Japanese Ramen: From Exotic Street Food to Global Admiration

Japanese ramen (Fig.1), a chewy type of wheat noodles served in thick pork or fish-based broth, has become a popular dish throughout the globe. Despite the complicated and time-consuming process for preparing the ramen broth and its meat toppings, Japanese ramen could be both affordable and casual; served in street stalls of Tokyo for about 5 dollars. However, at the same time its humble background doesn’t impede it from being present in the menus of the most luxurious Japanese restaurants all over the world. Japanese ramen, named after Chinese pulled-noodles and still called “中華ラーメン”, by the Japanese people have no doubt exceeded its Chinese predecessors in international acceptance. In this essay I would examine both the history and present of Japanese ramen, further locate ramen in Japanese culinary culture and answer the question of why this food became immensely popular.

Fig.1: Japanese ramen in tonkatsu broth, with scallion, agaric and roast pork as toppings.

Part 1: Introduction and History
“Although there are as many types of ramen as there are ramen chefs, the most basic components of a bowl are the noodles, the stock, and the flavoring sauce.” (Solt, 3) Authentic ramen noodles present a yellowish color from the infused water (kansui) added in the dough, other ubiquitous components include wheat flour, salt, water and baking soda. Different regions in Japan have their own customs for making ramen broth, a combination of meat, seafood, and vegetables boiled for up to a whole day renders the broth a thick taste. Lastly, the concentrated seasoning sauce (tare), is usually available in three flavors – salt (shio), fermented soybean paste (miso), or soy sauce (shoyu).
“Ramen began life in Japan as a cheap, scrumptious and filling food from China.” (Solt, 5) Introduced by Chinese migrants from Guangdong in 1880s and referencing elements from Chinese pulled-noodles, Japanese ramen started as a street food for workers. Due to its industrialization, Meiji Japan fed more and more wage laborers, and therefore created a heightened demand for outdoor dining establishments. With its unexpected popularity, ramen was welcomed into restaurants and modified with toppings such as bamboo shoots and Chaashyu (roasted pork) that catered to the Japanese taste. To many Japanese people, Ramen also embodies the culmination of their country’s postwar history. After WWII, the filling nature of ramen made it a main dish to alleviate hunger and generate the labor power that stimulated the industrial recovery of Japan’s urban areas. Made with American wheat the noodle was “frequently alluded to in popular cultural productions… Artists and directors used the dish to represent various aspects of everyday life in early postwar Japan.” (Solt, 68) Artistic presentations of Ramen insinuated the desperate food situation, and the gap in dietary habits between people of varied ages and social status. In 1949, a poem was written in graffiti on the streets of Toyko, focusing on food scarcity among young couples:
Eating nothing but ramen on a date.
With an empty wallet, yesterday and today.
The tryst was most disappointing. (Ivy, 10)
For postwar Japan, although ramen was the affordable commodity that kept the country working, people labeled the low-cost food along with the hardship the working class faced during their country’s recovery period. The thought of considering ramen as the monotonous choice of diet altered accompanying the country’s rapid economic developments. In a 1985 Japanese film Tampopo, failing several times before making a satisfying bowl of ramen, the protagonist of the film reaches a “Ramen Enlightenment” and claims that: Good ramen represents all that is good in life. (Kushner, 7) Throughout the postwar decades, ramen chefs continuously introduced modifications to the original recipe, therefore the intricate process of creating a perfect bowl of ramen had conveyed the Japanese spirit of craftsmanship, the spirit to pursue excellency in one’s field of profession. Nowadays, ramen has become an inseparable part of Japanese pop culture, in the renown manga Naruto, the young ninja Naruto favorites the ramen (Fig.2) from the restaurant Rāmen Ichiraku (ラーメン一楽 ), he claims that the food fills him with strength. In modern Japan, ramen stalls are present in every corner of the streets, serving this comforting noodle dish to people after a day of hard work.

Fig.2: The ramen served in Rāmen Ichiraku from the anime Naruto
There are copious varieties of ramen in different regions of Japanese, recipe for both the noodle itself and the ramen broth could differ in different Japanese regions. The percentage of kansui affects the texture of the staple food (the higher the percentage the harder the noodle), noodles with high percentage of kansui tend to be served most frequently in the north and east of Japan. Hakata-style ramen and Okinawa soba contain noodles using no kansui, whereas Tokyo- and Sapporo- style ramen use noodles with a significant amount of kansui. On the other hand, the ingredients added to produce the broth significantly affects the taste of the ramen, while Tokyo ramen shops use only chicken and no pork in making the broth, Kyushu ramen are known for their heavy use of pork and pork bones (tonkatsu). Although the standard vegetables used in the broth are onions, scallions, ginger, and garlic, more recent shops start using kabocha squash, potatoes, and even apples in vegetable potage ramen. (Solt, 30) Japanese local customs for serving and consuming the product. In addition to the Japanese dining formality of notifying their companions when they start and finish eating by saying “いただきます” (I’m starting my meal) and “ごちそうさまでした” (I’ve finished eating, thankyou), Japanese people are accustomed to deliberately making loud noise when consuming ramen; a gesture that implies the tasteful flavor of the noodle, and gratitude to the chef who made it. (Rath & Assmann, 265)

