I hustled into Shalom Japan in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on a stormy Friday night. It was dimly lit inside and had all the ambience of a casual Japanese ramen joint. Inside the bathroom, there was an enlarged photo of a Levy's Jewish Rye ad from the '60s, which read "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's real Jewish Rye" in large black letters, with a picture of a Japanese boy dressed in a white shirt and red tie holding his sandwich next to an open bag of Levy's Jewish Rye.
There was only a handful of tables. I grabbed a seat at the bar with an open view of the kitchen to my right. A native New Yorker I had met in Berlin happened to be in town at the same time and joined me. I saw chefs Aaron Israel and Sawako Okochi busy at work and turned my attention to the menu, giving it a cursory glance. But we both already knew we were getting the matzo ball ramen soup. How could we not?
Matzo ball ramen soup: It sounds like forced fusion, doesn't it? But it actually makes sense. Matzo balls are chameleons of the soup world. They can just plop into a bowl without crashing the party. Chefs and husband-wife duo Aaron Israel and Sawako Okochi combine their Ashkenazi Jewish and Japanese backgrounds for a warm, brothy bowl that just makes sense.
Historical Jewish cooking mirrors the well-known story of persecution. Jews made similar dishes as their neighbors, with religious Jews adapting recipes to make them kosher. When they'd get kicked out of town by some new royal decree, they'd take their recipes, settle someplace else, and start blending their food with that of their new neighbors.
But what's happening at Shalom Japan is something different. The matzo ball ramen wasn't birthed out of persecution, but out of love. We can increasingly see this across the Jewish culinary world. In many ways, Jewish food is evolving on its own terms for the first time in history, and dishes like Shalom Japan's matzo ball ramen are a celebration of that freedom.
Shalom Japan uses a chicken broth with char siu chicken, scallions, and nori as its base for the soup. For a little extra, you can get a soy-marinated egg, foie gras dumplings, or an additional matzo ball. Though basically a vegetarian in my own kitchen, I tend to indulge in unique experiences when I travel. So I decided to go for the foie gras dumplings, and the soy-marinated egg was already a no-brainer.
After a few slurpy noodles from the steamy bowl of ramen, one of the waiters stopped by and asked how we liked the matzo ball ramen and if we'd ever had it before.
"I've had ramen and matzo ball soup before," I nodded. "But not together."
"For someone who isn't Japanese or Jewish, it just makes sense to me," he said, clearly smiling behind his mask.
Back in Berlin, I took a crack at my own matzo ball ramen, and it came together nicely. There was the earthiness of the veggie broth, with carrots, celery, turnips, parsley, onions, and dill: just some of the building blocks of so-called Jewish penicillin. I added corn and chopped scallions, following the lead of Shalom Japan. With the noodles I started the shift to Japan, as they were different from the wider egg noodles more typical of Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine. Then I went full ramen with the soy-marinated, soft-boiled egg halved and left on top, with the egg yolk still oozing out.
Shalom Japan throws some garlicky chile oil on top, so feel free to use your favorite brand or make your own. Drizzling some of the soy marinade over the dish, with its chile pepper flakes, also helps bring it all together. (Oh, and I slid a small sheet of nori on the side just to be fancy-ish, I guess.)
Ultimately, one of the best things about this dish is that you can easily make it your own, to tell your own story. Use your own cherished broth and matzo ball recipe. Try skipping back-and-forth between Ashkenazi Jewish and Japanese staples, like dill or miso. Bring it out to break your Yom Kippur fast, to serve with Passover leftovers, or just to make a boring Saturday night feel special.
Recipe: Matzo Ball Ramen
Prep time: 2 hours
Cook time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Serves: 6 to 8
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 3 large onions, quartered
- 6 to 8 garlic cloves, chopped
- 3 carrots, cut into large chunks
- 3 celery stalks, cut into large chunks
- 1 large parsnip, peeled and cut into large chunks
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon onion powder
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1/2 bunch fresh dill
- 1/2 bunch fresh flat-leaf parsley
- 3 dried bay leaves
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
Eggs, matzo balls, and assembly
- 5 large eggs
- 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon mirin (sweet Japanese rice wine)
- 2 teaspoons rice vinegar
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 cup (125 grams) matzo meal
- 1/4 cup melted unsalted butter or schmaltz
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh dill, plus more for serving
- 1/3 cup seltzer water
- Kosher salt
- 300 to 400 grams dried ramen
- Toppings, such as corn, scallions, nori, menma, bean sprouts, pickled ginger, spinach, mushrooms, narutomaki, and/or garlic-chile oil
- In a large pot over medium heat, heat the oil. Cook the onions and garlic, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes, until softened and slightly browned.
- Add the carrots, celery, and parsnip (you're going to reuse them later and chop them into bite-size portions, so make sure the chunks are large enough that they're easy to pull out of the broth later on). Add the garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, and turmeric. Tie the dill and parsley together with kitchen twine and add to the pot along with the bay leaves. Add 12 cups of water. Increase the heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium, partially cover the pot, and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 60 to 90 minutes, until the liquid has reduced by about one-third.
- When the broth is ready, transfer the celery, carrots, and parsnip to a cutting board. Strain the broth through a fine-mesh sieve into a large bowl; discard the solids. Wipe out the pot. Return the broth to the pot; season with salt and pepper.
- Chop the carrots, parsnip, and celery into bite-size pieces and return to the pot. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
- Do Ahead: The broth can be made up to 1 week ahead. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
Eggs, matzo balls, and assembly
- Marinate the eggs: Bring a small pot of water to a gentle bowl over medium-high heat. Lower 2 eggs into the pot and cook for 7 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the eggs to a bowl of ice water and let cool for 2 minutes (you can also immediately run them under cold water). Peel the eggs.
- Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, bring the garlic, soy sauce, mirin, vinegar, red pepper flakes, paprika, and 2/3 cup of water to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 5 minutes.
- Transfer the marinade to a heatproof bowl. Add the eggs and let marinate for at least 1 hour. You can also cover the bowl and store in the refrigerator for later use.
- Do Ahead: The eggs can be marinated up to 2 days ahead. Keep chilled.
- Make the matzo balls: In a medium bowl, mix the matzo meal, butter, dill, and remaining 3 eggs until smooth. Slowly drizzle in the seltzer water and continue to mix until incorporated. The mixture should look like a batter. Cover and refrigerate for about 1 hour, until chilled.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Wet your hands and scoop out some of the chilled matzo ball mixture. Roll to the size of about a golf ball until smooth. Wet your hands quickly each time to stop the mixture from sticking to your hands. Using a slotted spoon, carefully lower the balls into the boiling water. (This recipe makes 7 or 8 matzo balls, and my large pot could fit them all.) Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for about 1 hour, until cooked through and fluffy.
- Remove the pot from the heat and keep covered. Let the matzo balls rest for another 10 minutes.
- Assemble: If you're making this all at once, bring another large pot of water to a boil. Cook the ramen according to the package directions, then drain.
- Take about a cup or a ladle's worth of the salted matzo ball water, pour into the broth, and stir to combine. Fill a serving bowl with the broth, making sure to scoop in a good mix of veggies. Add one of the matzo balls and a handful of ramen.
- At this point, you can be creative with the toppings or keep it simple. I included some corn, sliced scallions, and a small sheet of nori to mirror what I remember from Shalom Japan. Cut the soy-marinated eggs in half and place on top. Sprinkle with chopped dill, season with salt, and drizzle with some garlic-chile oil or the spicy soy marinade.