55 seconds, no more or less

Tucked away in a leafy neighbourhood and situated in a row of shophouses in Sembawang Hills housing estate is Singapore's very own ramen school.

At The Eureka Cooking Lab in Jalan Kuras, which opened last November, people can learn how to make a bowl of ramen from scratch. The curriculum includes how to make each of the components, from broth to noodle, as well as the business side of how to set up a ramen shop and streamline various kitchen processes.

Its two-day hands-on course, which costs $3,000 a person, is geared towards professionals but customised and condensed versions can also be created for groups upon request, with prices starting at $100 a person.

So far, about 80 people have attended the nine-month-old school's professional course. These include food and beverage entrepreneurs from Singapore and around the region, as well as chefs from restaurant groups keen to break into the ramen market.

The school was set up and is run by Mr Jason Lim, 40, who holds classes on the third Tuesday of every month. Each class is limited to six people and bookings need to be made about a month in advance. The school also holds one-day noodle-making classes once every two months for 10 people. The next instalment takes place next month.

Eureka's customised classes range from a two-hour introductory course that includes demonstrations and an eating session to a one-day workshop where participants have hands-on opportunities.

Last week, I had a taste of some of the ins and outs of what goes on in a ramen kitchen. Pots of chicken and pork stocks for the tonkotsu broth have to be skimmed of impurities and topped up constantly. The broth is made with a mix of chicken stock, pork bones and pig trotters, and simmered for about five hours until the soft bone dissolves.

The stock is later measured with a refractometer that, in simple terms, measures the incoming level of light and hence the density of the soup.

Students also learn to tie a slippery and fatty piece of pork belly into a tight roulade secured with cotton twine to make the charsiu topping for ramen.

Other steps taught in the course include how to make that perfect ajitsuke tamago, a speciality ramen egg with a cooked white and a gooey egg-yolk centre, as well as how to cook the noodles - 55 seconds and not a second longer for the thin, hand-made Hakata-style noodles, which must be dunked in rapidly boiling distilled water.

In fact, everything except the egg is cooked or made with distilled water, and this includes the braising liquid for the charsiu and the soup stocks. Using distilled water, Mr Lim says, optimises flavour and cooking time because there are no minerals in the water to interfere with the cooking process.

When it comes to serving ramen, noodles should be lowered into hot soup and not the other way around. This is to ensure that some of the flavoured oils - from leek oil to garlic oil which are added to individual bowls of soup - coat the noodle strands evenly.

Mr Lim, who is also a distributor of a brand of ramen noodle-making machine, says his ramen school came about as an extension of his original business, the eight-year-old ramen restaurant Men-tei in Robinson Road. He had set it up with his wife, who is an office manager. The shop is now run by his father, Mr Lim Pee Cheng, 68.

He was asked to franchise his ramen shop, but instead of doing that, he acted as a restaurant consultant and helped a local company set up its own ramen brand.

The former IT professional, who ran a web-design company which has since been sold, worked in his father's electronics company. He was first exposed to the mechanical side of the ramen industry in the mid-noughties when he often travelled to Japan for work.

It was there that he was introduced to an employee of Japanese noodle machinery company Yamato, which runs the Yamato Ramen School in Tokyo and Kagawa.

He says: "I saw potential in the food and beverage industry and it seemed like a lucrative business. Plus, it looked fun."

He wanted to start a food outlet that would not be reliant on chefs and their know-how. So he decided to go into a business where precision, proportions and science also played a part.

He saw a gap in the ramen market and noticed the rising popularity of the noodle dish in Singapore, which he judged by the snaking queue outside Miharu at Gallery Hotel, one of Singapore's first boutique ramen eateries. At the time, the market had only a few players, which included Ajisen, he says.

He attended the course in Kagawa in 2006, alongside other attendees such as cookbook author and chef Ivan Orkin, a New Yorker who went on to open two successful Ivan Ramen shops in Tokyo and two in New York.

These days, there is a six- to seven-month wait to attend a seven-day course at the Japanese ramen school, Mr Lim says. It costs about $7,000 to $8,000 a person, excluding the cost of an interpreter, which costs another $8,000 or so. He attended the course again last year to keep abreast of new cooking methods and recipes.

For instance, while traditionally, the charsiu is boiled in water, then braised in a soya sauce-based liquid, the Japanese school now also recommends slow-roasting it in an oven at 60 deg C, he says. However, he has, over the years, perfected his own method which involves the use of a sous vide machine.

The popularity of ramen here, he adds, can be attributed to the fact that noodles need no introduction - it is something familiar to most Singapore diners.

Increased awareness of ramen has also come about with the myriad instant noodle brands and presence of large ramen chains such as Ajisen, which has 20 outlets islandwide, and Menya Musashi, which has nine.

It is no wonder that ramen eaters are keen to learn more about it.

Last week, UOB-SMU Asian Enterprise Institute, a partnership between United Overseas Bank and Singapore Management University which offers business consultancy services to local enterprises, held its annual team- bonding session at The Eureka Cooking Lab.

Its director and senior lecturer of finance at the university, Mr Ang Ser-Kang, 48, says: "There is a lot of chemistry behind ramen and you realise how scientific preparing it can be."

Indonesian entrepreneur Erwin Wijaya, 35, who owns year-old Hanashobu Japanese Noodle Bar in Surabaya, took Eureka's professional course and the noodle course earlier this year.

He says: "Jason knows his ramen well, everything from production to the overall management of a restaurant kitchen. Rather than going all the way to Japan, I went to Jason because of his links to the Yamato Ramen School. I attended the courses with the aim of fine-tuning my restaurant's processes and gaining new ideas. It's important to have someone like Jason help you apply the know-how."


Follow Rebecca Lynne Tan on Twitter @STrebeccatan

This article was first published on Aug 17, 2014.
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