Professors Li and Ristaino
9 August 2019
The Complex History of Ramen
Abstract: In this paper, I attempt to explore the history of ramen. Ramen is linked to the different stages of Japan’s development, and I thought it was important to show. Ramen has ties to both World Wars, and the industrialization of Japan. Ramen transformed from a food that was associated with working class communities to a food that was enjoyed by trendy youth. Additionally, the food was so fundamental to Japan that was able to survive the food rationing system during the second World War. Ramen is Japan, and this paper seeks to explain why.
The new food craze in the United States is ramen. Trendy ramen restaurants are popping up left and right in buzzing cities, and food enthusiasts are flocking to the restaurants to try one of Japan’s most famous dishes. America’s newest exotic and trendy dish has been a staple in the Japanese diet for centuries. The dish gained popularity over a century ago in Japan because of its affordability and accessibility. Ramen and Japan are inextricably linked to one another. The history of Japan has been reflected in the history of ramen noodle soup. In this essay, I will be examining the complex history behind Japan’s national dish.
In everyday American life, ramen is associated with college students who have limited budgets and new trendy eateries. One of those trendy eateries opened in New York City a few years ago and is known for being one of New York’s best ramen restaurants. When the owner of the restaurant, Ivan Orkin, was asked what ramen is to him, he responded by saying that “you would think it’s just soup noodle-I wouldn’t blame someone for thinking that-yet it’s really anything but” (Kasper). In just a couple of sentences, Ivan was able to summarize what ramen means to so many people. Essentially it is just a soup noodle dish. Ramen is a soup dish with noodles, stock, and flavoring sauce. The noodles in ramen are particularly unique because they are made from wheat flour, water, salt, and kansui, which is baking-soda flavored water. The kansui is what makes ramen noodles unique. It gives the noodles it’s slick texture and distinct yellow color. Like China and Italy, different regions in Japan have their own techniques of making ramen noodles. Western Japan is known for having less Kansui in their noodles, while the east and northern parts of Japan have more Kansui. The broth component in ramen is made from cooking meat, usually chicken, pork, or seafood, down to a simmer. The meat used in ramen broth also varies by location. Ramen shops in Tokyo almost exclusively use chicken for their broth, while ramen shops in Kyushu make a very distinct broth with pork and pork bones. The last component of ramen is the season sauce known as tare. The main three flavors of tare are salt, soy sauce, and miso. Almost every ramen chef makes their own version of tare that they keep unique (Solt 3). Ivan Orkin is known for making his ramen unique with a Sofrito tare. Sofrito is a seasoning blend made of garlic, onion, and bell peppers that originated in the Dominican Republic. Orkin says that the sofrito gives the dish “layers, and layers of flavor” (Kasper). Ivan’s ramen shop is located in New York City, and New York City is known for having a large population of Dominican Americans. The intermingling of Japanese and Dominican cultures is the perfect example of how cultures mix to transform traditional dishes, and believe it or not, ramen itself is another example of that.
Japan’s national dish is actually a Chinese food. Historians debate over when and how the noodle soup was brought to Japan. Some scholars say that a neo-Confucian, Shu Shunsui scholar brought the noodle dish to Japan when he escaped the Manchu dynasty in China and fled to Japan to be an advisor to Tokugawa Mitsukuni, a Japanese Lord. Despite this story being a great example of how the history of Japan is reflected through the history of ramen, by showcasing the close relationship between Japan and China, many scholars think that this narrative is an attempt by Japan to elevate the cultural beginnings of Ramen. The main issue with that theory is that there are no records of Sshunsui cooking ramen(Herman). The more accepted theory is that ramen was brought to Japan in the late 1880s as Chinese migrants moved to Japan and worked as chefs in Chinese restaurants in Japan. An authentic Chinese version of ramen was served by Chinese cooks to other Chinese migrants who worked in the Japanese port city of Yokohama. As time passed and as Japanese workers began enjoying ramen, the dish began to resemble Japanese food culture more. Chefs began to include soy sauce, pickled vegetables, and pork into this dish (Solt 5).
In fact, the dish was originally referred to as “Shina Soba”. “Shina” means China and “soba” means noodles. The term “shina soba” is not frequently used anymore because of its ties to Japan’s imperialism in China. After the United States and its allies defeated Japan in World War II, the Chinese government began to protest Japan, and the term was no longer used on a mainstream level in an attempt to separate Japan from its past that was heavily criticized. However, the term is still used by Japanese nationalists who look back on Japan’s imperialist decade with nostalgia. The other term for ramen, Chuka soba, was popularized in the 1940’s, and is still used to refer to ramen until this day. Chuka soba is used interchangeably with Ramen(Herman).
