Sep 28, '21
Featured in 11th edition of Luxeat Insider

Ramen with David Quist

A PhD in microbiology may not seem an obvious background for the creator of a trendy ramen shop in Oslo, but the connections run deeper than you might think. David Quist talks to Luxeat about the huge untapped potential of making meat from fungi, and why ramen is the perfect canvas for culinary experimentation. 

David Quist
David Quist. Photo by Helle Øder Valebrokk

First things first, how did you get into ramen? 

My love for ramen started in university, when like many students I lived on a diet of instant ramen noodles. The quintessential college food included cheap noodles floating in a soup made from a salty bullion powder. It wasn’t good, but it was filling. It has only these two ingredients, so it’s kind of boring when you eat it as often as I was, and every now and then I started adding something from a fridge to make it more interesting. I’d add vegetables or make my own kimchi or add whatever I could think of to make it good but still cheap. 

I did my PhD at Berkeley in California, where there are a lot of Asian restaurants. There was only one ramen place though, run by two Korean women, and I found it almost by accident. They didn’t speak much English but they were open until 2AM so I’d go after late-night sessions in the lab because it was the only place that was open. Almost by accident, ended up being the one place where I experienced all my emotions around my labwork – sometimes disappointment, or celebration, frustration or elation. It really bound me with ramen inextricably I think. And then I had a lot of friends from university who are Japanese, and after finishing my degree I travelled to Japan a few times. I fell in love with all Japanese cuisine, but ramen was still in my student budget and easily accessible. 

Ramen is a great dish to explore food sustainability, because you can put anything in ramen to balance the flavours to make a delicious comfort food.

Then I moved to Norway and it slipped my mind for a long time. After a few years I moved to Copenhagen and started working with food sustainability and interacting with the guys at Noma and other restaurants which were working on fermentation. Making umami sauces is one of the best things in soups, especially ramen, so I found my way back to it. It’s a great dish to explore food sustainability, because you can put anything in ramen to balance the flavours to make a delicious comfort food. After working in food sustainability at a political level, I decided I want to be an actual actor in a food system. So I started doing pop-ups in Copenhagen, cooking ramen to showcase what sustainable cooking could look like, expressing time and place through a delicous and fun bowl of noodles. 

So you already knew how to make ramen at that time?

No, I didn’t know, I knew nothing! But I knew the technical background, and it’s a great dish if you have a technical mind because it’s about creating flavours by meticulously using the right number of grams of a tare [the flavoring component added to ramen broth], doing infusions, creating umami through fermentation and so on. So it tied in neatly with everything I did in the kitchen as in the lab. It was a very natural transition for me from the lab to the kitchen, especially with a dish which had a technical nature like ramen. You never stop using science to find knowledge through food. 

When people think of Japanese cuisine it’s deeply rooted in tradition. Ramen does have a tradition, of course, but probably the main tradition is innovation.

When people think of Japanese cuisine it’s deeply rooted in tradition. Ramen does have a tradition, of course, but probably the main tradition is innovation. Regional styles vary, and even in Tokyo, neighbourhoods have their own unique characters. I was creating my own flavour, created from the palate of where I was, which at that time was Copenhagen. I experimented with smoked fish and other local ingredients to express our style of ramen. 

Would you say ramen is an ultimate canvas of culinary inventions? 

Yes, it has so many different layers that you can innovate to create balance in the final dish. You can mix styles, use different sauces, oils, wheat flours, or toppings. From what I’ve seen, it’s become something of a global food. There’s Hawaiian style ramen, Tampa Baystyle ramen, Nordic style ramen, and of course all the regional styles expanding in Japan. So it’s a beautiful template to explore flavors in a new way and create something noval yet familiar.

Photo by Anne Valeur

Ramen was originally Chinese, right? Then the Japanese took it and it spread around the world ramen obsession. 

You’re exactly right. Ramen was imported from China to Japan in the early 1900s, and the noodles were actually called “Chinese soba” noodles at the time. A large number of Chinese students were studying there and Chinese began settling in the three major ports – Yokohama, Kobe, and Nagasaki – forming Chinatowns and providing a cheap and quick choice for the poor working class. It was Chinese workers selling meals from food carts who likely first introduced the Japanese to the wheat-based noodles. Regional styles started to take hold, but ramen really took off when Japan became an industrial nation. It was perhaps the most popular food for construction workers who were industrialising Japan. It was cheap, it had fatty cuts of meat, carbohydrates, protein and salt and different toppings.

What do you think makes it so universally appealing and iconic? 

I think it’s because it’s endlessly diverse, but also because it’s fun to eat. I love how messy it is. It’s a perfect date food. It embraces and celebrates the true messiness of life and the messiness of people, when we are really honest with ourselves. It’s not as expensive as something like sushi so it’s accessible to more people.

What are the secrets of good ramen? What are the most important components of ramen?

