Who doesn't love a bowl of ramen? A flavorful comfort food with a rich broth and chewy noodles, there is much to love about this special soup. But for vegans, it can be tough to find a satisfying version of the favorite meal that skips all the animal products. Fortunately, if you're willing to invest about an hour in the kitchen, you can make your own delicious vegan ramen from scratch. And it's well worth that hour!

Why is ramen such a thing?

Besides the fact that it's amazing? One main reason is brilliant marketing.

"Purveyors of ramen have cleverly used the media to spark trends, they have carefully considered how consuming food is as much about performance as pleasure, and they have played into the larger trend of elevating simple foods through craftsmanship," reports Fast Company. The hype includes strategies such as churning out magazines and blogs dedicated to ramen, which both report on and help spark new trends, and ensuring ramen restaurants get positive press — and a lot of it — across media platforms.

The marketing works. Restaurant after restaurant specializing in ramen has opened up across the U.S. Academic papers have been dedicated to the history of ramen in Japanese culture. Ramen is so popular, it is now the most sought-after currency in U.S. jails.

Of course, it helps that the flavorful soup is deserving of the hype.

You can get instant ramen for as little as 10 cents each. But these blocks of noodles with their packets of dried broth don't do justice to the dish. And they might kill you (eventually). High in fat, and containing as much as half the maximum amount of sodium we should consume in a day, instant ramen ultimately is a waste of money.

What is a smart investment in your time and grocery budget are the basic ingredients to make a hearty, healthier dish of ramen from scratch. Cooking it at home means you can monitor the salt and fat content, get the nutrition of fresh vegetables and customize it to your liking. Rather than slurping down a bowl of sad noodles in salty broth, you can feast on a beautiful, colorful bowl of ramen hot off the stove.

Getting umami-rich vegan broth

Umami is the fifth flavor that goes alongside sweet, salty, sour and bitter. It is often described as savory, but is sometimes also described as meaty. This is because umami flavor helps us recognize the presence of glutamate, which typically is present in protein-rich foods.

"As far back as 3,000 years ago, Greeks and Romans were carefully boosting what we now know as the umami in their foods by using a condiment made from fermented fish sauce," writes Kristin Ohlson of Experience Life. "In 1825, in his famous treatise 'The Physiology of Taste,' French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin offered the word 'osmasome' for rich, meaty tastes, and he predicted that future chemists would probably figure out what triggered it. Finally, in the 20th century, Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda hung a lasting moniker on the taste and determined its source."

It wasn't until 2000 that research proved the existence of receptors that specifically react to umami, and it was internationally recognized as the fifth flavor.

"It makes good sense that animals should have evolved the ability to taste glutamate," reported Nature Neuroscience. "As the most abundant amino acid, glutamate is present in many protein-containing foods, including meat, seafood and aged cheese. Glutamate is also used, in much smaller quantities, as a neurotransmitter in the brain, and neurons have a variety of receptors to detect its presence."

And now, we know just what that something is in ramen broth that makes it so compelling.

Vegan ramen may seem like an oxymoron to the ramen enthusiast. Ramen consists of three main parts: the broth, the noodles and the toppings. The noodles — made of wheat and alkaline salts — and the toppings are easy to make vegan-only. However, ramen broths are typically made with chicken, pork or beef bones or shellfish such as shrimp, which are boiled for long periods of time to create an umami-rich base.

That flavor base, called tare, has to be packed chock full of umami flavor to balance a bowl of ramen. When ramen relies so heavily on animal products for the critically important broth, going vegan means leaning on other ingredients to bring that fifth flavor to the table.

Luckily, you don't need animal products to get umami flavor in a dish. "Glutamate occurs naturally in some fresh foods — asparagus, potatoes, walnuts, chicken — and is formed over time in many more as proteins break down through aging or fermentation," reports Popular Science. "All those strong-flavored, highly concentrated foods, like anchovies, prosciutto, Parmesan, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, fish sauce, Marmite, blue cheese, miso: those are the ones that are packed with available glutamate."

For our recipe, we include fermented foods (soy sauce and miso paste), sea vegetables (nori) and toasted sesame seeds. Combined, they all help bring that layered savory flavor to the broth.

Vegan Ramen Soup

Servings: 4

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon sesame seeds
  • 2 tablespoons coconut oil
  • 2 cloves fresh garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup leek, quartered and thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 4 cups vegetable broth
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon miso paste
  • 2-3 sheets nori, crumbled (optional)
  • Ramen noodles of your choice
  • Tofu, extra firm
  • 1/4 cup cornstarch
  • 2 teaspoons black pepper, ground
  • 1/4 cup vegetable or grapeseed oil
  • 2-3 baby bok choy, quartered
  • 1 cup shiitake mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 carrots, shredded or thinly sliced
  • 2 scallions, chopped
  • 1-2 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds
  • 1 lime, quartered

Directions:

  1. Drain the block of tofu. Slice the block in half so it is two thin rectangles. Quarter each half, then cut the quarters into triangles. Place the triangles on a paper towel and set aside.
  2. In a large soup pot over medium-high heat, toast the sesame seeds until just lightly browned and fragrant. Add in the coconut oil and let it heat up. Add the garlic and saute until the garlic turns slightly brown, about 3 minutes. Add the leeks, ginger and red pepper flakes and saute until the leeks soften and begin to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the vegetable broth, soy sauce and miso paste. If desired, add the nori flakes. Stir until combined. Lower the heat and let simmer for 20 minutes.

    Toasting the sesame seeds in a dry pan brings out amazing flavor. Toasting the sesame seeds in a dry pan brings out amazing flavor. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)

  3. In a large pot, boil water and add the ramen noodles, cooking them according to the package instructions.
  4. Place the cornstarch on a plate. Mix in the black pepper. Coat the tofu triangles in the cornstarch so they're evenly covered. In a frying pan over high heat, heat the vegetable or grapeseed oil until a piece of tofu sizzles when dropped in. Add the tofu triangles and allow to brown on one side. Flip and brown the other side. Remove and set on a paper towel to drain the excess oil.

    It's important to dry the tofu thoroughly before coating in corn starch, so that you get a crisp and even shell. It's important to dry the tofu thoroughly before coating in corn starch, so that you get a crisp and even shell. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)

  5. In the same frying pan, add the bok choy quarters and lightly sear the quartered sides. Remove from heat.

    Searing the bok choy gives it a great texture and flavor before adding it to the dish. Searing the bok choy gives it a great texture and flavor before adding it to the dish. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)

  6. In a soup bowl, place a serving of ramen noodles in the center, then add in the tofu, bok choy, mushrooms, carrots, scallions, toasted sesame seeds and lime (and any other toppings you might want) around the noodles. Pour the desired amount of ramen broth over the top of the noodles.
  7. Serve immediately, and enjoy!

    No dish of ramen is complete without adding on lots of favorite toppings. No dish of ramen is complete without adding on lots of favorite toppings. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)

Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.