After its initial appearance in the late 19th century, ramen quickly grew to be one of Japan’s most popular dishes. The growth in ramen was synonymous with the industrialization of Japan. As wages for Japanese laborers increased in the 1890’s, so did the amount of independently owned eateries in Japan. A survey conducted by the Tokyo municipal government shows that “by 1897 there were 476 formal restaurants, 4,470 small eating and drinking establishments, 143 tea houses, and 476 sake houses (Solt 22). Industrialization in Japan continued to grow after the first world war. In fact, Japan’s “industrial output rose from 1.4 billion to 6.8 billion yen” (Solt 22) within only 4 years. As Japan’s manufacturing and industrial industries began to grow, its agricultural industry remained stagnant. Additionally, the booming agricultural industries in Japanese colonies, Taiwan and Korea, began to out produce Japanese farmers, driving profits from Japanese goods down. As working in the agricultural industry began to be less appealing, men and women moved to metropolitan areas to search for better work. When these people moved to cities to find better jobs, they also found shina soba. Shina soba fit the needs of their busy lives (Herman). It was convenient, affordable, hot, and delicious. The dish was made relatively quickly and consumed even quicker. Additionally, compared to traditional Japanese soba noodles that were made without meat, the meat in ramen made it hearty and filling.
Another factor in the popularization of the noodle was the invention of the noodle making machine. The machine initially appeared in Japan in 1883, and in only a few decades, using the noodle maker became more popular than making noodles by hand. Similarly, raw goods such as flour and soy from the countryside began to be delivered quicker to the city quicker, and this sped up the popularization of ramen (Solt 24).
Ramen’s humble beginnings and controversial political ties stayed with the food for decades. The “low status of Shina soba- a dish introduced by people from Shina (a defeated nation, no longer considered worthy of emulation after the Sino-Japanese war), unlike more highly regarded foods such as bread and cake, which had been introduced by westerners- illustrated the class differences associated with the primary consumers of each type of wheat- flour-based- food”(Solt 23). Part of the reason western foods like bread and cake were seen as more elevated than ramen is because the west represented the imperialization that Japan was trying to emulate. This is another example of how ramen mirrored the socio-political forces of the time. The idea that ramen was a food for and by the common people of Japan was illustrated by the first Shina Soba Producers’ Trade Union of greater Tokyo in 1928(Solt 24). This trade union also shows how the working class were beginning to emerge as a political force in Japan.
However, the noodle soup’s popularity died out during Japan’s involvement in World War II. After Japan was defeated in the second World War and lost its food producing territories like Taiwan and Korea, the nation began to face food shortages. Additionally, one of Japan’s staple foods, rice, became limited as rice harvests began to fail in East Asian countries(Lombardi). In fact, the United States government issued this statement regarding rice harvests and the quotas that rice farmers were expected to meet:
“the delivery of rice is annoying the farmers so much that so much that some of
the most needy have even hanged themselves. The newspapers avoid reporting such tragedies. It is not a bit necessary for farmers to deliver any part of their hoyu-mai (rice quote for living) in order to complete their rice delivery quota; as long as they do not sell all or part of their delivery quota to illegal channels. Some youth organizations posted bulls, etc., warning farmers against the black market, but I contend that before doing so, they should make the authorities decide on a more reasonable quota so that farmers can complete their delivery one hundred percent” (Lombardi).
This quote shows how food was used as a political force after World War II. The United States government issued this statement to make their control over Japan and its resources seem reasonable. The wanted to seem like they were prioritizing the needs and wants of the Japanese. However, in other political sectors, like the Communist Party, used this statement to show the inefficiencies in capitalist governments. The Communist Party wanted to show that major decisions should be made by working class everyday people, and not large corporations or detached governments. At this time, America was in control of Japan’s post war government and began to flood the nation with wheat. The wheat was turned into both bread and ramen that was entirely controlled by the government. In an attempt to make sure that everyone was able to receive the same amount of food, and to limit the threat of food shortages, the government made it illegal to buy or sell foods during this time(Herman). The major problem with Japan’s food rationing system is that it ran almost 20 days behind schedule at some points in the year. This caused black market vendors to open up. In order to avoid starvation, Japanese people began to depend on the Black markets as a method of survival. Wheat that was secretly meant to go to flour mills, was sent to the black market where ramen was made. This was a very dangerous job, and the chance of being arrested was extremely high. In fact, the Japanese mafia controlled most of the Black-market shops and they extorted vendors for money. In Tokyo alone, an estimated 45,000 black market stalls existed(Lu).
