Flavor is work. Flavor is time. Flavor is a perfect blend of "ingredients." Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. This is as true for a homegrown tomato as it is for a rack of ribs or a complicated dish in French cuisine. People are often amazed by real flavor because they sense its complexity, even if they can't articulate it, and because they don't exactly know where it came from or how to do it.
Flavor shortcuts, on the other hand, tend to be artificial and noticeable, but most of us don't notice because modern society teaches us that, contrary to what I've just asserted, flavor is not worth the time. We do not blink at eating a quick-rise or even a frozen pizza crust, even though we know that occasionally we splurge for that restaurant pizza whose crust is made with a special flour, pure ingredients, and an overnight (or longer) rise in the refrigerator. Yeah, the institutional crust is good enough, especially if we overwhelm our taste buds with enough toppings.
A helpful way to think about flavor is this: flavor has layers. But not like a "loaded" pizza. It's hard to conceptualize that when you are staring into a vat of liquid, because those layers aren't vertical like that old Jello product that would separate into three different layers after it went into the refrigerator to firm up.
No, flavor has layers in the same way that a relationship has layers. A marriage, for example, will likely have layers of trust, commitment, sexuality, friendship, child-rearing, shared history, and any number of things. The layers create depth, in the same way that flavor layers do.
The reason that this is on my mind is because, for only the second time in my life, I have made the Momofuku ramen broth to serve to others. And most people, when they taste it, when they put sprouts and chicken and poached egg and scallions and nori and then ladle the broth over that, then it is the smell and flavor of the broth that carries them away. It happens to me, too, not only when I go back and make myself a second bowl, when I add each layer along the way.
So, courtesy of chef David Chang, here is how depth of flavor is created:
First, in many quarts of plain what, you simmer several pieces of dried kombu seaweed and then let it steep.
Then you add dried shitake mushrooms and do the same thing--let the hot liquid plump them up and infuse the water with their earthy essence.
So, two layers, and already you have the sea and the earth in your pot.
Next goes in several pounds of chicken and, especially, chicken bones, the first animal presence in the broth. I use chicken legs because they have a lot of bones by weight, and their dark meat holds its flavor when I take it out after an hour-long simmer.
The next two ingredients are the most challenging, one because it is unwanted and the other because it is so prized. To find pork neckbones in a city, you have to find a grocery store with a strong African-American presence, because that particular part of the pig is yet another discarded portion that their culture has worked magic with.
The other ingredient is Benton's bacon, a most-desirable item that menus across America like to show off for its outrageous smokiness (um, and depth of flavor). So pig, two ways, is ready to go in, but first those neckbones need to be roasted. Why? Because roasting concentrates flavor.
So the pound of bacon simmers for an hour (which sucks all of the flavor out), but not until the pork has roasted for an hour and can join it. Time. Work.
The pork simmers in the broth for 5-6 hours, the longest of any ingredient, and then for the last 45 minutes, it is joined by an onion, a bunch of scallions, and a carrot or two. Vegetables have joined the party.
At this point, with all of the solids removed, you have a rich, meaty, smoky broth tempered by the sweetness of onions and carrots and the land-and-sea funk of mushrooms and seaweed underneath.
So the broth is finished, but it is not seasoned. For Chang, that seasoning alone is a chance to add multiple additional layers of flavor. He seasons his broth with tare.
Tare is a simmered concoction of its own--roasted chicken bones, soy sauce, mirin (sweetened Japanese wine), and saki. I use chicken wings, which, when roasted, then simmered as part of the tare, become the more tender and flavorful wings I've ever tasted, outrageously sweet and salty at the same time, but not so much that you don't keep reaching for another one and another...As for the actual tare broth, you add it by the tablespoonful to your ramen broth until it tastes the way you want it to.
I fully realize that this is more than you ever wanted to know, even those few of you who are still reading. But I just wanted to show how flavor builds. You'd have to say there are at least 7-8 layers you can taste in what started as plain water. And yes, all of the flavor groups are there--sweet, salty, a bit of sourness from the wine, the tinge of bitterness from roasted meats, and, finally, the all-important unami, the fifth flavor.
Next time you taste something that is flavorful beyond compare and you wonder how it happened, think of this broth. Here's how.