Chef Irene Li
We recently spoke with Irene to find out more about the world of mobile foodservice and its differing processes from work-life in a brick-and-mortar restaurant kitchen.Read Bio
Pushing the Boundaries of Traditional Ramen
You’ve been recognized for your ability to take traditional ramen and give it a non-traditional twist. Define your take on this classic dish.
My approach with ramen is to take traditional methods and combine them with modern cookery, seasonal ingredients, and more than anything, not letting myself be confined to people’s expectations. Ramen is a young food, it is less than 100 years old so really it is only in the infancy stage. It needs chefs pushing its boundaries for it to grow and reach its full potential.
Share with us how you’re pushing beyond the concept of what traditional ramen can be through utilizing modern techniques. Provide examples.
In a lot of ways technology provides solutions. Sous vide is great for making a very consistent chashu. Eggs slow cooked in a circulator are great in ramen. But moving beyond that, breaking down recipes from the ground up and finding new ways to layer flavors in is something a lot of ramen chefs aren’t doing. When you make ramen noodles, the hydrating component is water, versus eggs in Italian pasta. Something that’s interesting to do is using flavored brines in the noodles. As long as the brine you add to your dough doesn’t knock the pH out of whack, it’s a great way to add flavor.
Describe the non-traditional ingredients, spices and seasonings you’re incorporating into your dishes as a means to layer flavors.
Smoke is an underrated ingredient in ramen. Smoked bones and flours are great for making noodles. Also, acid isn’t often used. Incorporating acid through making fresh citrus juice into gels can be a way of delicately introducing bright notes.
Explain your signature ramen dish and why?
My signature ramen is a blend of several traditional styles. I use tonkotsu – a creamy, super rich ramen stock – which is then seasoned with tare. Using tare adds that hint of shoyu. Then I finish it with a lot of salt and black pepper, which makes it part shio. I also like to incorporate a variety of different proteins and vegetables such as, fried chicken, chashu, and nori. Overall, it’s a mix of tradition, through the lens of blending styles and techniques.
What can we expect making its way to the center-of-the-bowl next?
The next five years are going to be really interesting in the ramen world. I think we’ll see a lot of new styles of broths, lighter dishes and flavored noodles. Ramen was very tonkotsu crazy recently, so it’s been cool to see things moving towards being lighter and more of a personal expression of each chef, rather than strictly trying to adhere to tradition.