The Green Ramen Saga by stephanie Gertsch

This cottage-like cafe across from Hayward's Chabot College hides a secret: the most authentic and most unique ramen in the Bay Area. First off: it's green. It also packs more nutrition and less grease and fat per bite than any other ramen.

The exterior of Eon Coffee

Miso ramen

The shop is famous for their healthy mulberry tea.

If you can't read the hiragana signs, you might never know ramen is even on the menu. You won't find hot ramen on the website. But I knew there was a story behind the only green ramen in the Bay Area, so I contacted Chef Morio Tateno, who agreed to let me in on the secret.

But why is it green???????

There's a reason...I promise! The noodles are infused with moroheiya--a vegetable that packs in more vitamins than broccoli, spinach, or carrots.

A chart of the comparative nutritional values in four popular vegetables. (Of course, you should eat all of them!)
“I regard moroheiya noodles as my children." --Inventor Sho Oga

The original inventor, Sho Oga, came up with the idea for moroheiya noodles when traveling in Thailand. He was moved by the poverty he saw around him and wanted to invent a food that would be cheap, easy-to-make, healthy, and delicious. Noodles are popular across Asia, but they usually aren't very healthy.

Oga bought his own farm in the Kaoyai Mountains to ensure his moroheiya crop would be raised entirely organically. Then he had to figure out how to put vegetables into noodles without ruining the chewy texture, and how to market the product in Thailand.

The noodles came to the Bay Area in a roundabout way.

There were many barriers to creating and marketing the noodles. Moroheiya was almost unknown in Thailand at the time. Oga wanted to make his noodles without using any artificial flavors or preservatives, and he wanted his instant version of Tom Yum noodle soup to be vegetarian.

Moroheiya powder is so bright, it looks artificial, even when it isn't. 

So moroheiya of varying degrees of graininess is used to give the noodles a more natural-looking texture.

Eventually a chain called MK Restaurant agreed to take his noodles on a trial basis--if a panel of ten chefs approved the product. When nine out of the ten gave thumbs up, Oga finally got his breakthrough.

In 2009, the noodles debuted in America at the Los Angeles Food Expo. The company that owns Eon Coffee bought the exclusive rights to the product--now called GreeNoodle--in America.

A dish of instant GreeNoodle

“I regard moroheiya noodles as my children," Sho Oga wrote in his essay, "A Moroheiya Noodle Story. "No matter what we should not give up on our children. I developed moroheiya noodles with such a heart and attitude.”

From Instant to Entree

Bowls of seasoning wait for orders to come in back in the kitchen of Eon Coffee.

GreeNoodle was being sold at Eon Coffee, but only in the instant version. It took another entrepreneur, Chef Morio Tateno, to turn the noodles into a savory, fresh-made dish in 2014.

"The question is, what kind of ramen noodles do you want to make?" --Morio Tateno

Before he became Eon Coffee's ramen chef, Tateno had never cooked any kind of noodle from scratch. His only experience was watching his grandma make soba noodles when he was a child. But when he learned the shop was looking for someone to develop a dish based on their instant noodles, he decided to give it a go.

Tateno first came to California on a short trip during his Sophomore year of college. After graduation, he came back for another "vacation" and has lived in the States ever since. In December 2013 he took trip to Kagawa prefecture in Japan to learn the art of making ramen noodles on a machine. The noodles first appeared in Eon Coffee in July the next year.

It took seven months to learn how to make noodles???

Not exactly. Tateno said, “Operating machines is rather simple. Ingredients are very simple. But the question is, what kind of ramen noodles do you want to make? If you start examining that part. Any ramen noodle? Any ramen?”

With each new batch of ramen, Tateno changed the ratio of flour, eggs, moroheiya, and the time spent churning and flattening the dough. He tasted the noodles, and took meticulous notes. In the end, he created his signature noodles.

The Cooking Process

Eon Coffee only serves ramen on Saturday and Sunday, and only at lunch time. But making the dish is a week-long process. Tateno is in the kitchen seven days a week, in addition to holding down a day job. 

On Monday, he measures out the ingredients. On Tuesday, he starts the broth at 6:00 AM and lets it simmer through the evening and into the next day. And one week in October, I joined him (coffee in hand) to watch how ramen is made.

Tateno uses chicken feet to add collagen for texture--rather than dumping in lard.

Tateno uses chicken torsos and pork backbones to flavor his broth.

Both ingredients go into giant drums. (Here they're being cooked separately, but usually Tateno cooks them together.)

Soon the scum appears. This is the chicken broth.

And this is the pork.

Skimming the scum is hot work! Tateno skims both drums constantly for about 45 minutes, and then checks them periodically throughout the day.

On Wednesday night, the broth is frozen until Saturday. All the fat rises to the top. But on Tateno's broth, it's a very thin layer.

Chashu! (...Is someone talking about me somewhere?)

On Thursday, Tateno makes the chashu, or pork topping. First he rolls up a huge slice of pork belly. Then he cooks the rolls with spices.

The process of making chashu: roll up a pre-bacon slab of pork belly, cook the rolls in a pot with spices, and then slice them into delicious pieces of chashu.

The chashu simmers in a combination of soy sauce, raw sugar, garlic, red chilies, tare seasoning, and the leftover liquid from last week. Each new batch has some of the old one. In fact, Tateno has been saving the liquid for over two years. So when you eat the chashu, some molecules in there may be years old...

Noodles

On Friday, Tateno mixes flour, eggs, water, moroheiya, and kansui (a Japanese salt) into his noodle dough.

Next the dough goes into the noodle machine, where is is folded and flattened twice to create the perfect fluffy texture. Then the dough rests for 90 minutes before it is cut into strips.

The noodle machine

Dough gets fed into the back

Then gets squished into a huge roll!

Next the role gets smushed into itself

Flour keeps the outside from sticking and breaking

Finally, the noodles are ready to be cut! Pieces of plastic on either side of the cutter give the noodles their wavy texture when they come out.

The noodles are wrapped in sandwich bags so they won't dry out before Saturday.

Look closely. They're noodles.

Ramen Day!

At 11:00, customers start lining up to order ramen. Service officially starts at 11:30.

Each weekend the restaurant serves two out of the three ramen flavors: miso, shio, and shouyu. Different-colored bowls are prepped with different spices. In the kitchen Tateno's assistant prepare the chashu and other toppings. Tateno heats up the noodles. Unfortunately, a long hallway separates the kitchen from the front of the shop, so the assistants have to hurry when taking orders and delivering ramen.

"Scientific" Method

In Japan, master chefs guard their secrets, and apprentices have to study for years before they can learn anything more than the simplest techniques. Tateno is very open about the ingredients and techniques he uses. He writes down the exact amounts he uses every week, leaving a record for anyone else who wants to learn how to make green ramen. Moreover, Tateno says knowing the reason behind each step helps chefs concentrate in the kitchen.

Anatomy of a Ramen Bowl

Miso ramen with wood ear mushroom, corn, egg, and chashu
Shouyu ramen with green onions, bamboo, wood ear mushroom, seaweed, and split egg (for color)

Ramen may never be a "health food," but if you use the right ingredients, it can be delicious without packing a ton of fat and grease. Innovators like Sho Oga and Morio Tateno show that with creativity you can transform a cuisine while still staying true to the tradition of the dish.

Thanks for reading!

Created By
Stephanie Gertsch
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