Instant or gourmet? Tokyo or Cup O’ Noodles? Vegan or chicken?
Ramen has taken over the world. Where did this yummy dish come from?
Basically, ramen is noodles and broth. According to Stastista the World loves “Oodles of Noodles” to the tune of over 106 billion servings a year.
That’s quite a mouthful.
It all began in . . . China?
Take a walk down Ramen Street, a subterranean mall nestled beneath Tokyo Train Station. You’ll find some of Japan’s most famous ramen shops. “It was astounding,” Michael Russell reported in The Oregonian. “While ramen has roots in China . . . the Japanese have tweaked and formalized this dish so much it’s now distinctly Japanese.”
The Chinese love noodles. Many Chinese immigrants settled in the Japanese port city of Yokahama in the late 1800s, bringing along their favorite foods. One was lamian, soft wheat flour noodles made by twisting, stretching, and folding dough into strands, dating back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
Japan was a rice-based culture; wheat noodles were very different.
The Japanese called lamian, “Chinese Noodles” or shina soba. Eventually they swapped the “L” sound for “R” in lamian, creating the new name, ramen.
By 1900, Chinese restaurants in Yokahama served what Wikipedia described as “a single dish of noodles, a few toppings, and a broth.” Portable food stalls sold ramen on the streets. It came at the right time – Japan’s growing working-class needed cheap, filling food. Ramen was ideal.
Things changed during World War II. Japan faced food shortages and rationing, forcing the government to outlaw street food vendors.
Post-war Japanese food distribution was inadequate. To get ramen people had to go to the black market controlled by Yakuza – a 300-year old organized criminal network (that still exists today). The mobsters extorted black-market ramen vendors. Thousands were arrested.
Imagine being jailed for selling noodles?
The U.S. flooded Japan with cheap wheat, promoting baking and eating bread. Most Japanese didn’t have ovens and preferred noodles. Food shortages persisted.
In 1958 Momofuku Ando changed everything.
Momofuku Ando, a businessman and inventor, was born in Taiwan and later became a Japanese citizen. Ando was walking through postwar ruins in Osaka when he noticed long lines of people, shivering in the cold, waiting for a bowl of ramen. Ando was inspired.
Working in his backyard shed, he created a healthy, filling, inexpensive dish. It took months of experimenting. Eventually, Ando developed something that years later would be considered “the greatest Japanese invention of the twentieth century.”
Ando invented the process of dehydrating then “flash frying” noodles. They lasted longer and rehydrated faster. He added chicken soup, later explaining in Mental Floss, “By using chicken soup, instant ramen managed to circumvent religious taboos when it was introduced in different countries.”
Momofuku Ando’s company was Nissin Foods; the product was Top Ramen; and it sparked a global revolution.
In 1966, Ando travelled to the U.S. He discovered that people ate forkfuls of noodles from cups, rather than with bowls and chopsticks. He believed that Americans ate their noodles that way because they didn’t have large enough bowls for ramen.
A few years later Nissin opened a California plant that manufactured ramen. By 1973, Cup O’ Noodles hit the stores. It was an instant hit.
“Peace,” Momofuku Ando said, “will come to the world when people have enough to eat.”
Today you can get Chasu Ramen in India and Hakata Ramen in the U.K. Head over to Israel for Kosher Ramen. Basic ramen ranges from Shoyu (soy flavored) to Ramyeon (Korean Instant). You can get it fresh, instant, from a restaurant, or make your own. Toppings include the classic green onions and eggs to anything a creative chef designs. There are also gluten-free, vegan, and low-carb versions. Try it from the supermarket or fresh at one of David Chang’s famous (and delicious) Momofuku Noodle Bars.
Students eat instant ramen in dorm rooms, families use it for quick snacks or lunch, workers choose ramen instead of brown bagging. There’s a Ramen Museum in Yokohama and a National Ramen Noodle Day in the U.S. The largest bowl, according to Guinness World Records, was a 9,197-pound serving made in Indonesia. The most expensive is a $400 bowl made at Gumshara in Sydney, Australia, served with a whole lobster and a sprinkle of golden nori.