For home ramen chefs at any level, Let's Make Ramen! is the ultimate field guide
The scope of ramen fandom is vast — and it has only gotten more so within the last decade. While I've made it the goal of Ramentality to get inside the hearts and minds of those who self identify as being ramen obsessed (familiarity with a unit of measurement called brix is a good test), there is plenty of room for the casual enthusiast who seeks to recreate a bowl from their favorite shop. To be sure, creating a quality bowl of ramen is no simple task. But the good news is that a welcoming journey lies ahead — one that doesn’t involve spending an entire afternoon dutifully skimming broth and scrubbing the crevices of every single pork bone. It's with exactly this philosophy that Sarah Becan and Hugh Amano have teamed up to bring Let's Make Ramen! into the world.
In embracing its mission of making ramen accessible for all, Let's Make Ramen! is written as a very inviting comic-slash-cookbook. The two even appear as illustrated characters guiding readers through the process of making ramen. Amano penned the content of the book's pages while Becan's whimsical illustrations bring the adventure to life. Sprinkled throughout its chapters are cameos from notable figures from the ramen world including Ivan Orkin, Ramen Adventure's Brian MacDuckston, and Mike Satinover (AKA @ramenover or ramen_lord on Reddit).
(The following interview has been edited for clarity and length)
JL: You both previously worked on The Adventures of Fat Rice. Can you share a little about how you two met before that?
HA: So, I helped open Fat Rice. Sarah came in during our first week and sat at the bar and ate the Portuguese chicken. She went home and drew what she had eaten and sent it to us. At the time at Fat Rice, we didn’t have any visual presence so as soon as Sarah sent that to us we were just like “Boom. Yes, this is it. Let’s get her.”
SB: I had this webcomic that was all about food. So I posted a drawing of what we ate at Fat Rice as part of it because it was this amazing dish with like, fifteen different things going on!
JL: Transitioning to Let’s Make Ramen! How did this project come about?
SB: It’s Ten Speed Press, the same publisher as The Adventures of Fat Rice. They were looking to get more into graphic novel cookbooks. The literary agent who helped put it together called me and asked, “Do you want to draw a book about ramen?” And I was like “Yes, absolutely. I love ramen.” And we actually talked to a couple of different chefs before we ended up with Hugh, but we probably should have thought of you in the first place because of how well we worked together on Fat Rice.
HA: It was awesome because my dad is Japanese and I spent a lot of time in Japan so ramen has always been a huge part of my life. As we talked about it together though, one of my concerns was, “Oh, I’m a chef but I’m not a big-name chef. Like people aren’t going to buy this book because it’s Hugh Amano!” But that helped develop the idea because the whole point is to make it more accessible for the home cook. I think that takes away some of the intimidation factor. Part of our job as chefs is to convince you that you can’t make this at home. But [Let’s Make Ramen!] is anti-that.
JL: Hugh, you mentioned you thought no one was going to read the book due to lack of name recognition. What other kinds of concerns did you both have starting this project?
HA: For me, it’s always about credibility. Especially these days because you’re so public. And I always worry about things getting changed in the editing stage that will take some of the mojo away from the book. But what reassured me was: A) confidence in the project, and what Sarah and I were producing. B) Ten Speed gave us a whole lot of freedom to do what we wanted.
SB: I think that actually made for a stronger product. I think if it had been a well-known chef with a well-known shop, there would have been a temptation to tie the book to the shop and make it a marketing product. We focused entirely on just making the recipes as approachable as possible for the home cook instead of being like "This is how we do it at X restaurant."
HA: Absolutely. We also have four guest stars in the book each with two-page spreads: Brian MacDuckston of Ramen Adventures, Kenshiro Uki of Sun Noodles, Ivan Orkin, and Mike Satinover here in Chicago. They give it this pro angle of here are people that actually live it.
JL: How did these different cameos come about?
HA: From the start, it was an idea to bring certain people in. We put together a list and just started reaching out. I almost fell out of my chair when Ivan Orkin called me back. He left a message like, “Ivan Orkin here, just returning your call…” I was like “Okay. This is awesome.”
SB: It worked out perfectly. Like we didn’t get two guys who were crazy about noodles. We got a nice balance across all of the ramen experience.
JL: What did the research portion of the project look like?
HA: This was my favorite quote and I’ll always quote this. It’s Sarah saying to me at the beginning, “This does not have to be a treatise on ramen.” It really helped. There was a lot of getting every book on ramen I didn’t already have. There was a two and a half week trip where I was in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kofu just eating a lot of ramen. My noodle recipe is very much influenced by a guy I made soba noodles with in Kofu. This dude was like Yoda with noodles. It’s super simple but it was all hand technique. I grew up in Colorado so I can get hippie about stuff. There’s a lot of mojo that you put into something when you make it by hand. It helped convey the message of sticking with it until it’s right.
