The first time I ever had a bowl of ramen at a restaurant, I was completely at a loss as to how to eat it. The giant bowl of spicy broth and tender noodles tantalized my senses, so I dug in anyway. Don’t quote me on this, but there may have been a fork involved which I may have used to twirl the noodles on the spoon like a bowl of spaghetti. As such, I may have gotten a few funny looks from fellow diners. I was hooked after that first bowl, but still never quite knew if I was doing it right until I was properly educated.
Our education began this summer when we previewed Shaw ramen shop Haikan, but really came full circle after we attended Bantam King’s Chicken Ramen 101 class recently. Led by Chef Katsuya Fukushima, Daisuke Utagawa and Yama Jewayni, the masterminds behind Daikaya, Haikan and Bantam King, three of DC’s top ramen restaurants.
For those who haven’t been to Bantam King yet, I suggest you make a trip immediately. The space, which is housed in a former Burger King (get it?), is lively and fun and just a joy to look at.
This was my first visit, and I instantly fell in love with the Japanese pop culture decor, the ample light streaming in from the windows and the laid-back atmosphere that plays heavily on the building’s fast food past. I have to admit I’d somewhat avoided Bantam King in the past because, well, I don’t love chicken and chicken is definitely king at this ramen shop.
Don’t get me wrong, I like fried chicken and will certainly eat a nice chicken dinner at home but it’s rarely something I seek out at a restaurant. However, I quickly learned that nothing about the chicken offered at Bantam King is ordinary. Far from the slimy, chewy poultry I’ve come to dread eating, every morsel I tasted was high quality and full of flavor.
Chicken Ramen 101
Each Chicken Ramen 101 class includes complimentary soft drinks, including a selection of Japanese tea, iced coffee and sodas. The Royal Milk Tea is a delight, and a nice cooling drink should you choose to indulge in a spicier ramen at the end of class.
What the Hell is Ramen?
This is the first question tackled during the very entertaining class at Bantam King. In order for a bowl of noodle soup to be classified as ramen, it must contain four essential components: stock, tare (basically, the seasoning), noodles and aromatic oil. It must also be prepared after it’s ordered, and not pre-made. Toppings exist to enhance the ramen, but even with topping it’s still ramen as long as it meets the requirements above.
Why Chicken Ramen?
There are approximately 32 different types of ramen in Japan. Daikaya and Haikan both focus on serving authentic Saporro-style ramen, but Bantam King broke the mold by offering strictly chicken ramen varieties. This type of ramen is relatively new in that it doesn’t have a specific region of origin and its reputation and techniques are still forming.
According to Utagawa, “if the soup has chicken as the prominent and dominant ingredient, people call it chicken ramen”. So, you can have a bowl of chicken ramen topped with pork and it’s still chicken ramen. But Bantam King is taking things one step further by offering no other meat but chicken in their ramen.
Stock It to Me
Bantam King makes two delicious chicken-based stocks, a delicate chintan that is light in color (but not in flavor) and a richer paitan, which is darker in color. These stocks are made using such ingredients as seaweed, onions, garlic and ginger as well as chicken necks, feet, skin and bodies. The use of black chicken (also known as a silkie) also serves to enhance the rich flavor.
One of the best parts of the Chicken Ramen 101 class was getting to taste the various components. We were given the opportunity to sample several types of stock. First, we were given a taste of the stock without any added tare. I was worried the taste would be too “chickeny” for me to handle, but I threw caution to the wind and took a long sip.
The verdict? Shock, awe and delight. The stock, made solely from the ingredients listed above with no added salt, was comfort personified. I whispered to Tom that this was exactly what we needed the next time one of us was sick. And it only got better from there as we sampled the shio and shoyu stocks, created by the addition of tare. All of Bantam King’s tare is made in Japan using a top-secret recipe, adding to the authenticity of every bowl.
What’s in a Noodle?
The noodles are arguably the most fun part of eating a bowl of ramen, and Bantam King takes their noodles very seriously. That’s the thing about these guys, they have an incredible commitment to honoring the culture and authenticity in every ingredient they bring to the table. It’s apparent when you listen to them speak, and even more so in each slurp you take.
Good quality ramen noodles should be springy, pleasantly chewy and actually have flavor. It’s a misconception that the noodles should simply soak up the flavors of the liquid; they should actually have their own distinguishable taste. Like the tare, Bantam King’s noodles are shipped from Japan to ensure consistency and authenticity. Both an innovative milling technology and the use of Saporro well water set these noodles apart from any you could find outside of Japan.
Topping It Off
While toppings are not an essential part of ramen, they are still a very important factor. The toppings should work in harmony with the rest of the ramen. All components should taste delicious on their own, but should not overpower the bowl. We sampled two of the most common toppings – menma, or fermented bamboo, and nitamago, or soft-boiled egg. Bantam King also offers shredded chicken, dandelion greens, white onions, nori, corn and roasted chicken quarters as toppings, just to name a few.
How To Eat Your Ramen
Class concludes with the best lesson of all – how to eat your ramen. Utagawa is an expert on eating ramen, and will give you the full lowdown on exactly how to dig in so as to avoid looking a fool like I did on my first try. In the meantime, here are the basics.
First, you should begin eating your ramen as soon as it’s set in front of you. Don’t worry about being polite, that doesn’t matter here. You don’t want your noodles to continue to cook in the broth and get soggy.
Lift the bowl up and let the steam and aromas captivate your senses, and then take a sip of the broth. Next, pull out the noodles, making sure to smell them first, and then slurp them while looking down, face over the bowl. Do not worry about what you look like or if you’re getting anything on your shirt – just go for it!
I could not believe how delicious these bowls were to my once chicken-resistant palate. We went simple on the toppings, but did opt to add bata (butter) at a server’s recommendation. The dandelion greens were one of my favorite elements, the subtle bitterness deepening the already complex flavor profile in these harmonious bowls of goodness.
We learned so many other fascinating details throughout the hour-long class, but I’m not going to give them to you word for word because this is definitely something you should experience for yourself. If you’re a ramen enthusiast, or just curious what the fuss is all about – go! If you’re looking for a fun first date or an unusual outing with your friends – go! If you need a new way to entertain your kids – go!
While you’re there, be sure to try the boiled gyoza. These may be my new favorite dumplings in DC, with flavors that build and shift in mesmerizing ways as you eat them. Trust me on this.
And of course, don’t forget the fried chicken, either the platter or on their brand new fried chicken sandwich.
These tasty sandwiches are available for dining in or carrying out. Rumor also has it that ramen to-go is in the works as well. Stay tuned for more details on that!
Each Chicken Ramen 101 class costs $35, inclusive of tax and tip, and comes with a soft drink and bowl of ramen. For more information, future class dates and reservations call (202) 733-2612.