Part2: Comparisons among ramen restaurants around the world
During the early 20th century, Ramen enjoyed increasing popularity in cities of the West such as Paris, New York and Honolulu, it became the first modern international food produced in the East. (Solt, 132) Today, Japanese or Asian fusion restaurants all over the world offer ramen to their customers. Ichiran-Ramen (一蘭ラーメン) is arguably the most popular ramen restaurant in Japan, founded in 1960 in the city Fukouka, the restaurant now has branch stores in Osaka, Tokyo, and other major Japanese cities, the restaurant is famous for its Hakata-style ramen (Fig.3) and insists in only selling such ramen. Ichiran started as a membership restaurant, since the founder was only content to offer his service to frequent customers who had shown their appreciation towards its ramen by returning to the restaurant time after time. Later, the competition in the foodservice grew more and more rapid, forcing Ichiran to open its doors to regular diners. Today, Ichiran-Ramen restaurants all over Japan have become crowded tourist attractions for those on a quest for authentic Japanese ramen. The restaurant grew into a merchandise that tenaciously abides by the ramen recipe handed down from its founder, focusing on the conformance in flavor standards among its branches.

Fig.3: Ichiran-ramen’s Hatakat-style ramen, characterized by the creamy tonkatsu broth, chili oil and light flavored chaashyu.
While the recipe of “authentic” ramen has always been debatable and may remain a mystery to the world, popular ramen restaurants from Japan have open chain stores globally. Mutekiya (無敵家) a ramen stall that started in Toyko, now owns multiple stores in Beijing, Shanghai and Seoul. Mutekiya advertises on the effort they pay in making the ramen broth, the restaurant claims to spend a whole day boiling the tonkatsu and chicken before selling it to their patrons, therefore making their soup extra thick and creamy. In addition to the traditional shio, miso or shoyu ramen, they’ve improvised their menu to play up to the preference of foreign customers. In 2015, when the restaurant opened in Shanghai, it came up with a creative ramen dish “Mabo-Mazesoba” (Fig.4, ramen in pungent and spicy broth with Mapo-tofu)

Fig.4: Mabo-Mazesoba, ramen with spicy tofu and stir-fried vegetables
Adding in Sichuan culinary elements, such recipe was nothing orthodox compared with typical Tokyo ramen in lofty chicken broth, however, it was surprising successful among consumers who prefer a more pungent taste and vegetarians who chose bean curd as their protein source.
Ramen restaurants are not rarely seen even across oceans in the United States, the Hajime Ramen Bar located at 2345 Cheshire bridge rd NE is a rallying point for Asian students in Atlanta. The restaurant offers a great many choice of noodles in their innovation menu, including honey miso, wasabi shoyu and ultra-spicy ramen (Fig.5), these ramens comprehend complexed flavors in their broth. Differing from their peer restaurants in Asia that only provides a handful of toppings limited to Chaashyu, bamboo shoots, scallions and Onsen Tamago (half boiled egg), Hajime offers a lot more, including but not limited to seaweed, spinach, corn, mushroom and even fried chicken nuggets, ingeniously combining western and eastern culinary through their ramen.

Fig.5: Tonkatsu ramen served in Hajime.

Part 3: Economical value of the ramen industry
Ramen, along with Sushi has been a national cuisine of Japan, the food stands for Japan’s national identity and cultural homogeneity. According to a survey, “Ramen accounts for twenty-six percent of all meals eaten outside the home.” (Kushner, 3) There are around 80,000 ramen stalls in Japan, the accumulated income for these ramen stalls could go up to 0.8-1 trillion yen per year, with an average price of 700 yen per bowl, the Japanese people could consume 12-14 hundred million bowls of ramen per year. In Tokyo, the average cost of a bowl of ramen in “new-wave shops” is over 800 yen ($8.70). More traditional or family-businesses offer bowls from 550 yen ($6.00) and up, and some franchised shops offer 290-yen ($3.10) bowls for students and youth who just started their career. (Fig.6, Rath & Assmann, 262) Anyhow, the price of a ramen meal is well below the average cost of meal in Tokyo, which is 800 yen, throughout its 150 years of history, ramen has persistently played the role of filling the stomach of the commoners. Due to ramen’s ever evolving nature, keeping up with the newest ramenology could well be a full-time job. Guide books that meticulously comment on ramen from different restaurants are sold to ramen fanatics to guide them to satisfaction. Ramen museums are also founded in many Japanese cities, as they educate people on the characters of ramen in different regions.

Fig.6: A ramen stall in Tokyo, this stall could serve up to 200 customers each day.
Cup ramen emerged in 1960s, as the Japanese businessman Ando traveled to the US to promote instant ramen as a new food to Americans looking for an exotic “oriental” taste. (Kushner, 221) Nowadays in Tokyo, of the average man or woman questioned for the survey, about 50% admitted eating cup ramen about one-to-three times a month. In the rapid paced modern metropolitan, instant ramen has become the most popular convenience food. The largest instant noodle corporation Nissin (founded by Ando) design a variety of products that imitate the taste of Japanese ramen, the company claims that they are now competing with regular ramen on quality. Last year, the company came up with a series named “The King of Noodles” (Fig.7), providing their consumers with numerous of choices in flavor, although each bowl of “The King of Noodles” is sold at 400 yen, it is said to have perfectly replicated the broth of traditional Toyko ramen.