As the government started to remove restrictions on food, especially wheat flour, the number of ramen shops in Japan began to rise. The number of shops rose quickly, because creating a ramen shop was easy to set up and an easy way to make money. The only things you needed was a set of equipment that included bowls, chopsticks, noodles, soup base, hot water, and toppings that large corporations would rent out to smaller vendors. Additionally, as people returned to Japan from the war, they began to look for ways to make a living. The food that was initially known for being a dish of and by common people kept its reputation intact. Many Japanese people used ramen as a method to reinstate themselves in Japanese everyday life(Lu). By the mid 1950’s ramen reached its pre-war glory. From the 1950s-1970s, Japan began to experience another huge economic boom. Transportation infrastructure was being constructed and new developments were being made for the 1964 Olympics in Japan, much like the ramen boon that took place in the early 20th century, many industrial workers who helped to build many of these new projects ended their work day craving a nutritious and filling meal that they could afford. The food soon became an everyday item, especially for people who grew up during the World War II period that used ramen as a way to get by(Lombardi). In a sense, ramen provided a sense of nostalgia to the Japanese who lived through the war.
Another reason for the popularization of ramen was the shift in what was considered healthy and nutritious during the United States occupation in Japan. The ministry of Health and Welfare began to heavily promote the idea that wheat was far more nutritious than rice, and that rice eating people were extremely different from wheat eating individuals. One article states that “The character [seikaku] of rice-eating peoples and the character of wheat-eating peoples are naturally different, where the former believe that people eat because they exist, while the latter believe that people exist because they eat. Each of these are the result of the types of food that they eat, and while the former is resigned and passive, the latter are progressive and active” (Lombardi). Another nutritionist went as far as shaming parents for feeding their families rice by saying “Parents who feed their children solely white rice are dooming them to a life of idiocy. . .. When one eats rice, one’s brain gets worse. When one compares Japanese to Westerners, one finds that the former has an approximately twenty percent weaker mind than the latter. This is evident from the fact that few Japanese have received the Nobel Prize. . .. Japan ought to completely abolish its rice paddies and aim for a full bread diet” (Lombardi). The quotes show that food culture goes above and beyond what is available to eat most of the time. It is partially about being able to keep up with a certain image. Japan saw the western world as something to aspire to be. And in some ways, Japan was very influenced by western ways of life. While the quotes are extreme examples of portraying the western diet as the better diet, the food intake was linked to the intellectual levels in the smarter countries. In fact, when instant ramen was initially invented, it was initially marketed to housewives and people with families, because the wheat based dish was seen as being extremely nutritious (Solt 67).
By the 1980’s, what ramen stood for began to change. The dish that was quickly made at pushcarts on the street for just a few yen, began to have a different association. The pushcarts began to close and were replaced with ramen shops that specialized in different styles of ramen. Ramen became trendy and began to be associated with the “young urban consumer who was labelled with the term Shinijinrui, “new breed” (Lombardi). Ramen went from being a dish that resonated with less affluent people to a trendy dish that was more about taste and eating out with friends that a nutritious meal. As the status of ramen elevated in Japan, ramen chefs began to create their own twists to the dishes. Ramen chefs even began to reach a certain level of acclaim in Japan. Ramen chefs. including Ivan Orkin, who was mentioned earlier in this essay began to talk their specific ramen styles. Orkin explained that his “ramen style is a very small, niche market. The most popular style is the tonkotsu, where ton means pork and kotsu means bone. The pork bone soup is very milky and rich. I like it very much, but I tend to like to cook a lighter style. As a chef, I love sending people home to feel good for many hours after they eat my food” (Kasper). A ramen museum was even built to praise the food and introduce people from all over the world to the complicated history of ramen.
Finally, ramen turned into a Japanese dish. In an attempt to dissociate ramen from its Chinese origins, ramen chefs began to wear traditional Japanese clothing while preparing the dish. They also began to remove the red and white decorations that symbolized China and replaced them with traditional Japanese decorations. In the early 2000’s, Japanese people began to migrate to different parts of the world, and brought their culture with them. Ramen became a worldwide phenomenon(Lombardi). Ramen shops all over the world began to open up, and many people, particularly, trendy younger people, began to catch on. Today, ramen serves as a symbol of Japanese culture on an international level.
“The Art of the Slurp (or, How to Eat Ramen).” The Splendid Table, www.splendidtable.org/story/the-art-of-the-slurp-or-how-to-eat-ramen.
Herman, Alison. “The Messy History of Ramen.” First We Feast, First We Feast, 1 June 2018, firstwefeast.com/eat/2014/05/george-solt-on-the-messy-history-of-ramen.
Lombardi, Linda. “The Social History of Ramen.” Tofugu, Tofugu, 11 Aug. 2014, www.tofugu.com/japan/history-of-ramen/.
Lu, Hunter. “The Illegal Ramen Vendors of Postwar Tokyo.” Atlas Obscura, Atlas Obscura, 24 Aug. 2018, www.atlasobscura.com/articles/how-did-ramen-become-popular.
Solt, George. The Untold History of Ramen: How Political Crisis in Japan Spawned a Global Food Craze. University of California Press, 2014.