Allium-free Shouyu Ramen with Tempeh Char Siu

Ramen was an import from China that evolved in a uniquely Japanese way. It’s likely the most common and popular dish in Japan among both locals and travellers. Being inexpensive, piping hot, full of umami, it’s very satisfying especially on a cold day! There are 4 main types of ramen you can find in almost any ramen shop, differentiated by the soup base – shio (salt), shouyu (soy sauce), miso (fermented bean paste) and tonkotsu (pork bone). Out of all the bowls of ramen I ate in Japan, my favourite was a vegan tonkotsu ramen from Yokohama’s Ramen Museum. But that seems tricky to make, so I chose to make my second favourite, shouyu ramen.

Making ramen is a highly skilled job, so home cooked ramen may not taste intense as what you get from ramen shops. This recipe took me 2 hours to make, which is nothing compared to the hours ramen shops put into one bowl. Still, it’s fun to make your own version! If you have dietary requirements like vegan + no alliums/gluten-free, there aren’t much choices in Japan. So if you’re craving for a good bowl of ramen that’s close enough, homely and comforting, this is the recipe for you.

Shouyu ramen from Kyushu Jangara Ramen; soup is allium-free. I loved the clear soy sauce taste that wasn’t terribly salty. The one from T’s Tan Tan was way to salty for me.

As someone who grew up eating noodles, I LOVED the amazing and familiar umami in every bowl, but overall almost all the ramen I had in Japan were really salty. That’s considering I’m someone who love savoury foods! I soon learnt that it’s just the way ramen is. Since it was a food historically eaten by labourers, it always had a high sodium content. Also, salt helps to bring out umami. Thus, this recipe may taste saltier than what you expect.

The Shin Yokohama Ramen Museum is a good place to visit and educate yourself about the beauty of ramen.

This recipe is made allium-free, because I hope more people can try ramen. In Japan, with the exception of traditional shoujin ryori, almost all savoury foods contain some type of allium. It was quite tricky getting the soup to taste complex enough without alliums, MSG or other instant seasonings.

A good bowl of ramen means an intense umami. It is a result of a good soup base, quality noodles, a variety of toppings, suitable oils and seasonings.

Here are some important notes that will help you succeed in making a good bowl of ramen:

1. Use a sieve.

There’ll be lots of straining and draining out things, so at least one big sieve is a must. You can get one from NTUC or general stores.

2. Soup base:

– Kelp and dried shiitake

These 2 will be the backbone of the soup, do not replace. Due to their high glutamine acid content, the soup base will be high in umami. I recommend getting high quality kelp, like this one from Hidaka, Hokkaido, that’s specially meant for soup. Available in some NTUC Finests. It comes with instructions on how to use, make sure you follow them carefully to preserve the flavour. I believe in using the highest quality ingredients you can get, since you’re going to put in effort making this from scratch. For shiitake, go for Japanese dried shiitake, also available from NTUC.

Dried shiitake is readily available in supermarkets and wet markets, this particular brand of kelp was from NTUC Finest.

– Potato, corn, carrot, celery stalk and lentils.

I turned to a tried-and-tested formula that makes the backbone of many traditional Chinese vegetarian soups. The starch in potato helps enhance flavour and texture. Corn and carrot adds depth by giving a natural sweet aftertaste that makes one wants more. Celery adds another layer of depth. Most important part is adding protein; it’s protein that gives the most umami. Traditionally, soybeans are used, but I find that they take very long to cook, so I took inspiration from Indian cuisine and used red lentils.

– Ginger

Since this recipe does not use alliums, I turn to my favourite ingredient, ginger. Here I used quite a bit of ginger in different steps. Ginger is incredibly powerful, it brings out umami and adds complexity while being able to hide itself. Rest assured, there’s no strong ginger taste in the end result.

– Bean paste

This is a Chinese condiment used in Hokkien mee and other dishes. I used both regular bean paste and spicy bean paste. Available in NTUC. Do not omit as this is another important contributor of umami.

My 2 favourite brands of fermented bean paste. Left one is from NTUC. The right one is from a vegetarian grocery shop, extremely spicy!

– Rice wine (or sake, optional)

Just a bit of alcohol can increase the intensity of umami. Highly recommended, but feel free to omit. Available from supermarkets.

– Quality soy sauce

A good soy sauce should only have 4 ingredients – soy beans, wheat, salt and water. It should not have MSG and preservatives. Since shouyu is the main flavour here, go for high quality ones. Kikkoman is my go-to brand. For gluten-free, go for quality tamari.

