A Book That Causes Noodle Cravings


Photo by biskuit/Flickr CC

I tried to make ramen but ended up with something else. I blame David Chang and Peter Meehan. The writing in the Momofuku cookbook is just so good, and Chang's love for food shines through: crappy Chinese take-out, Allan Benton's pork products, oysters, the Sichuan restaurant on St. Mark's Place, and noodles, above all, noodles.

This is the first book from New York's wildly popular restaurant group, Momofuku, made up of Chang's three casual East Village eateries and tiny fine dining restaurant, Ko. I read it in one sitting and was immediately taken over by a very strong need for hot broth and noodles. It made me irrational. At about one in the morning I decided to build my own ramen simulacrum out of some measly bonito crumbs at the bottom of the bag and dry rice noodles. It wasn't bad but it wasn't ramen. The point is, this is the kind of cookbook that actually makes you want to cook.

Later in the week I was sick. It was just a cold but still, I couldn't taste much, and I couldn't breathe. I made a pot of plain rice--usually I mix in butter and salt or yogurt. I happened to have all seven ingredients for a fish sauce vinaigrette by Tien Ho, a chef de cuisine at one of the Momofuku spots, so I shook them together in an old jam jar and poured it over hot white rice. It was ridiculously good. It made me feel better.

The Momofuku empire, and Chang himself, have been in the press so often, one might think they have been written about exhaustively. But the writing here is new and fresh, even for his most fetishistic fans.

I was trying to figure out why, but then I had a packet of foreign cold medicine, fell asleep with the book on my face, and had strange dreams about giant trees in Virginia. When I woke up it was obvious: the vinaigrette is one of those special simple recipes that every cookbook should have. The one you know you'll make again, adjust to taste, and quickly commit to memory. It's an adaptation of Ho's mother's recipe for the condiment he grew up pouring over rice and meat when he was, as he puts it, dirt poor.

Every recipe here has an origin story. Shrimp and grits points to a turning point in Momofuku history, the moment Chang decided he didn't have to cook traditional Korean food--he could cook whatever the hell he wanted. Turned out he wanted to cook Anson Mill grits in ramen broth or bacon dashi, that he intuitively fused Southern food and Asian food together to make his own kind of American cuisine. It was kind of a big deal.

The Momofuku empire, and Chang himself, have been in the press so often, one might think they have been written about exhaustively. But the writing here is new and fresh, even for his most fetishistic fans.

The finer details--Chang's vivid descriptions of the kitchen Andrew Carmellini ran at Bar Boulud, Chang taking out a million dollar loan using his apartment and first restaurant as collateral, Chang's strange infatuation with a John McEnroe poster--read as brutally honest, almost poetic, and often really funny.

There are quick notes from virtual Momofuku team meetings, an original entry from the journal Chang kept on his noodle pilgrimage to Japan, and some insight into how the first couple of menus at Ko were created. Oh, and there are strippers--an early marketing strategy involves convincing Japanese girls from a Midtown strip club to come in and eat noodles.

Guests include the formidable Allan Benton, who shares his story of getting into dry curing ham and bacon in Tennessee, and wd-50's chef/owner Wylie Dufresne, who explains how he got into meat glue (transglutaminase). Dave Arnold of The French Culinary Institute (whom Chang refers to as "The Smartest Person I Know") contributes a brilliant little ode to country ham as the epitome of American cuisine.

The book's three chapters are separated in chronological order by restaurant--Noodle Bar, Ssam Bar, and Ko--and each section reads as a kind of oral history in Chang's voice followed by accompanying recipes. The more complicated recipes tend to be at the end of the book in the Ko section and though not all the Ko recipes are tricky (example: the dashi-braised daikon is just dashi and daikon) a couple, like the refined chicken ballottine that follows the meat glue manifesto, are more labor intensive.

I was a bit disappointed to find that Momofuku's desserts aren't well represented--there are only four from Ko. But I brightened at what it might mean. Maybe pastry chef Christina Tosi is working on a cookbook of her own? Composed desserts at Ko and Milk Bar's pies, cookies, and wacky ice creams--now that would be something to start getting excited about.

Gabriele Stabile, a photo journalist, has taken some bright styled dish photos, sure, but for every food porn type shot there's a grittier, more surprising one: a dark kitchen from the street, a shadowed walk-in, a blurry pair of cooks looking kind of rough at the end of their shift, Chang eating noodles, Chang eating noodles, Chang eating noodles. Warning: you'll want to read the whole book, every single recipe. And then you'll probably want to cook some noodles.

Momofuku will be released on October 23rd. To pre-order a copy, click here.