JL: Sarah, what did your research and creative process look like?
SB: I definitely ate a lot of ramen myself. I’ve never lived in Colorado but this is where I get hippie about stuff: when I draw food, I think less about what the food looks like and more about visually representing what it tastes like. So rather than trying to get an egg with goopy yolk to look as realistic as possible, I wanted to color bomb that yolk. I put all sorts of white highlights on it until it really evokes for the person looking at it, what it feels like to bite into that ajitsuke tamago. What I’m trying to do is convey the experience rather than the visuals.
JL: Was there one particular food item that was hard to convey through illustration?
SB: It might be the broth because it is a field of color. I spent a lot of time trying to get the tone right between miso, shoyu, and shio. I ended up mixing giant batches of watercolor for each one so it’d stay relatively consistent throughout the book!
JL: Can you describe your process of working together?
HA: Sarah and I have a great working relationship. We speak the same language and there’s a lot of back and forth. She’s really good at capturing what’s in my head. Like when I write a recipe Sarah comes back with sketches like, scary quick and it’s always spot on. We went back and forth with fun things like, “How do we show the onsen eggs?” And we were like, “Let’s do snow monkeys in the hot tub making onsen eggs!” That’s what gives the book its best mojo is when ideas are able to develop like that. I one million percent give credit to Sarah. She comes up with these ideas and then it’s a back and forth.
SB: You absolutely get equal credit on that! The book worked well because the lines of communication were always open and it was a conversation. Especially since I don’t have a professional background in cooking. There’s a lot that isn’t innate knowledge on my part. Hugh was super good at explaining things anytime I had questions.
JL: What were the biggest challenges in writing this book?
HA: For me, it’s getting everything into a workable amount, size wise. Because with ramen, you make so much broth. It’s getting things scaled down to four servings from 400. The other challenging part is the editing phase. You feel like you’re just getting kicked in the crotch for like a month. It's a very humbling experience.
SB: So Hugh would send me these recipes and I’d map it out like, “This will fit on about two pages. Or this will fit on two pages.” Then I’d do one page and the next page. Suddenly, I realized I had to think about them in terms of spreads and how spreads would look like across from each other. Or how it’d look if they were split across the gutter on a front-back page. I had to also think of this entire book as its own object, a whole object. It was unusual too in terms of cookbook editing. Normally they have someone in charge of layout but that ended up being my job because it’s art instead of copying photos.
JL: What’s one thing you both made sure the project needed to get right. Or the most important thing that could not have been left out of this project?
SB: Early in the book we have a section called The Master Ramen Bowl, which has suggestions about how to mix and match broths and accompaniments, how to set up your kitchen and time all the separate pieces for serving, and how to layer all the ingredients in your final ramen bowl. It was really important for me to get that right, because it felt like a focal point for every other recipe that we have in the book.
HA: What’s always important to me is to get the background, history, cultural fit into as many recipes as we can so people understand where it’s coming from. In each recipe, we have little notes that give specific information to engage people more. So it’s more than just “here’s a recipe, go make it.”
JL: Any funny anecdotes of working together on this book?
SB: I’ve gotten pretty good at drawing food but I’m not very good at drawing people. I’m very comfortable drawing pictures of myself but it took me a long time to settle on a good drawing of Hugh. I remember asking for pictures of yourself but you only had like six or seven.
HA: That was a good icebreaker because it helped me learn how to talk to Sarah. Because you couldn’t be like, “Hey make me more handsome!” And in the beginning, some drawings I was like “Well OK. Maybe that’s what I look like. Let’s go with it.” But once we got into it and I was able to talk to her more freely it became more about making a cartoon Hugh, not a real Hugh. And I think as I appear, I love it.
JL: What do you hope people take away from the book?
HA: I want people to enjoy this for what it is. It’s a sensual book, meaning you use your senses and there’s a lot to take in. This can be a coffee table book but I really want people to use it.
SB: I want people to realize you don’t have to be a professional chef. This is something that a normal human can make in a normal human kitchen.
JL: Favorite ramen spots?
HA: In Chicago, High-Five Ramen because it has a true ramen-ya feel. And then a place called Hanadeya in Kofu. It’s everything a shop should be. Also Nagi in Golden Gai in Tokyo. It’s straight neboshi and negi. So fishy and onion-y.
SB: My favorite in Chicago is Wasabi. They have a spicy roasted garlic miso and it’s still my favorite. And I loved the ramen museum [in Yokohama] so much. I also had an incredible bowl in Vancouver at Marutama.
JL: What’s next for both of you?
HA: We have some ideas in the works that we’re trying to figure out.
SB: I think it'll definitely be another comic book cookbook.
JL: Any ideas on the focus or TBD?
HA: Definitely ideas but I don't know if we can talk about them. Whatever it is it'll be delicious.