Our first encounter with tantanmen- the Japanese version of the chilli laced, sesame sauced Sichuan noodle dish dandanmian- came in a cramped ramenya down a nondescript backstreet in the Tokyo district of Shibuya. Sat at a dimly lit wooden counter where the thick varnish had been worn away by decades of jostling elbows from hungry diners, the chef placed before us two deep bowls of noodles sunken beneath blush ivory coloured broth, swirled with a bright red slick of rāyu and a scattering of fried pork. After the initial shock of the vibrant colours against the dark bowls we were struck by the rich, earthy sesame aroma followed by the sweet smell of long-simmered chicken stock. One messy, clumsily slurped mouthful was all it took for us to fall head over heels for this red-faced cousin of the classic pork ramen; the tingly chilli-kissed lips only helped our feelings grow stronger.
Little known outside of Japan, tantanmen has become a staple in many noodle restaurants and as a quick to prepare dinner for rushed parents to whip up for their ever-hungry children after school. Much like most other styles of ramen, a powerfully flavoured broth assisted by a couple of well cast supporting characters is the key to a memorable meal. Homemade chicken stock is enhanced with creamy, nutty sesame paste to give an incredibly rounded flavour, then poured over deliciously toothsome chukamen noodles before being topped with intense, salty pork mince seasoned with miso and sake. The whole dish is then drenched (or perhaps merely drizzled, depending on your feelings towards spiciness) in chilli infused rāyu oil to not only increase the heat levels, but also to boost the savoury flavours and add the fat needed to smooth out the consistency and texture of your noodles.
Incidentally, the miso seasoned pork mince is a fantastic meaty component to a bento, or it works incredibly well alongside some scrambled eggs as a topping for a bowl of rice to make an easy version of the classic soboro-don.
- 1.5kg chicken (a whole chicken is ideal)
- 15g ginger
- 1 leek
- 2 dried shiitake mushrooms
- 10cm by 10cm piece of dried kombu
- Chop the leek into quarters, peel and slice the ginger into large pieces, and wipe away any grit or dirt from the dried kombu. Place the chicken in a large stock pot, add the ginger, leek, kombu and shiitake mushrooms and pour over enough cold water to cover the chicken by three to four centimetres.
- Bring the water slowly to a boil over a medium heat, skimming off any impurities that form on the surface, then turn the heat down and cook the stock at a low simmer for three to four hours, topping up the pan with extra hot water as necessary (remove the kombu after the stock has been simmering for half an hour). Start to taste the broth after three hours of cooking; if it needs more richness or depth of flavour, continue to cook for another hour or so.
- When the stock has finished cooking, turn off the heat and leave the liquid to cool slightly. Next, remove the chicken and vegetable pieces from the pot, and strain the broth through a muslin cloth to remove any small particles.
Miso Seasoned Pork Ingredients.
- 250g minced pork
- 40g miso paste
- 40g tobanjan (you could also use gochujang or chilli miso paste)
- 20g brown sugar
- 30ml soy sauce
- 45ml sake
- 2 cloves garlic
- 15g ginger
- half a leek, or three spring onions
- 40g menma (fermented bamboo shoots, or you can use our recipe here)
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- Finely dice the leek, bamboo shoot, garlic and ginger, then mix all these ingredients together and set to one side. Pour the vegetable oil into a frying pan and place the pan over a high heat, then add the minced pork and fry it fiercely until browned all over. Turn down the heat to medium and add the chopped vegetables to the pan, stirring as you go, and allow to cook for two to three minutes or until everything has started to soften.
- Mix together the miso, tobanjan, sugar, soy sauce, sake and two tablespoons of water in a bowl until smooth, then tip this sauce into the pan with the pork. Stir the sauce constantly while it cooks and thickens until just a sticky, intense coating remains on the pork; place a lid on the pan, remove from the heat and set to one side until you’re ready to assemble the tantanmen.
- 1200ml chicken stock (from above recipe)
- miso seasoned pork (from above recipe)
- 450g fresh chukamen noodles
- 200g pak choi
- 100g nerigoma sesame seed paste (you could substitute tahini instead, but it has a slightly lighter flavour as the seeds are generally roasted for a shorter time)
- 15g sugar
- 2 heaped teaspoons tobanjan
- 30ml soy sauce
- 15ml sake
- 2 teaspoons rice vinegar
- rāyu (chilli oil) to serve
- sesame seeds to serve
- shredded spring onion to serve
- Bring the chicken stock to a gentle simmer in a large saucepan over a medium heat; whilst waiting for it to warm up, measure the nerigoma and tobanjan into a mixing bowl along with the soy sauce, sake, sugar and rice vinegar. Once simmering, add a few spoonfuls of the hot stock to the seasoning mixture to loosen it up, then pour it all into the stock pan and whisk thoroughly to ensure there are no stray lumps. Return the stock to a simmer before turning the heat down low and tasting for seasoning; add a pinch of salt or a little more sugar if you feel the soup needs it, then cover with a lid to keep the stock warm while you finish preparing the noodles and topping for your tantanmen.
- Bring a pan of water to the boil and cook the chukamen noodles as instructed on their packet- if in doubt, this is normally boiling for three to four minutes. Cut the pak choi into halves lengthwise then blanch them for two minutes in a separate pan of hot water before assembling your dish.
- Drain and divide the noodles between four deep serving bowls, top each mound with a generous amount of the seasoned mince and crown each of those with a tangle of shredded spring onion. Place the halved pak choi next to the noodles in the bowls and carefully ladle the sesame broth over the top. A few spoonfuls of chilli oil and a sprinkle of sesame seeds is all you need to complete the dish, serving extra oil to the side for those who really want to feel the heat.
Serves 4 people.