There are few experiences as fulfilling and delicious as finding that perfect bowl of ramen soup on that, particularly good ramen bar on a rainy day. Or a sunny day. Or cloudy. Ramen is good in any weather, honestly…
For those whose experiences with ramen are restricted to pouring hot water on a plastic cup or spending three minutes hungrily waiting for instant noodles to be done, there is a whole world of taste and food history that you’re missing out on, that has its roots deeply embedded in Japan and the Asian continent.
Noodle and noodle soup dishes are very common and varied across the entire Asian continent and have been for millennia, largely popularized in China and spreading to other countries in the continent. In 2005, a 4,000 years old noodle was found preserved in an archeological site in China, one of the earliest examples of noodles in history.
What we know as ramen today is a popular food in Japan that seems to be an adaptation from lamiàn, Chinese wheat noodles (拉麵, “pulled noodles”). It’s unclear when exactly the dish crossed over to Japan but mentions date back to the 1500s. One story goes that Chinese scholar Zhu Sunshui introduced the dish to daimyo Tokugawa Mitsukuni, but that’s a widely disparaged version accused of being a romanticized myth.
Most likely, Chinese lamiàn was introduced to Japan by Chinese immigrant workers in the late 19th century, and later by Japanese soldiers in the 20th century, when Japan was involved in both the Second World War and the Second Sino-Japanese War. After Japan’s surrender to Allied forces in World War II, Japan was also occupied by American soldiers till 1952, which brought cheaper wheat flour to a Japan facing the blowback of war and its worst rice harvest in decades, aiding in ramen’s popularization in the country.
The popularity of ramen continued to grow well into the mid-1900s, and after post-war restrictions on food vendors in Japan started to loosen in the 1950s, different regional variations of ramen became widespread and ramen stands became more and more common.
The instant noodle boom
Ramen’s specific global popularity can be largely credited to one particular version of it: pre-cooked, instant noodle packets. This was developed in 1958 by Momofuku Ando, who would go on to found Nissin Làmen. Cooked in under 5 minutes, filling and extremely cheap, instant ramen quickly became a favorite meal option in Japan, then Asia, then the whole world.
Though instant noodles won the world, their nutritious and culinary qualities do not measure up to a true, made-from-scratch bowl of Japanese ramen (We’re so lucky ramen shops spread around the world alongside instant noodles).
The ramen anatomy
Ramen consists of ramen noodles, soup broth, broth flavor, and toppings.
Ramen noodles are hand-pulled (or machine pulled) noodles, made out of water, wheat flour, salt, and Kansai (alkaline mineral water).
Ramen noodles can be large, thick, and straight or thin, and wrinkly; instant noodles are usually the latter.
The base of ramen is its soup broth, which can be a flavorful meat stock, traditionally chicken or pork though modern vegetable stock versions exist. Common ramen broth ingredients are chicken or pork bones and fat, niboshi (dried sardines), dried anchovies, onions, kelp, dried shiitake mushrooms, and katsuobushi (dried tuna flakes).
Two main broths widely utilized are Torigara, - Tokyo-style, made of chicken bones and salt, often paired with shoyu or miso, - and Tonkotsu (not Tonkatsu, which is fried pork cutlet), a Kyushu style broth made with boiled pork bones and fat. Tonkotsu can vary widely in thickness, sometimes reaching cream sauce consistency, but it has a very hearty and milky nature.
There are a number of different ramen flavors, some traditional to specific parts of Japan.
There is shio ramen, one of the most traditional flavors, a light and salty broth made of chicken, vegetables, and seaweed.
Shoyu ramen, which is the most common ramen all around, is flavored with shoyu (soy sauce), usually paired with tarigara broth. Shoyu ramen is salty and tangy but still light and clear.
Miso ramen, popularized in the 1960s in Sapporo, Hokkaido, is made out of miso paste (soybean paste), often paired with tonkatsu. It’s thick, nutty, and comforting.
Kare ramen, or curry ramen, made with tonkatsu or pork and vegetables broth and seasoned with curry.
Toppings that are common and popular in Japan include chashu style pork, soy eggs, beans and bean sprouts, seaweed, fish cakes, corn, green onion, kikurage mushrooms, umeboshi, and sesame oil.
Toppings popular in other countries can include enoki and shiitake mushrooms, spinach, pork, beef or shrimp, hard-boiled eggs, and sesame seeds.
A bowl of comfort
Today, ramen is one of Japan’s most popular dishes, nationally and internationally. Its hearty, fulfilling but relatively simple nature allows for creativity and accessibility that attracts people to the dish. It’s the perfect and favored bowl of comfort and easy-going eating in a country famous for its strict culinary rules.
There are reportedly over 20,000 ramen shops in Japan, not to mention a Ramen Museum and food-themed amusement park. Tokyo is home to about half of those shops. No trip to Japan would be truly complete without a moment to sit down and appreciate this bit of culinary history cooked in perfect broth.