3. Noodles

The noodles make a different. Ramen noodles are usually QQ, means having a good bite. Many recipes online suggests you to undercook the noodles as the hot soup will continue cooking them. Do not use instant noodles, as they get soggy incredibly fast (unless that’s what you prefer).

– Quality wheat noodles

It’s best to use noodles specially made for ramen, but I realised many of them are only available in Japanese supermarkets. I used Prima Taste La Mian from NTUC, which remained chewy and toothy after sitting in the hot soup for 10 minutes (the time I took to photograph this). For gluten-free, go for thick rice noodles as thin ones also may get too soft quite fast.

4. Toppings

You can technically top with anything you like, but here’s some that are commonly used for shouyu ramen.

– Char siu (or chashu in Japanese)

Char siu refers to the cooking method, not the pork. Thus I used the same method on tempeh. I posted a Chinese version before. It is not the authentic recipe for Japanese chashu as it depends on a lot of leek for flavour, which I can’t figure out a replacement yet for those who avoid alliums. Try it with seitan, it might work even better!

Recipe here.

– Menma (preserved bamboo shoots)

Crunchy and delicious, highly recommended! Got this from Donki. A standard topping for shouyu ramen.

Note: This is not the red chilli oil bamboo shoots!

– La-yu (Chilli oil)

Adds spice. Who doesn’t love a bit of spice! I realised Japanese brands of chilli oil isn’t very spicy, so I used a bit of oil from my (very) spicy bean paste.

– Shiraga Negi, green onions (optional)

Adds some pungency. I’ve noticed that many Japanese dishes are topped with julienned raw onions. Here, I didn’t use it as I wanted to make everything completely allium-free.

– Nori sheet (seaweed)

A piece of dried seaweed adds a slight ocean flavour and colour. I used the type meant for sushi which you can find in most NTUC’s Japanese section.

– Konjac (konnyaku)

All Chinese mock seafoods are made from this. Available in Donki. Not a traditional ramen topping, but I used it in place of narutomaki (fish cake). I lightly boiled, then scored and marinated each piece in black vinegar, soy sauce and sesame oil as it doesn’t have much flavour on it’s own.

Konjac, or konnyaku in Japanese, is a springy block made from the starch of the konjac plant.

Allium-free Shouyu Ramen

Serves 1

Soup stock:

  • 2 – 3 pcs dried konbu, cleaned according to packet instructions
  • 4 – 5 pcs dried shiitake mushrooms, rinsed slightly to clean
  • 4 cups water
  • 1/3 cup lentils, soaked for at least 1 hour in warm water or overnight in room temp water.
  • 1/2 carrot, chopped into 1 cm long pcs
  • 1/2 corn, chopped into 3 parts
  • 1 potato, peeled and cubed
  • 1 stalk celery, chopped into 5cm long pcs
  • 1 cm ginger, sliced
  • 1 tsp salt

After cleaning kombu and shiitake, soak them water for at least 30 minutes. Pour everything into a pot, turn on medium low heat. Bring to almost a boil and remove kombu before water boils. While keeping medium low heat, add lentils, carrot, corn, potato, celery and ginger. Top up enough water to immerse everything completely with about 5 cm room at the top. Increase to medium high heat, bring to a boil and simmer half covered for at least 30 minutes. Add 1 tsp salt and strain out. If storing in fridge, let cool completely. Can be kept up to a week in fridge.

For ramen’s soup base:

  • 1 serving of ramen noodles
  • 0.5 tbsp fermented bean paste (or to taste)
  • 1 tsp spicy fermented bean paste (or to taste)
  • 1 cm ginger, minced
  • 1 tbsp sesame oil (using another oil will reduce fragrance)
  • 1 tbsp rice wine (optional)
  • 1.5 tbsp soy sauce (or to taste)
  • 1 pinch of black salt (or to taste)
  • White pepper, to taste

In another pot, sauté ginger and bean pastes till fragrant. Add rice wine to deglaze. Add 4-5 cups of soup stock, bring to a boil and keep simmered over low heat. Meanwhile, cook ramen noodles according to packet instructions. Reduce the cooking time given on the packet by 1 minute. Drain out by flicking it slightly in a big sieve. Taste the soup and add other seasonings to your preference. Remove from heat and strain out the soup.

