After a vigorous work-out, or a busy day, I will occasionally indulge in what I will call, for lack of a better term, At-home Mazemen. Let me explain.
Like many Americans, I have eaten my share of packaged ramen noodles. In fact, you could say that I got through graduate school on them. However, I have never prepared them according to the directions on the package. Rather than have a soupy concoction with some noodles to be fished out of it, I much prefer a thick, saucy dish, with just enough broth to coat the noodles.
Again, like many Americans, I ate the cheap packaged ramen I could find in my supermarket. But after graduate school, I started exploring, trying to see if I could find a packaged ramen that was really good, rather than the gluey noodles and fake tasting sauce I was used to. I went to where I thought that more of a variety of ramens might be found, to Kam Man Market on Canal Street, in Manhattan’s Chinatown.
For those who don’t know about Kam Man, it is a multi-level supermarket that has pretty much everything you would think of when you think of Asian food. Jars of Hoisin sauce. Woks and Asian tea pots. Packages of wood ear mushrooms. Well, sure enough, Kam Man sold a mess of different brands of ramen, and at prices much lower than I had seen in my local supermarket. I was thrilled, and bought a variety of brands to see which one, if any, I liked the best.
When I brought my basketful of ramens to the counter to pay, the ladies thought I was nuts. I guess they were thinking, “What? A Caucasian dude eating spicy ramen? He probably has no idea what he is getting into!” They pointed at the packages and said in a cautioning tone, “very spicy!” I nodded and said, “yes, I know.” Not to be deterred, they said it again – “Ve-e-ery spicy!” I smiled and went ahead and purchased my ramens over their strenuous objections.
Sure enough, there was one that stood head and shoulders above the rest: Nong Shim. This a Korea-based company that makes a number of different varieties. The kind I usually buy is a spicy one called Shin Ramyun, but all of them are quite delicious if handled correctly.
That last part is my own prejudice you might say. Because again, I don’t follow the directions. Here is how I prepare my Mazemen (and I will tell you about that word a little later):
In a sauce pan, bring just enough water or (preferred) chicken stock to cover the noodles to a boil. Add the noodles, and stir until the noodles are nearly cooked (2 to 3 minutes). Then add the flavor packets (half the pepper sauce and all of everything else) and stir, and turn the heat down to low. Let the noodles continue to simmer for another 90 seconds to 2 minutes. At this point most of the stock should have evaporated or become stuck to the noodles. Toss the noodles once to make sure they are all well-coated with sauce, and then pour them into a bowl. Finish the dish with a drizzle of 1 to 2 teaspoons of toasted sesame oil, stir one more time, and enjoy!
I should say that there are a million ways to get creative with these noodles. You can cook proteins (chicken, small meatballs, seafood) in the stock before cooking the noodles, and then add the protein back in at the end. You can add vegetables – although my advice there is to cook them separately, because they interfere with the noodle cooking/sauce creation. Over the years, I have probably eaten my noodles a hundred different ways, although I usually eat them the simple way I described above.
By the way, if you have never had toasted sesame oil, that stuff is gold. If you’ve been eating Chinese food for years and there is this flavor you really like, this smoky nutty flavor, that you can’t identify, that is probably toasted sesame oil. Since my early days of eating Nong Shim Ramen, I always make sure to have a bottle of toasted sesame oil in my cabinet.
One of the things that thrilled me about this dish from the beginning was that it was dairy free. But that is not to say it is necessarily healthy. The flavor packets often contain MSG, which I know many people prefer not to eat. But this is a quick and easy yummy snack. And if you don’t want to use the flavor packets, you can create your own sauce, which I have also done many times. Just go to the Asian food section of your supermarket and select an Asian-style marinade/sauce and drizzle a bit of that over your noodles near the end, stir it up, and I bet that will be just as good as anything I have ever created with my packaged ramen.
As for the name, for many years, I thought that what I was doing was making my ramen the wrong way. Little did I know that the saucy ramen has its own name: Mazemen. I found this out just in the last couple years, when first at Yuji Ramen in the Bowery Whole Foods Supermarket, and then at a Wine & Food Festival dinner put on by Chef Ivan Orkin, I ate their mazemen with great relish. Now granted, their dish is a little different than what I do. They use buckwheat noodles that are thicker and chewier than the noodles in Nong Shim’s ramens. But as for the sauce, what they are doing in Mazemen is EXACTLY the same thing I have been doing for more than 20 years when I make my ramen.
If you look up Mazemen on the Internet, you won’t find much. There isn’t even a Wikipedia article about it yet, which shows you how new it is (or how rare). Most references call it a “dry” or “brothless” ramen, both of which characterizations don’t adequately describe it. Saucy rather than soupy is how I prefer to think of it.
Most of the references you will find to mazemen on the Internet will be related to Chef Ivan or Chef Yuji. Did one of them invent it? Or someone else? I have no idea. Maybe it was one of those Japanese secrets that you would only know about if you had traveled there and been to some out-of-the-way ramen bar where mad genius ramen chefs invent things like mazemen. I have no idea.
I just know that when I get back home from roller-blading or a long walk on a hot day, nothing does it for me like a big jug of cold water, and a nice bowl of my At-home Mazemen. Happy noodle cooking, my friends.