By Hetty McKinnon, The New York Times
With most ramen, the work that’s put into the broth is what makes all the difference, providing the foundation for the entire dish. A broth made with pork, chicken or seafood can be cooked for up to three days, resulting in an intense, velvety soup that sings with complex, multilayered flavors.
So it may feel unfair to stack a quick-cooked vegan broth up against a meaty one that has been toiled over for dozens of hours. But the creamy, meatless broth behind tantanmen stands up formidably to the challenge, coming together in little time without sacrificing flavor or body.
Tantanmen, which finds its origins in the Sichuan dish dan dan noodles, derives its power not from a labored broth, but from a mildly sweet soy milk base combined with flavorful seasonings, which the Japanese call tare.
Here, buttery Chinese or Japanese sesame paste, which has a richer and more robust finish than tahini, is paired with soy sauce, rice vinegar, chile oil and sugar to impart earthiness to the broth. Doubanjiang, the spicy sauce from Sichuan composed of fermented fava beans and a local variety of chile known as er jing tiao, is often included for depth and extra heat, so feel free to add a couple of tablespoons, to taste, if you have some on hand.
As is often the case in food, the best dishes are defined by balance. Tantanmen is no exception, getting its roundedness from kombu, or dried kelp. While optional, its addition softens any sharp flavors and quietly amplifies other ingredients without overshadowing them. Simply add a piece to your vegetable stock as it heats up, and, in less than 10 minutes, it will taste more savory, slightly sweeter and more full bodied.
The options for toppings are many and varied, but it’s always a good idea to add some protein. Tantanmen is normally made with pork or chicken, but this vegan version relies on hearty, satisfying tofu and doesn’t compromise taste or heft. The simple method used here calls for pan-frying thick slices of seasoned tofu, which can be used in salads (simply cut the slices into triangles or strips), tacos, veggie burgers, or served with brown rice and a peanut sauce.
Corn provides a sweet counterbalance to the deeply savory broth, while shiitake mushrooms absorb and intensify the thick broth’s flavor.
Once your broth and noodles are in the bowl, don’t hang around. This fast dish is best eaten with a sense of urgency: Take cues from Japanese diners, and give yourself five minutes to slurp it all up to avoid the utter joylessness of soggy noodles.
Recipe: Vegan Tantanmen With Pan-Fried Tofu
Yield: 4 servings
Total time: 45 minutes
- Kosher salt and black pepper
- 12 ounces dried ramen noodles
- 3 to 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 (12-ounce) package extra-firm tofu, drained and sliced crosswise, 1/4-inch thick
- 8 large shiitake mushrooms (about 8 ounces), trimmed and thinly sliced
- 4 cups vegetable stock
- 1 (5-by-6-inch) piece dried kombu (about 1/2 ounce), optional
- 2 cups soy or oat milk, at room temperature
- 1/2 cup Chinese or Japanese sesame paste, or use tahini
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons sesame oil
- 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons chile oil, plus more for serving
- 1 cup frozen corn, defrosted and drained, if needed
- 4 scallions, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon roasted sesame seeds
1. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add noodles and cook until al dente, according to package instructions. Drain and run under cold water until the noodles are completely cold. (This stops the noodles from cooking further.) Set aside to drain.
2. Heat a large skillet over medium-high. When hot, add 1 tablespoon olive oil and arrange the tofu slices in a single layer. Generously season the tofu with about 1/2 teaspoon salt and about 1/8 teaspoon pepper. Reduce heat to medium, and cook tofu for 3 to 4 minutes until golden. Flip the tofu, and cook until golden on the other side, about 2 to 3 minutes. (Depending on the size of your skillet, you may need to cook your tofu in two batches.) Remove from the pan and set aside on a plate.
3. To the same pan, add 1 tablespoon olive oil and the mushrooms. Season with salt and pepper. Pan-fry until mushrooms are tender and slightly golden, about 6 minutes.
4. Prepare the broth: Pour the vegetable stock into a large pot and add the kombu, if using.
5. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook over medium heat, about 7 minutes. Remove kombu (keep for another use) and turn off heat. Allow to sit for 2 minutes, then gradually whisk in milk, adding a little at a time, so it doesn’t curdle. Once the milk has been added, heat broth over medium until it simmers.
6. In a medium bowl, combine the sesame paste, soy sauce, sesame oil, rice vinegar, sugar and chile oil. Divide mixture across four deep noodle bowls.
7. Pour the hot broth over the sesame soup base, dividing it evenly among the bowls. Whisk to combine the base with the broth.
8. Divide the noodles across the bowls, and top each bowl with a few slices of tofu, mushrooms, corn, scallions, sesame seeds and an extra drop of chile oil.
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