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Recipe: Vegan ramen maximizes flavor, time

With most ramen, the work that’s put into the broth is what makes all the difference. A broth made with pork, chicken or seafood can be cooked for up to three days, resulting in an intense, velvety soup that sings with complex, multilayered flavors.

So it may feel unfair to stack a quick-cooked vegan broth up against a meaty one that has been toiled over for hours. But the creamy, meatless broth behind tantanmen stands up formidably to the challenge, coming together in little time without sacrificing flavor or body.

Tantanmen, which finds its origins in Sichuan dan dan noodles, derives its power not from a labored broth, but from a mildly sweet soy milk base combined with flavorful seasonings, which the Japanese call tare. Buttery Chinese or Japanese sesame paste, which has a richer and more robust finish than tahini, is paired with soy sauce, rice vinegar, chile oil and sugar to impart earthiness to the broth.

As is often the case in food, the best dishes are defined by balance. Tantanmen is no exception, getting its roundedness from kombu, or dried kelp. While optional, kombu softens sharp flavors and quietly amplifies other ingredients. Simply add a piece to vegetable stock and, in less than 10 minutes of simmering, it will taste more savory, slightly sweeter and more full bodied.

The options for toppings are many and varied, but it’s always a good idea to add some protein. Tantanmen is normally made with pork or chicken, but this vegan version relies on hearty, satisfying tofu and doesn’t compromise taste or heft. The simple method used here calls for pan-frying thick slices of seasoned tofu, which can also be used in salads (simply cut the slices into triangles or strips), tacos, veggie burgers, or served with brown rice and a peanut sauce.

Corn provides a sweet counterbalance to the deeply savory broth, while shiitake mushrooms absorb and intensify the broth’s flavor.

Once your broth and noodles are in the bowl, don’t hang around. This dish is best eaten with a sense of urgency: Give yourself five minutes to slurp it all up to avoid the utter joylessness of soggy noodles.

VEGAN TANTANMEN WITH PAN-FRIED TOFU

  • Kosher salt, for boiling noodles
  • 12 ounces dried ramen noodles
  • 1/2 cup Chinese or Japanese sesame paste, or tahini
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons sesame oil
  • 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 tablespoons chile oil, plus more for serving
  • 1 cup frozen corn, defrosted and drained
  • 4 scallions, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon roasted sesame seeds
  • >> Tofu and mushrooms:
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 1 (12-ounce) package extra-firm tofu, drained and sliced crosswise, 1/4-inch thick
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
  • 1/8 teaspoon pepper, plus more to taste
  • 8 large fresh shiitake mushrooms (about 8 ounces), trimmed and thinly sliced
  • >> Broth:
  • 4 cups vegetable stock
  • 1 (5-by-6-inch) piece dried kombu (about 1/2 ounce), optional
  • 2 cups soy or oat milk, at room temperature

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add noodles and cook until al dente. Drain and run under cold water until noodles are cold. (This stops them from cooking further.) Set aside to drain.

Make tofu and mushrooms: Heat a large skillet over medium-high. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil and arrange the tofu slices in a single layer (work in batches if necessary). Season tofu with salt and pepper. Reduce heat to medium; cook tofu 3 to 4 minutes, until golden. Flip; cook until golden on other side, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove to a plate.

To same pan, add 1 tablespoon olive oil and mushrooms. Season with salt and pepper. Pan-fry until tender and slightly golden, about 6 minutes.

Prepare broth: Pour vegetable stock into a large pot and add kombu, if using. Bring to gentle simmer and cook over medium heat, about 7 minutes.

Remove kombu; turn off heat. Let sit 2 minutes, then gradually whisk in milk, a little at a time, so it doesn’t curdle. Reheat broth over medium to a simmer.

In a medium bowl, combine sesame paste, soy sauce, sesame oil, rice vinegar, sugar and chile oil. Divide mixture across 4 deep bowls.

Pour hot broth over sesame base, dividing it evenly among bowls. Whisk to combine.

Divide noodles across bowls; top each with a few slices of tofu, mushrooms, corn, scallions, sesame seeds and an extra drop of chile oil. Serves 4.

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