Tonkotsu is to ramen as Chicago deep-dish is to pizza: it’s a food group of its own, with a style that’s a thing apart, practically a different dish. There’s a shop called Jiro in Japan that has become epically popular for having the most extreme tonkotsu-style broth, with so much pork fat emulsified into it that people talk of getting sick after eating it for the first time. But that doesn’t stop them from returning for the second go-round. I’m not a huge adherent to or student of the tonkotsu style, but I appreciate the basic principle, which is the unrelenting emulsification of all the impurities and fat in soup stock that most Western traditions spend all their energy trying to keep out. It makes for a soup that slurps almost like gravy—crazy rich, with a slick fattiness. Remember when everyone finally acknowledged umami as one of the cardinal tastes? Whenever they prove that fat is, like, the sixth or seventh taste, tonkotsu broth is gonna be the thing that proves it.
The second tenet of tonkotsu broth I should note is that it is incredibly porky, and often based entirely on pork bones. I’ve been to some places in Okinawa where they boil the bones so long you can actually eat them: they take a cooked bone, deep-fry it, roll it in mayonnaise, and then fry it in a panko crust. Soups made from these bones have a really strong flavor—like, but not similar to, that of Korean sul lung tang. This recipe is not for a final dish, or something I’d put on a menu, or something that’s been fully optimized for home cooking. What it is is a blueprint for making a tonkotsu-ish broth in a short period of time—it’s more about the principle than the technique. In this case, we use the pressure cooker to extract a ton of flavor out of the bones quickly, but pressure-cooking the stock for too long also clarifies it. So this is a hybrid method, cooked partially under pressure. Season it, serve it with some homemade alkaline noodles and scallions, and it’s very good. —Dave Chang
- 2 lbs beef shank
- 1 1/4 lbs oxtail
- 1 lb pork bones (preferably neck bones, but you can use hocks if they don’t have bones)
- 1 lb chicken back(s)
- Up to 1/2 lb pork fatback (depending on the fattiness of your other meats)
- + soy sauce, to taste
- + sake, to taste
- + mirin, to taste
- + salt, to taste
- 4 portions ramen noodles (preferably fresh-made alkaline noodles)
- 1/2 C (or more) thinly sliced scallions
Start the broth: Combine the beef shank and the oxtail with 2 quarts of water in a pressure cooker. Once you reach the default PSI, cook for 15 minutes over medium-high heat. Vent the cooker and return it to the stove, or transfer the broth to a bigger soup pot if your cooker is small or electric or something crazy like that. Turn the heat to medium and simmer for at least 30 more minutes.
While the beef cooks, hack the chicken backs into 2 or 3 smaller pieces. Spread them out with the pork bones on a sheet pan. Place in a 400°F oven for 30 to 40 minutes, or until everything is decisively browned.
Combine the meats: Once the shank and oxtail have finished their allotted simmering time, remove them. (There’s no shame in gnawing on them later.) Add the roasted chicken and pork bones, 1 quart of water, and a large pinch of salt. Bring the stock back to a simmer. Cook uncovered, with the pot steadily bubbling but not boiling, for 30 minutes. Stir occasionally.
Broth variations: Like I said, this recipe is a blueprint. You could switch up the kind of meat used for the broth, how long you simmer it, the ratio of water to meat, add aromatics, start with a dashi (or a bacon dashi), finish it with more or less fat, whatever.
Strain and season: Remove the chicken and pig. Strain the stock through a not-too-fine strainer to remove any large, unpleasant bits of gristle, then return it to the pan. Season the broth to taste with soy sauce (start with 3 tablespoons), sake, mirin (a tablesoon of each to start), and salt (a generous pinch.) Taste and tweak until it’s right. Keep the broth hot.
To finish: Boil the noodles in a separate pot of salted water and drain them well. Divide the broth among four warmed ramen bowls. Add the noodles. Garnish with scallions. Eat while hot, but try not to burn your tongue off.
A safety tip: Remember that fat doesn’t bubble like water when it’s scorching hot, and this ramen is mainly fat. If you’re in Japan and happen to be eating tonkotsu-style ramen, be very careful. Looks can be deceiving.
More variations: The opportunities for variation are limitless, and include the toppings: try napa cabbage and bean sprouts and sliced raw garlic, for example (a crowdpleaser at Jiro). Try different noodle shapes. For this recipe, I thought about imitating this Chinese style of noodle I’ve seen made on YouTube, but the technique the Chinese guys use—holding the dough in one hand and whacking at it with a huge knife—was too badass for me to even try to attempt. Instead I just ran frozen ramen dough across a mandoline to get these big coins or strips. They were good, but I don’t think they made the soup that much better than it would have been with traditional noodles.