Substituting ingredients in culturally specific dishes is a tricky business. Some people are food pioneers, ready to throw in something new and risk a whole dish in the hopes of achieving terrific results. Others are recipe purists who will sooner rename your dish than accept the swap — especially when it comes to a well-known dish like ramen. If you can’t find actual ramen noodles, the purists will tell you, make other dinner plans. Well I say the purists can go kick rocks: When the need arises, you can absolutely substitute spaghetti as your “ramen” noodle with the helpful addition of baking soda.
Now, not too long ago I too would have given you a hard time for adding Italian basil or regular Thai basil to your pad kra pao, or putting bell peppers in your neua pad prik. Those aren’t the right variations! They’re not the ingredients used in Thailand! I would’ve said using spaghetti in your ramen means the dish should be called spaghetti soup. Maybe spaghetti ramen. I was a purist and with good reason; many folks who feel strongly about using the “right” ingredients are the chefs and passionate cooks from the countries and cultures from which these internationally famous dishes originated.
These “ingredient zealots” may actually be worried their culture is getting watered down and misconstrued, and the fear is understandable. But if you think about why and how most dishes cross boarders and cultures in the first place, you’ll realise ingredient substitutions are actually probably one of the most shared cultural cuisine experiences. In some cases, eating a modified dish might be the only way to feel closer to home.
There are areas where fresh produce is readily available, international supermarkets are easy to come across, “rare” ingredients are imported, and there is a variety of restaurants you can choose from if you’re looking for an authentic meal from another country. But for a lot of folks, this isn’t the case. Some communities that have limited choices or are located in food deserts with less access to a wide variety of foods. Heck, maybe going out for a $28 bowl of ramen every time you want it doesn’t fit in your budget. You can’t get the exact ingredients you need, so then what? Sit on your hands?
If my mum didn’t have time to drive 45 minutes to the nearest Asian grocery store, that’s when she would grab the bell peppers or Italian basil, or slice lemons when we were out of limes. Did we care that one ingredient was slightly different? Nope. Was it delicious? Absolutely. Was it still Thai food? Sure was. (If you want to argue with my mum, be my guest.) If you have most of the ingredients you need, some substitutions work remarkably well. In fact, for ramen, it can be almost transformative.
Why spaghetti in ramen works
While not the only ingredient, nor the most important (the dashi is where it’s at), the noodles are the prime filler and maybe the most fun part of ramen. If you can’t find fresh ramen noodles anywhere or you forgot to grab them on your last grocery run, you can effectively use regular boxed, dry spaghetti, cappellini, or angel hair pasta. Both ramen noodles and Italian pasta are made of a wheat-based flour and water, but ramen noodles include one crucial element: Kansui. This alkaline ingredient is what gives ramen its characteristic texture and golden hue. My guess is that if you couldn’t get your hands on fresh ramen noodles then you probably didn’t find kansui either, but there are two ways to achieve its effects with baking soda.
How to use baking soda to turn spaghetti into ramen
The quicker and easier hack is to add baking soda directly to your boiling pasta water. This recipe from Okomomi Kitchen gives you a straightforward recipe and method, which I love. Simply add the baking soda to your pot of boiling water to create an alkaline solution, mimicking the effect of kansui is the making of traditional ramen noodles. Add spaghetti (or capellini for a more ramen-sized noodle) and boil as directed. You’ll notice your noodles come out a bit springier and more yellow than without the baking soda.
For the more ambitious ramen lovers out there, you can make your own ramen noodles using baking soda instead of kansui. Normally the kansui would be added directly into the noodle dough, like in this recipe from Fine Cooking. If you can’t get this powerfully alkaline ingredient, you can make a substitute by baking your baking soda in a low-heat oven first. This article from the New York Times gives a fascinating and highly scientific explanation for why this works, but if you don’t have time for all, just know when you bake baking soda like this, it becomes a stronger alkaline salt than it was before — sodium carbonate, which is much closer to kansui in flavour and efficacy than plain baking soda. To try it out, use the baking method at the end of the recipe from Fine Cooking above.
The most important thing to remember is that ramen is a team sport. That is to say, it’s a whole dish, not just the noodles. If you have the makings of a quality dashi, some chashu, and all of your favourite toppings ready to go, lacking freshly hand-cut ramen noodles shouldn’t stop you from having an important meal. Is it going to be as good as the downtown ramen restaurant that sources all of the exact ingredients needed from Japan, or as good as you remember from growing up in Osaka? Maybe not. But if a small substitution can bring you closer to those flavours or memories, then it’s absolutely worth it.