Hawaii is a fantastic place for food; a confused jumble of Japanese, Portuguese, Korean, Chinese, and South Sea Island cuisines that fuse together in a beautifully American way. Whole pigs are cooked underground with hot rocks and Ti leaves, white rice and macaroni salad sit together side by side on the lunch plate, and Spam is consumed at an absolutely alarming rate.
Hawaii is also where Saimin was born, a noodle soup that’s so damn good it makes the angels weep. Saimin is the bastard step-child of Japanese ramen, Chinese lo mein and chicken noodle soup, that has become the ultimate comfort food of the Islands.
Its origins are a little bit murky, but most agree that saimin is a plantation-era dish, where the multi-national mix of workers would gather to cook dinner together at the end of the day. Each of the workers would contribute what they had to the pot, turning a simple noodle soup into a heady mix of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino influences.
Though it may bear a passing resemblance to ramen, please, please, please do not go down to the supermarket and plop down 16¢ for a pack of Top Ramen and expect to have saimin. Not going to happen my friend. This will require a trip to your local Asian market where fresh or frozen noodles are in good supply.
Ramen and saimin noodles are close in the way they are produced, but the critical difference is that saimin noodles are made in the Chinese style of egg-wheat noodles which gives it a warm yellow tint (that cooks to an off-white) and ramen noodles gain their color with phosphate-enriched water. Fresh saimin noodles are rare here on the mainland, but I stumbled across some in the freezer section of my local Asian market.
If you can’t find saimin noodles, an acceptable substitute might be a shorter variety of Chinese egg noodle or Wonton noodle. As a last resort, fresh ramen noodles might work in a pinch (even though that might cause heart palpitations in a native Hawaiian), but don’t expect them same texture that you would find on the Islands. Don’t even think about those dried packs of ramen noodles, they are fried in palm oil before drying and are basically worthless here.
The most vital ingredient for saimin is the broth. One problem: saimin broth recipes are about as closely guarded as the original recipe for Coca-Cola. One common factor among them, though, is they all start with “dashi” broth. Dashi is a Japanese-influenced broth made from dried kelp and dried bonito flakes made from fish that is surprisingly understated in it’s flavor – the fish is almost undetectable and there is the slightest hint of the sea. Any Asian market will carry little jars of Hon-Dashi or Dashimoto, a powdered soup stock starter that is a great beginning. If you are lucky enough to find real saimin noodles, that little silver packet inside makes a good dashi broth – it’s nothing like the salt-lick you get inside your 17¢ bag of dried ramen.
Personally, I like to add some chicken stock for a bit of body and shrimp stock for a little more depth.
1. Shrimp stock. You should make it a habit to save all you shrimp, lobster or whatever shells after you have used them. Just keep a large Ziploc bag in your freezer and add used shells as they happen. After you get a couple of cups of shells, throw them in a pot with celery, carrot, onion, half a lemon and cover with water. Simmer for about 45 minutes and strain it. Wa-la! Shrimp stock.
1a. If you haven’t saved your shells… Do It Now! Make a nice shrimp cocktail for your family. Save the shells. Find another Shrimp recipe you like and make it now. Save the shells. Get the idea? Make the Saimin next week, it’s OK.
A good rule of thumb is about 2 or 2 1/2 cups of broth per serving. Combine the above and heat in a sauce pot until simmering. You should end up with a beautifully clear broth. Salt to taste with kosher salt or soy sauce.
Here’s where the fun really starts – choose your favorite ingredients to add in. First up… the essential, must have, can’t live withouts:
Now you get the chance to shine! Add your favorite ingredients to make this soup your own creation.
Boil your noodles for the recommended 2 minutes or so, about 5 ounces of fresh noodles per serving. Most people like to boil the noodles separately to keep the broth pristine and clear, but if you run out of room on your stove you can boil them in the saimin broth, it may turn cloudy but some say it improves the flavor.
Make a dipping sauce with wasabi, that green glob you see on the take-out sushi boxes, which is actually Japanese horseradish and is a volcano of fire. The paste can be found in tubes pre-made or in little cans of powder you mix with water. Combine a small amount of wasabi with soy sauce… keep adding soy until you get to your desired level of heat. Use the sauce as a dip for your meats, shrimps, wontons, and fish cakes.
Combine all your ingredients and slurp away! Welcome to the world of Noodle Soup on steroids! As they say in Hawaii: “It broke da mouth.”
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