Assembly & Toppings:

  • 1 block of Char Siu Tempeh, sliced to your preferred thickness (traditionally char shu is thin, but I like it slightly thicker for better bite.)
  • 5 pcs menma (bamboo shoots)
  • 2 pcs seaweed
  • Bean sprouts, blanched (fastest way to cook is put in a sieve and immerse into the same pot when the noodles are cooking)
  • 2 pcs marinated konjac

Place drained ramen noodles into a large serving bowl. Pour hot soup over the noodles. Top with char siu tempeh, menma, bean sprouts and konjac. You can also use some of the soup stock ingredients (carrot, corn) as toppings. Enjoy it while hot!

This recipe usually takes me 2 hours to make from scratch! But I’m extremely happy with the end result, so it’s worth it.

If you want more vegan ramen recipes, check out these recipes: Tan Tan Men, Hakodate style ramen, Sapporo style ramen.

Next up – plant-based karaage! Stay tuned!

An alternative to fish sauce inspired by tradition

Fish sauce is a staple, and in some cases, the backbone of many Southeast and East Asian cuisines. Traditionally made by fermenting fish for months with salt, then pressing out the liquid. From pho to pad thai to kimchi, the many variants of this salty, pungent sauce offers a different taste profile than soy sauce.

This was a challenging recipe to come up with, simply because 1) I’ve never purposely tasted fish sauce in it’s raw form, and 2) in edible plants there aren’t a lot of ingredients that can emulate a strong fish flavour. Thus my goal is not to imitate but to create a sauce that’s versatile with a taste of the ocean and good enough to enliven dishes without additional seasonings. So, this recipe makes a fishy-tasting sauce, but don’t expect it to taste exactly like fish sauce! Luckily, inspiration came from traditional ingredients used in local dishes, thus I could keep the recipe relevant to our culture and as simple as possible. The perceived taste may vary from person to person. To me, this is less salty than soy sauce, has a richer umami and does not easily overpower a dish.

There are 2 main ingredients: something fermented for the pungency and umami, and something from the sea for the briny ocean flavour.

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Our ‘something fermented’ will be the vegan version of belacan, the pungent, fermented shrimp paste that has similar importance as fish sauce in Southeast Asian cuisines. In Singapore, there are 2 types of vegan belacan (fermented from soy) available cheaply at vegetarian grocery shops. Powder type has less pungency and a slight sweetish aftertaste, while the ball-shaped paste has a much stronger smell with a soy aftertaste. It’s up to your preference so do experiment! I prefer powder, because the ball paste’s quality seem inconsistent.

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Next, something from the sea will be 2 types of dried seaweed (edible algae, not something to be smoked) – wakame and kelp. Seaweed is valued in East Asian cooking for its briny umami and health benefits. Both expand in size and release a good ocean flavour when cooked, and can be bought at local dried goods shops and supermarkets.

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You’ll need:

20g dried wakame
40g dried kelp (a.k.a kombu)
5 tsp vegan belacan powder or 20g belacan paste
1 cup quality light soy sauce (use gluten-free ones if preferred)

Rinse both seaweeds in water (do not soak). Place them in a large pot and add enough water to cover them completely. Stir in belacan powder/paste. (If using paste, toast it over heat for 2 mins then crumble into pot.) Place pot over high heat, bring to a boil and simmer for 20mins. Turn off heat, drain out seaweed and pour in soy sauce. Put back on heat, bring to a boil again and simmer on low heat till mixture is reduced to a very salty liquid (about 20-30mins). Off heat, place seaweed back into pot with the mixture and let it sit covered overnight at room temperature. Next day, wearing gloves, squeeze out the absorbed liquid from seaweed, pour sauce through a fine sieve into a clean bottle.


 

Notes:
1) The last step is crucial to impart more ocean flavour to the sauce, if
you’re pressed for time you can skip it, it’ll be weaker tasting though.
2) There’s another vegan fish sauce recipe with more ingredients here (with garlic). I tried it, replacing miso with belacan. Delish too, although with a weaker ocean taste. I’d encourage you to experiment and maybe even combine 2 recipes together!
3) If belacan isn’t available, a strong red miso might work. But it won’t have that pungency unique to belacan.
4) Never throw away the cooked seaweed! Use it again stir-fries, fried rice/noodles and soup-based dishes. It will be salty with a belacan smell – may not be the best salad ingredient!

So, how to use this strong smelling liquid?

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Simply use it when you’re bored of soy sauce, or replace fish sauce when a recipe calls for it, or as a dip with other garnishes. My favourites are in soups, like this one-pot mung bean noodle soup boiled in mushroom stock with a slight pour of fish-y sauce, topped with greens, enoki mushroom, fried leek and garlic tempeh crumbles. I’ve also enjoyed greens steamed in a small puddle of it or even simply drizzled onto rice. Immensely versatile – you define the limits of its use!