I could give 100 answers, but above all it’s balance and the right ingredients. Many restaurants in the west pack them with too many ingredients and strong flavours so they’re competing against each other. The Japanese way of doing it is to lift very settled ingredients, celebrating the quality of ingredients and not overdoing it. What makes good ramen is a delicate use of umami in the right way, and the most important single ingredient is the noodles. People think that the soup is the most important, but the base is noodles. 

Ramen is fun to eat. I love how messy it is. It’s a perfect date food. It embraces and celebrates the true messiness of life and the messiness of people, when we are really honest with ourselves. It’s not as expensive as something like sushi so it’s accessible to more people.

Of the components, the seasoning sauce (called tare, which forms the base of the soup) is the most important. Every ramen shop has a different tare, which gives you the direction of your soup. It could be chicken, pork, beef,  vegetarian or something else. Most chefs keep their tare recipe a secret because it’s what gives character to the ramen. The noodles give texture and also flavour. The toppings are usually meat and other vinegar components like bamboo shoots and pickle juice, which are the sour components to cut through the fat. The aroma comes from the oils. When you get the bowl, the smell hits first, even before you see it. A lot of shops in the West don’t put aroma oils in, so they kind of miss out on that first impression. 

What are the steps to make ramen? Because it’s quite a process if you make your own noodles, broth and so on? 

Oh yes, it’s a long process if you do it the right way. You make the tare seasoning sauce a week in advance, so the flavours settle and fuse. The broth can take anything from two hours to two days. The noodles also need to rest and mature to develop that chewy texture, which can take up to 12 hours. There’s also marinating and fermenting to think about. If you want to make it in the right way, you start a week before, then a few days before, then the day before and of course the cooking. 

What makes good ramen is a delicate use of umami in the right way, and the most important single ingredient is the noodles.

The process in the kitchen after you prepare all the ingredients only takes a few minutes to warm the bowl and cook the noodles. And finally, the arrangement in the bowl is very important. In many Japanese kitchens they don’t have space, so it’s about organisation methodology. Time and speed is important, because the noodles can get soggy after some time. For Japanese people it takes about 7 minutes to eat a bowl of ramen, while in Norway it takes about 30 minutes. It’s a totally different culture, so we’ve adapted the cooking a bit to the way how Norwegians eat. 

How would you describe your style of ramen? 

We do call it Nordic ramen, because that’s what we try to convey. I would say my ramen is Hrímnir, which is the name of our restaurant in Oslo. It’s an old Viking word, it means something covered in char, as from a fire when you grill something. Like for many chefs, ramen is an expression of the things I love. One unique and sensual factor we’ve incorporated is smoked flavours. I was born and raised in Kansas City, which is known for its barbecue, and that experience of charred vegetables and meat, using heat and fire to create flavour and to preserve food, is vital to our style of ramen. We use smoked and fermented things, but never let them overpower the umami and balance of the dish. 

Photo by Anne Valeur

Do you think you will always cook ramen?

I’m actually not in the kitchen as a chef myself. I help our chefs to innovate, but now I’m back in the lab and I’ve also started a fermentation science company. We are innovating on using fungi, particularly mycelium, the filamentous nature of many fungi (think koji, for example). It’s that vegetative structure and fibrous texture that we’re using to develop new ingredients and materials. We’re working to create a whole cut meat from fungal mycelium, rather than mashed-together plant-based products like meatballs or burgers. 

I think it’s very interesting that you don’t want to replicate meat, but to make a totally different product. How do you plan to do this?  

Meat is a big market worth trillions of dollars, but where the innovation happens is not often in the big companies  –  but in startups. We have the flexibility to move quickly, to innovate, while big companies often don’t take that risk. What we’re creating still has the delicious umami-rich experience as meat, the same mouth feel and nutritional value, but the source is avoiding the unsustainable use of the animals. There’s nothing wrong with farmed animals, in my opinion, it’s just how it’s done, it’s about the over-industrial farming system. I hope my company will help people make this transition to a more sustainable diet on a large scale. Back on the topic of ramen and health, I would love to make a fungus-based chashu and various other toppings. Japan in particular has huge potential because it doesn’t have space for raising pigs and cows proportional to its national demand.

So finally, back to the topic at hand, what is your perfect bowl of ramen?

I’d give different answers at different times of the year! In the Northern areas of Norway, in winter, it can be very depressing and hard, so a lot of people opt for fatty and rich food to make them feel good. At times of uncertainty, especially during COVID, we crave comfort food. For me that would be a light hen ramen, which is much more delicious than chicken, perhaps with a fermented fish sauce that I made myself. It would have the perfect noodles with a little bit of bite and a bouncy texture. And nothing more than soft boiled eggs, a grilled, smoky piece of fatty pork belly, and a nice garlic oil on top. So basically, local flavours, balance and something to bring that smokiness that elevates delicious ingredients. And in my dreams, I make Extebarri ramen.

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