A lot goes into the way we experience food. It’s more than just sensation on one’s tongue. Appetite, mood, health, expectations, setting, lighting, company, and even weather can color our perception of food.
The most striking meals occur when these factors align. The right bite in the right place at the right time.
One evening in September, this happened. We invited Basan food truck to our house to serve whatever they’d like, and the “omakase” of small bites they created was one of the most memorable meals of the year. There was hamachi sashimi with calamansi sorbet, shishito vin, and jalapeno potato chips. Dashi-compressed watermelon with shiro shoyu and chili. Asian pear soup with white miso and a Japanese whisky reduction. And, even a beef tongue “Big Mac.”
As delicious as each bite was, it was not just food that made the meal so special. The beautiful Virginia late summer weather allowed for dining on the patio. And, perhaps best of all was the company. Days later, the small group of friends who attended still reflected on how good it felt just to be together. Months of isolation can do that.
But it wasn’t that September evening in the company of friends when I enjoyed my most memorable dish of the year. It was months earlier, alone at my kitchen table.
“They’ve Made Every Part of It”
The women behind Basan, Anna Gardner and Kelsey Naylor, share a deep passion for food. It is so deep that they once spent a year in Japan just to explore the food. A teaching job for Gardner placed them in the small rural city of Miyakonojo, rich with rice paddies and palm trees. There, Gardner and Naylor were struck by the tight-knit and hospitable nature of the community, a welcoming place where a persimmon picking outing could turn into an invitation for tea from the orchard’s owner.
One community member, Yuki, even offered Naylor a job cooking at her izakaya – an informal bar serving small bites to enjoy with drinks. For Naylor, it was a crash course not just in Japanese food, but also language and culture. “Yuki was kind enough to teach me anything I wanted to know,” said Naylor, “and working in an izakaya-style open kitchen was a wonderful way to meet new people and get to know them.” One regular customer, for example, would catch all of the fish for the restaurant each day, and dishes would be built around whatever he happened to catch. He invited Gardner and Naylor deep sea fishing.
Also striking to Gardner and Naylor was the reverence for food, and the time and care devoted to it. Part of the reason was necessity. In a remote community like Miyakonojo, the absence of big city conveniences forces people to grow their own foods, cook locally, and make the best of what’s around. “Japanese culture is very food-centric,” said Naylor, “but even moreso in the countryside where a lot of the seasonal traditions are still intact by sheer nature.”
But, another reason was pride. Take a dish as simple as miso soup, which Yuki served at her izakaya. Despite the time-intensive process of making miso from scratch, Yuki did it herself. For Yuki, to do otherwise would leave to a manufacturer the dish’s most defining ingredient. And so, for months at a time, she would ferment soy beans in a crock with salt and koji, assuring it remained air-tight and at a constant temperature for the duration. People like Yuki, Naylor said, seem “more connected to what they’re making because they’ve made every part of it.”
When Gardner and Naylor returned to Virginia, they were as determined as ever to to do the same. “Our experience solidified our stubborn need to make as much as we possibly can on our own,” said Naylor.
A Labor of Love: Spicy Miso Paitan Ramen
For a bowl of food handed through a food truck window, the amount of work that goes into Basan’s ramen is remarkable.
First is the tare. “All ramen starts with a base tare, the seasoning that carries the bowl,” said Naylor.
Basan’s requires a three day process. On day one, they start with Kishibori shoyu, an organic, minimally processed soy sauce. To that, they add dried mushrooms, kombu, bonito, dried anchovies, and dried scallops, and let them steep in the soy overnight to draw out the flavors. On day two, they heat sake, mirin, and dashi, to burn off the sake’s alcohol, and add it to the day one soy sauce mixture. Those flavors meld for another 24 hours, and on day three, they strain the sauce and add two different kinds of miso: red and white. Red miso, Naylor says, is pungent and salty, and can come off as harsh if used in excess. Supplementing it with the milder white miso tames the flavor, allowing miso to remain the shining element of the tare without muddying the flavors of the prior steps’ ingredients.
That’s the tare.
Next comes chili paste. Gardner and Naylor source chilis from a Korean woman in Tennessee who grows and dries them herself. To make the chili paste, they roast chilis, and blend them in a Vitamix with rice vinegar, salt, white soy, and dried Korean chilis, along with some Gochujang also made by the woman in Tennessee.
Next, there is hot sesame oil. For that, they steep more of the chilis in sesame oil over low heat, with a little bit of garlic. They then strain it, leaving behind hot sesame oil.
These are just the dish’s seasoning elements. Next comes the broth, or paitan. To make it, they start by soaking whole chickens overnight in water. This draws out blood and other elements that can cause an excessively gamey flavor.
The next day, they put the whole chickens along with extra chicken necks and backs into a giant pot of water over burners turned as high as they can go. They boil the chickens hard for 8-10 hours, topping off the pot with more water as it evaporates. Next, they add aromatics – scallions, ginger, garlic, and onion – and keep boiling for another two hours. Meanwhile, they use a refractometer to monitor the broth’s density, measured in a unit called brix. For the cloudy and creamy texture they seek in paitan, they aim for 7-8 brix. Once they achieve that, they strain the solids, and the broth is done.
