, certainly, than anything else around, but it was missing a key component: the egg. We asked the owner about it, why he served his ramen without one. He said, very unapologetically, that that was just how he did it. He may have alluded to something about the time-consuming nature of preparing eggs, or if he didn’t, that’s certainly a factor he must have weighed. At the time, to my mind, this was the only thing missing. I vowed to return again, this time smuggling an over-easy or poached egg (how the hell I was going to smuggle an egg into a noodle shop, I had no idea), but we never got around to it. (The thing about restaurants, as any of you who live in big cities and go to them frequently will attest, is that it’s hard to go to all of the new places you want to like and all of the old places you do like, and, especially if you don’t eat out that much, you end up apologizing to slighted restaurateurs a lot.)
I discovered bi beem bop could, kind of, respond to my need to have an egg atop a bowl of something. Of course here there was rice instead of noodles, but the whole of the thing is mightily pleasing, especially after you’ve learned to mix everything up before eating, instead of picking up a bit of this green and that pickled carrot, as though you’d been presented an airplane meal of multiple components pushed together for serving efficiency. Korean food (or Korean food purveyors) didn’t seem as reluctant to top their bowls with eggs, though sometimes the eggs would come more cooked than I would have liked, which compromised their mix-in magic. Still, though, I had a means of Momofuku-ing a little, without having to get on a plane.
When the David Chang cookbook came out, we found our answer. His technique for soft-poaching batches of eggs is slow (45 minutes!) (45 closely-regarded minutes!) (Not walk away and come back in 45 minutes minutes!) but, goddamn, it really works perfectly. I’d have been just as happy to prepare instant ramen and accent with the new trick we picked up, but, alas, the chapter in the Momofuku cookbook doesn’t end there. There are other toppings to prepare. And there’s the ramen broth itself.
So we went through the whole thing. We shopped at a Korean megamart in the suburbs, stocked up on things like fishcake and twenty pounds of meat (whole chickens, chicken parts—the recipe calls for things like backs and necks and joints attached to this and that meat—pork belly, pork shoulder) and ingredients for sauces, brought it all home, and began the process. I began with a brining exercise, which required me to handle the proteins, wash my hands, be vigilant about not cross-contaminating. Alpana did most of the prep; I haven’t gotten to wielding a knife for anything more serious than dicing onions yet, and, to be honest, seeing the, er, actual pork belly segments of the pork belly was . . . weird. I’m still not completely okay with watching my wife break down a chicken. I like that she knows how to do it—I’ve seen many a cooking reality show contestant whine about not knowing how to do this properly, as well as those at first confident getting castigated by the judges for screwing it up—but it’s undeniably graphic. We’ve done it a couple of times in my early homecookingschool classes, and so I don’t wince as much as I did the first time I saw it from a distance closer than across the room, but we’d just conversed with an actual live pig on our trip to Michigan a couple of weekends ago, and it was just . . . very real. I can understand, sort of, the contradictions in our lives in the world and our lives at the dinner plate, and the inability to weather the hypocrisies that might impel some to become vegetarians. I love our dog; how could I watch this happen (or delight in the aftermath of what happened) to an ostensibly as-adorable and potentially lovable pig? Honestly? I didn’t feel that attached to the pig we met at that Michigan winery. He didn’t really seem keen in engaging, wasn’t, as the saying always seemed to suggest, so smart. I’ve had more interesting conversations with Haruki. So my soul-reckoning was short lived. We had cooking to do. After those meats went into the refrigerator to begin their overnight cure, there was a lot more to do. Things going into the oven, things to come out. At certain points, the timers on the stove, on the microwave, and on my Timex were all set and counting down to certain steps’ done points. I found it a lot harder to keep track of what was timing what. I am not yet a good kitchen multitasker. This is why I’m working with a professional, my teacher, my sensai, my sommelier, who can remember many, many things going on in a kitchen. Maybe overload caused me to tire out. (Also just general exhaustion; we began around six and things were going on, on, on into the night.) I tried to pick up tasks as I found them, but it was hard to stay focused. I needed distraction, television (there were, fortunately, many DVRed 90210 episodes to have on in the background), to interact with Haruki (who, for most of the cooking, stayed infinitely more focused than I did), other things to think about and look at. I definitely have a long way to go until I can remain on a lengthy (or, hell, even a short) cooking duration without stopping for water or to check Twitter.
But this leads me to a discovery that came out of the first Chach and Chang experiment. When you’re a beginner, you don’t want to cook alone. I was about to qualify with “unless you have to,” but who really has to? Okay, so you have no spouse with restaurant experience and a natural ability to cook and knows how to follow a recipe and also just sense when things are going right or wrong and can buy packages of Asian ingredients that don’t even have any English on their labels with aplomb (and who wants to take the time to help you learn a thing or two). Do you have a roommate? A friend? Have you ever heard of Craigslist? Isn’t a stock first-date scenario from television the one where a self-styled professional amateur chef makes dinner for his prospect, to show off, to impress her? I propose the opposite: you go on a date and together attempt to create dinner. I guess it would be weird to do this on a first date, what with the going to a stranger’s kitchen part and all. But then again, Craigslist. You can find someone who is not only going to willingly come over to cook, but maybe someone who actually fetishizes such things. NSA can also mean “No (Cooking) Skills Allowed.” Seriously, though, I don’t get what the big deal is (the notion probably originating from television) that to show any kitchen weakness is to present yourself as somehow less desirable than someone who is proficient. I have always freely admitted that I can’t cook. But I still never tried letting someone teach me. Now that I’m enrolled in cooking school, it’s hard to believe that I went so long without trying to do anything about filling the gaps in my experience, never demanding of any of my friends and paramours who were so inclined to give me a lesson or two (instead of just simply feeding me) especially when the rewards of teaming up with someone else are so delicious.
Here are the annotated photographs from the entire delicious ordeal.