Most Americans probably first heard of Ivan Orkin thanks to the debut issue of Lucky Peach, Dave Chang's literary magazine. That was the ramen issue, and if you still have your copy, save it, as they're going for almost $200 on eBay.
If you're not a Lucky Peach reader, just open Ivan Ramen: Love, Obsession, and Recipes from Tokyo's Most Unlikely Noodle Joint, just published by Ten Speed Press, and you'll get caught up pretty quickly, as Chang wrote the foreward.
Ivan Ramen is Orkin's first book, and it's written with Chris Ying, conveniently enough also the editor-and-chief of Lucky Peach. Part cookbook and part memoir, the book tells the story of how Orkin, a Jewish guy from New York, ended up owning a ramen bar in Tokyo, and making his own ramen and instant ramen in the land that invented both.
The publication of the book coincides, perhaps unsurprisingly, with the upcoming opening of two Ivan Ramen shops in Manhattan. This occasions some pretty funny observations from Chang before you get to the actual story, in the form of advice to a fellow ramen boy: "People are going to look at you like this weird thing, like the Eminem of ramen. I can almost get away with doing ramen because I'm Asian. You're probably fucked."
Orkin probably thought he was fucked in the late '80s, though maybe not so much now. At the time, as Orkin tells the story, he was a confused guy in his twenties with a degree in Japanese literature (Want a job? Go read Mishima! No.) who didn't have a career and had never left the country. So he did what you might expect he'd do under the circumstances -- got on a plane to Japan.
Orkin spent much of the next two decades exploring both Japan and his own life, moving back and forth between continents as he went to cooking school in New York, got married and started a family, worked briefly for Bobby Flay, became a corporate chef, lost his wife, became (more) obsessed with ramen, remarried, moved back to Japan and ultimately wound up opening a ramen bar in Tokyo. If all this sounds inconstant and improbable, often traumatic and sometimes a little nuts, that's because it apparently was. And Orkin manages to convey this without any of the strain that many narratives show when combing backwards through a jam-packed and kind of crazy life.
As Orkin and Ying move the story along, we get further detours in a story that already has plenty of them: an interview with a ramen chef, the introduction of a feng shui fanatic mother-in-law, a description of the $15K 500-pound noodle making machine that Orkin gets delivered to his shop three weeks before opening that he has no idea how to use. It's a fun story, and by the time we get to the recipes, we're pretty much hooked already. Which is a good thing, considering that many of them are daunting experiments and can involve ingredients that most normal people won't have and will probably find rather difficult to come by. (Flying fish powder is my favorite.)
If you pick carefully and use ingredients that you might have around after a weekend of more intensive cooking, the recipes can be as much fun as the rest of the narrative. You could throw together a Cuban sandwich made with pork belly chashu, for example; or make musubi, the triangular rice cakes also called onigiri, with shredded roasted pork; or delve into a relatively uncomplicated breakfast yakisoba.
For the most part, though, the recipes here are labor-intensive lessons on how to recreate the various components of bowls of ramen: the stocks and seasonings, the rendered fats and roasted meats and handmade noodles (made with rye flour; remember Orkin's cultural roots) that comprise the justly famous dish. If you wanted something else, maybe don't read a ramen cookbook.
That said, it might be easier to pick and choose from these recipes rather than make every component of a bowl of Ivan ramen. Make Orkin's half-cooked eggs, for example, and add them to whatever seems good and more readily available: a bowl of bulgur and wilted greens, a plate of whole wheat spaghetti and minced parsley, a piece of rye toast.
Or maybe just take a few with you the next time you head out to your local ramen shop, since a depressing number of ramen places can't seem to cook eggs properly these days. Imagine how much fun it would be to pull out a piece of fishing line and halve your own egg, perfectly cooked in shoyu tare, into the steaming bowl before you. If the ramen chef doesn't throw you out, you might give him the recipe.
Turn the page for Orkin's recipe for half-cooked eggs...
From: Ivan Ramen, by Ivan Orkin
Makes: 6 eggs
Note from the book: I really obsessed over the eggs. For a long time, eggs weren't a traditional ramen topping; they were offered hardboiled and unpeeled in a basket for customers to pluck out and eat while they waited, or to add to their soup. As ramen became more refined and less junk-foody, cooks started to treat the eggs with a more care. The eggs they sell in Japan are beyond delicious, and to me, they're an indispensable part of a bowl of ramen. We serve hanjuku tamago, half-cooked eggs that have a firm but soft white and a mostly liquid yolk.
50 milliliters (31⁄2 tablespoons) sake
50 milliliters (3 1⁄2 tablespoons) mirin
200 milliliters (13⁄4 cup + 1 tablespoon) soy sauce
30 grams (2 tablespoons) sugar
40 grams (3 tablespoons) garlic, chopped coarsely
75 grams (21⁄2 ounces) fresh ginger, chopped coarsely
6 room-temperature fresh large eggs
1 liter (1 quart) water
1. Simmer the sake and mirin in a saucepan over medium-high heat for 2 minutes to cook off a bit of the alcohol. Reduce the heat to low, then add the soy sauce, sugar, garlic, and ginger and simmer and stir for 10 minutes. Let come to room temperature; you can store the mixture in the refrigerator for up to a week.
2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. You want a big pot so that when the eggs go in, the temperature won't drop too drastically, and the water will quickly come back to a boil.
3. Poke a small hole in the bottom (larger end) of each egg with a pushpin.
4. Gently slide the eggs into the boiling water. Start your timer. Stir for the first 2 minutes. Prepare a large bowl of ice water to shock the eggs.
5. The total cooking time for a large egg in Tokyo is 6 minutes and 10 seconds. You might decide to adjust that time depending on the size of your eggs, how many you're cooking, or what the chickens were thinking about when they laid them.
6. Remove the eggs after 6 minutes and 10 seconds, and immediately place them in the ice bath. Stir until there are no pockets of hot water.
7. In a large bowl, combine the shoyu tare with the liter of water. When the eggs are cooled completely -- after about 15 minutes -- peel and soak them in the seasoning liquid for 2 hours in the refrigerator. The eggs will hold in the soak for 3 days.
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8. When it comes time to slice the eggs and add them to the ramen, a taut nylon fishing line gets the job done without losing any of the precious yolk.
Reprinted with permission from Ivan Ramen by Ivan Orkin © 2013. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.
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