Now for the toppings. First is onsen tamago – slow cooked egg. They bring water to a boil, add eggs, and then shut off the heat. The eggs slowly poach in their shells for 13-14 minutes, yielding the jammy yolk that is a signature of ramen eggs.
For the pork belly, they buy whole bellies which they skin and trim, slicing the bellies into three inch strips. They braise the sliced pork belly in a rondeau over low heat for 2-3 hours, with their shoyu tare, sake, and grated ginger.
For the mushrooms, they use compressed and dried wood ear mushrooms, which they rehydrate with an overnight soak. They then pickle the mushrooms in soy, rice vinegar, sugar, dashi, and salt.
Last but not least are the noodles, which Naylor says took a long time to perfect for the ramen they envisioned. “We wanted chewy, but not too chewy,” said Naylor. “We wanted them to hold up to transport. And, we wanted a little bit of earthiness, so they had their own flavor.”
For the desired texture, they settled on a blend of bread flour, cake flour, and oat flour. And for the flavor, they used a touch of salt and kansui, an alkaline solution that is a signature of ramen noodles. Combined with water, the ingredients form a dough, which they roll into sheets and pass through a pasta machine to form noodles.
With all of the elements of the dish complete, assembly is done to-order on the truck. First into the bowl goes the miso tare, then the spice paste, and then a little bit of hot sesame oil. Meanwhile, they cook noodles for 47 seconds in boiling water. “I can’t tell you how many times we had to re-cook the noodles because they were just one second off,” said Naylor. To avoid that result, they keep handy four tiny kitchen timers, all set to 47 seconds.
While the noodles cook, they add two large ladles of broth to the bowl, and whisk it to incorporate the tare, paste, and oil. When the noodles are done, they add them to the bowl, taking care first to drain all of the water from the noodles. Unlike pasta dishes where cooking water can enhance a sauce, in ramen water is the enemy, as it can dilute the broth they worked hard to perfect. Next, they use chopsticks to fold the noodles over themselves in the center of the bowl to make a raft for toppings. Atop that, they add the egg, pork belly, and mushrooms, and garnish with hot sesame oil and scallions from Naylor’s mother’s garden.
Naylor acknowledges that not every customer may appreciate every detail that goes into a single bowl of ramen. (If the noodles were cooked to 48 seconds, would they know the difference?) But, to Naylor, that’s not the point. It’s a labor of love. “It’s a lot of fun to build it the way we want it, and that makes it worth it for us,” said Naylor. “When you put all that work into it, it is incredibly satisfying when you achieve your vision of what you want it to be.” Of course, when guests do notice the difference, the work is all the more rewarding.
Right Bite in the Right Place at the Right Time: The 2021 Dish of the Year
One cold evening in January, as I was rushing from one place to the next, I made time to pick up a bowl of ramen from Basan, which had parked in our neighborhood. It was such a cold night that, as I waited for my order, not even the shelter of the car could protect my bones from the winter’s chill. I had asked the kitchen to prepare the ramen however they like it. A dealer’s choice. They made Spicy Miso Paitan with pork belly, onsen egg, and wood ear mushrooms – the dish described above.
When I got home, my family was out, and I sat down at the kitchen table, alone. I removed the bowl from a brown paper bag and placed it on the table. As I lifted the bowl’s lid, steam filled my face and at once began to restore me. The aroma alone, I thought, was worth double the price of the bowl. I paused to enjoy it, inhaling above the bowl. As I dug in, I was in awe, struck by the broth’s flavor. Rich and deep, explosive yet nuanced. I remember wishing I had the discipline to eat it slowly, thinking that might allow me to savor the flavors even more. But, I was no match for it. Without company, I made no time for table manners, and slurped the bowl’s contents in minutes. And yet, the dish still caught my attention. Amidst the flurry of life’s activities, it forced me to pause and take notice.
It was not until months later that I learned the elaborate processes and time the dish’s preparation requires. It all makes sense now. Yes, the fetishization of details in cooking can at times warrant mockery. When those details are just for the sake of details, they can seem like the nouveau riche describing every last element of their mansion. But, when a chef’s attention to detail is for a higher purpose, the results can be transforming.
In Gardner and Naylor’s case, when they returned to Charlottesville from Japan, they couldn’t find ramen anything like what they had in Japan, where they enjoyed it so much they would eat it 3-4 times per week. So, they decided to make it themselves – to bring ramen to Charlottesville. “If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it right,” said Naylor. “And, the best way to do it right is to be a part of every step of the process.” Like Yuki.
Why set four timers to forty-seven seconds for noodles? Why use three types of flour in one noodle? Why take the time to soak chickens in water overnight? Why spend three days to build a seasoning with a dozen ingredients? Why source chilis from a Korean-American woman in Tennessee? Why measure broth with a refractometer? Why devote so much time to a dish known in college dorms for its instant preparation?
This. This bowl was why. This moment. We don’t get many moments like this. And, the ones we do, we owe to people like Anna Gardner and Kelsey Naylor.
The 2021 Dish of the Year is Basan’s Spicy Miso Paitan Ramen.