Review: Ramen At Home by Brian MacDuckston

Ramen At Home: Become a ramen master without leaving the house

Some of the world’s best ramen is found in Tokyo. But what if a flight to Tokyo is a bit of a stretch, your local neighbourhood has no local shops, and you’re craving ramen? Well, Brian MacDuckston’s guide on how to make ramen is here to help.

‘Ramen At Home: The Easy Japanese Cookbook for Classic Ramen and Bold New Flavors’ is a guide on the preparation of authentic, tasty ramen dishes. Ramen began as a Chinese noodle dish but started becoming widely consumed in Japan just after the Meiji Restoration (circa 1870). However, it wasn’t until after the Second World War that the modern form of the dish began to take shape. Its many transmogrifications have made it difficult to define, but the ‘Chinese noodles’ aspect is key – noodles made with wheat flour, water and kansui (lye water or alkaline salt), This kansui chemically binds the noodles’ ingredients together, giving them a unique flavour and chewy texture. As Brian writes in his book, “Regardless of what goes into a bowl, if the noodles themselves resemble their Chinese ancestors, ramen has no limits.”

“A good bowl of ramen is something personal. Some people like a lot of big, in-your-face flavours, while others want subtle elegance. Some people want huge amounts of fat; the more oil the better. Some bowls can be spicy, some mild. Some people want their ramen to resemble a pizza with tomato sauce and a side of anchovies. Nothing is off the table. Good ramen is good ramen”

Brian MacDuckston, Ramen At Home

This cookbook features over fifty simple, tasty recipes for how to make ramen at home. They’re easy to follow, containing detailed instructions for each recipe that make it easy for even less experienced home chefs to prepare. Whether brand new or old hand, the book has everything you need to make authentic ramen bowls in your own kitchen. This includes things from stocking ramen essentials to how to properly add toppings to your now-restaurant quality ramen (!). There are also helpful sidebars on picking out perfect ramen for your mood, as well as trivia on Japanese cuisine and culture.

One stand-out aspect of the book is the sheer range of recipes, as well as the detailed commentary on each. While there are other ramen cookbooks, few are as comprehensive as this. Ramen At Home breaks the recipes down into categories of Shio, Shoyu, Miso, Tonkatsu, and “Other.” This last section demonstrates just how diverse ramen is as a dish, from Tsukemen to Hiyashi Chuka to Abura Soba. The fundamentals of ramen are described in detail, with each element (tare, soup, noodles, toppings) broken down by step-by-step instructions before the detailed recipes are introduced.

Ramen At Home by Brian MacDuckston: Review on Tokyo Authority
A traditional tonkotsu made using a recipe in Ramen At Home

Choose your own ramen adventure

The structure of the book is simple. You pick your ‘tare,’ then your noodles, then your toppings. There are vegetarian options included, as well. Each recipe is well-organized and easy to replicate, is accompanied by a difficulty rating, a spiciness index and estimated prep time so you can plan out whether it’s something to knock out on a weeknight or more of a weekend project.

Part of what makes this cookbook valuable is that it allows the reader to choose their level of interest and involvement. You can buy tonkotsu stock, or you can slow-cook pork bones to make it yourself. You may roast your chashu or buy it from speciality shops. 

You can buy instant powder for your dashi broth, or you can take kombu and dried shitake to make it yourself. You can make your tare or just use seasoned soy sauce. You can make your ramen noodles or get store-bought. It all depends on your preferences, budget, and available time.

Though the book is only a lean 200 pages, Ramen At Home manages to cover everything: equipment, ingredients, stocks, toppings, assembly, other uses for noodles, et al. The section on side dishes is particularly excellent, giving details on pickled cucumber, mayo, fried gyoza, onigiri, and karaage. It provides even further utility for those whose interest goes beyond the ramen recipes.

Ramen At Home by Brian MacDuckston: Review on Tokyo Authority
Gyoza and other side dishes are included in Ramen At Home

If you are living outside Japan, at the end of the book there is a resources section which can point you to where to get the harder-to-find ingredients. (Hint: Amazon).

This is far from your typical ramen book written by a foodie who visited Japan once and thinks they are an expert. MacDuckston lives in Tokyo, regularly travels all over Japan and is one of the world’s leading experts on ramen. He has operated the blog Ramen Adventures for the past decade and written over 1000 ramen reviews. This book is a distillation of the knowledge gained thereby. This gives the reader access to some unique and little-known recipes which only someone with years of experience might bring to the world, such as Yakimiso Ramen inspired by the now-shuttered legendary Tokyo shop Kurui, or an Onion Shoyu Ramen inspired by the little-known Takeoka-style, a ramen style from the Boso Peninsula in the south of Chiba Prefecture. The book is also full of detailed information on the history and culture of ramen, as well as how to eat it in true local fashion.

One criticism is the lack of photos of completed recipes. Another is that there are a few steps which may not be entirely clear to someone new to cooking ramen. For instance, if you have never cooked with seaweed, following the guidelines in the book might not be enough. The tare quantity can also be a bit much, making for a very salty broth, so you’re safe starting with half of the recommended amount and increasing to taste from there. Also, for any readers based outside of the US, the resources are primarily US-based, and the measurements are in imperial units, with a metric-conversion table in the back.

Regardless, the book definitively achieves the goal of bringing authentic ramen to the home cook. It is also worth noting that the ebook version may be useful, seeing as there are typically 4-5 recipes that go into assembling any given bowl of ramen and being able to bounce around while juggling plates (perhaps literally) is helpful.

I haven’t quite made it to making noodles from scratch, but with this book I feel I can get there someday. Even if you’re not brave enough to make your own bowl yet, this book will at least give you a new perspective on your enjoyment and understanding of what goes into good ramen. If you’ve never thought about anything beyond ‘instant’ ramen up until now, Ramen At Home will give you a first-hand appreciation of the complexities involved to deliver an excellent bowl of high-quality ramen. May you never look at a bowl of ramen the same way again!

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