RAMEN KAONASHI is currently serving as a Recipe Partner at Ramen Hero. As an experienced ramen chef, he will introduce us to Japanese ramen trends and even share some of his favorite recipes. If you are interested in his other content, check out his Blog and YouTube Channel!
For this article I would like to share with you the Gyokai Tonkotsu Tsukemen from RAMEN KAONASHI’S Tsukemen Recipe Series. The rich impactful soup of the Gyokai Tonkotsu requires a lot of hard work, but please refer to the YouTube video while I guide you through the recipe!
If you didn’t already know, “Tonkotsu” directly translates to pork bones and “Gyokai” is all ingredients originating from the lakes, rivers, and sea. Particularly in ramen, the term “Gyokai” is used to emphasize ingredients such as dried bonito, mackerel, and dried sardines. “Gyokai Tonkotsu Tsukemen” is therefore a term used primarily for tsukemen which feature a strong textured, thick noodle paired with a soup which gets a high viscosity thickness from a rich pork bone stock and umami infused from Katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes) and Niboshi (dried sardines). Please refer to THE BEST TONKOTSU GYOKAI TSUKEMEN IN JAPAN article written by Ramen Guide Japan which introduces shops which serve this tsukemen for a better look at what this style entails.
For this recipe I would like to focus on the soup making, but more specifically, how to achieve the level of thickness most closely associated with the Gyokai Tonkotsu soup.
Probably the biggest barrier for home cooks attempting to make rich Tonkotsu soup is time. It takes a considerable amount of time in order to properly extract the flavors and umami from pork bones and make a well-emulsified soup. Ramen shops will take anywhere from a few hours to a couple days to reach these emulsification levels. Replicating these methods at home would be quite difficult so a pressure cooker can be used to significantly reduce the time it takes to replicate those flavors and extraction.
Pork bones are pressure cooked in order to get them to a stage where umami can easily be extracted, but the next step of simmering the bones longer skips that pressure cooker in this recipe. If you do choose to use a pressure cooker at this point, do so with caution. With a pressure cooker, it is impossible to check how much has boiled, whether it has burnt, nor can you mix or add water during the steeping process. Some recipes may use the pressure cooker during this step, but I find it very important to be able to look and check the conditions of the soup at this stage in the steeping process.
When the Tonkotsu is at an adequate level of concentration and emulsification, the dried sardines and mackerel are added. At this step, the heat is adjusted for and the soup is simmered at a lower temperature in order to maximize and properly extract the flavors and umami potential of the dried fish elements which does not react well to high heat.
The way the “Gyokai” is added will vary from shop to shop. Some shops may opt to use thick slices of the Katsuobushi (dried bonito) in to a rich soup with lots of fats and oils, as the thicker is more suitable for higher temperature simmers and the soluble aromas can permeate into the abundant fats and oils more effectively. Others may opt to use a gentle fish and shellfish stock prepared separately and added at the appropriate time so there is no predetermined hard fast rule of how to incorporate the “Gyokai”.
So why has the Gyokai Tonkotsu, known to take hours to prepare, continued to be so popular and prevalent in ramen? To answer this question, we must take a look at how Tsukemen has evolved. It is well known now that Tsukemen first started out of Taishoken, originally meant as a shift meal for employees which became a regular menu item by Kazuo Yamagishi-san. The first Tsukemen was rather refreshing as a result of the vinegar and sugar incorporated in to the soup. And throughout the years, a variety of different styles of Tsukemen was introduced. Among them is the Gyokai Tonkotsu known for the thick noodles and impactful, rich soup. As the pairing between the thick noodles and rich soup became more apparent, the noodles became thicker and the soup became richer, continually evolving in this way. What resulted was likely the most impactful ramen dish to this point. Putting aside whether you can eat this daily, when given the choice, the Tsukemen seemed to be the first option for many restaurant diners.
However, you can’t disregard how much time and effort goes in to making this style of Tsukemen. Making large amounts of this rich soup is quite difficult and as is the case with this recipe, many shops take pain staking hours to continuously stir and look after the soup. With tens of liters of soup and tens of kilograms of bones in a small pot, it is often overlooked the work and time it takes to even strain such a soup. The bones and meat become fine which clogs the strainers and squeezing out the last drop is a task in and of itself.
And yet, chefs continuously put themselves through this rigorous work as they themselves are captivated by the charm of this dish and want to share this affection to as many people as they can. By taking on the challenge yourself with this recipe, not only will you understand what makes this style so great, but also gain an appreciation for the passion and effort many ramen chefs put in to creating this dish.
As introduced in the Ramen Kaonashi recipe, you can enjoy the the Tsukemen to the very end with a “Soup Wari” which is a soup added in after finishing the noodles. After you’re done with the noodles, you can enjoy the rich soup as is, or cut with a light Gyokai stock for a refreshing flavor profile. Whichever the case, be sure to enjoy the soup to the very end as you put so much time and effort to make it. If you don’t enjoy it to the last drop, it’ll be “mottainai” (Japanese for too good to waste).
You may often hear that the purpose of Tsukemen is to enjoy the noodles more than you would a regular bowl of ramen and certainly the noodles do have a greater presence in Tsukemen than in ramen. Even with this recipe, the noodles are thicker than most used in regular ramen and in comparison to the smaller portion of soup, you’ll inevitably focus on them. However, it is only with the rich soup that you can even enjoy the noodles like these so if you can enjoy how they pair with one another, I’m sure you’ll love Tsukemen even more.