Fig.7: “The King of Noodles” soybean source flavor, cup noodle in Chinese version.
Ramen, a Japanese noodle that started as a necessity for the working class due to its filling and cheap nature, records the social development and improvement of life quality in the nation, and is now received global acceptance as Japan’s national food. Served in a variety of forms, ramen had no doubt spawned a fever for noodles internationally. Although the original recipe by the Chinese migrant who decided to sell noodles from his homeland for a living, had been modified for countless times throughout a century, the slipping texture of noodle and the thick broth remains the reason of its popularity; after a long day, a bowl of ramen offers diners an indulgent moment.

Barak Kushner, Slurp! A Social and Culinary History of Ramen- Japan’s Favorite Noodle Soup, Global Oriental Press, 2012.

Eric C. Rath and Stephanie Assmann, Japanese Foodways, Past and Present, Univerity of Illinois Press, 2010.

George Solt, The Untold History of Ramen: How Political Crisis in Japan Spawned a Global Food Craze, University of California Press, 2014.

Marilyn Ivy, Discourses of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, Japan, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Picture References






Beijing Sauteed Noodles with Minced Meat

(After Cold Noodle soup with Sophora Leaves, by Du Fu)
Yujing Wang
Emerald green are cucumbers, light purple is the sweet radish,
We shred them and leave them on the cutting board.
Handmade noodles are offered in the supermarket across the street,
They are bathed in cold water instantly after being boiled.
Minced pork is stir-fried with salted soybean sauce,
The toppings are evenly mixed with the noodles after being served.
I eat more, worrying that I may soon say farewell to my hometown.
Pleasant coolness is conveyed by the vegetables of summer,
A thick salty flavor from the sauce rolls on my tongue.
I urge my parents to have a try, proud of the dish I’ve accomplished.
I wish to bring the ingredients of this recipe when I travel,
Boasting about where I come from when such scent emerges from the kitchen.
My journey is long, I worry if the food could preserve,
But my love is deep and hard to alter.
A bowl of noodle may be trivial,
It’s connection with my city renders it irreplaceable.
Oceans away in Emory University,
My fellow students gulp the convenient meals from our cafeteria,
Anytime when I feel nostalgic,
This flavor is crucial for the occasion.
1. What piece did you choose to imitate?
I chose to imitate Du Fu’s poem, Cold Noodle soup with Sophora Leaves.
2. Why did you choose this piece?
The rhythm and method of description in Du Fu’s poem is beautiful, although I’ve never tried cold noodle soup with Sophora leaves, reading the poem renders a cool and refreshing sensation in the hot summer. In addition to admiring Du’s literature, I also believe that his poem deposits his good will to the common people. As he eulogizes the food, he wishes that people who hold high social positions (in the palace) also gain satisfaction from the same simple dish, a metaphor for pleading those who are in power to taste the bitterness of the commoners (食民间疾苦). I believe that it is a significant piece of noodle literature worth analyzing.
3. What did you learn about the culture of the original author through imitating his or her style?
Du Fu vividly portrayed a noodle dish which I haven’t heard of, his metaphorical illustration of color and taste renders his readers a mouth-watering experience. I’ve learned that noodles were popular among Chinese people since Tang dynasty, and a variety of recipes for handling noodles existed back then. From class Dr.Li claimed that noodles were the privileged food for aristocrats in the Han dynasty, but in this poem it seems that 400 years of history was more than enough to bring it into the households of common Chinese.
4. What did you learn about your own culture while writing?
This assignment gave me the chance to review the recipe of my childhood memories. I was also interested in the origins of Beijing Sauteed noodles with minced meat, and found out that it is a fairly new dish that prevailed in the Qing dynasty, chefs from Shandong province were hired by the Imperial family, and the noodle dish came from modifying Lu (鲁) recipes. Explaining why the toppings are heavy and salty.
5. Is there cultural DNA embedded in the piece you read and in your piece? How does this DNA manifest in the texts?
Yes. In the final sentences of Du Fu’s piece, the author uses noodles to convey his deep concerns for his fellow countrymen. Caring for the vulnerable a virtue that is crucial to ancient Chinese literates, and a spirit that still inspires Chinese scholars till this day. While my piece focuses more on my nostalgic feeling towards my hometown through making and eating the food.

Noodles: A Song Praising Life and History

Yujing Wang
Through this week’s reading, we ventured down a culinary journey into Chinese and Italian regions, learning the unique pasta recipes of their customs. I’m convinced that noodles of a specific region have become more than a beacon which attracts tourists, but they consummate both the geographical character and history (including industrial evolution, folklore and the people’s anticipation of everyday life). In short, though one may see noodles as the most common cuisine, its cultural significance goes far beyond a cheap but nutritious product.
The methods of cooking noodles reflect more than the present tasting predilection of a certain region but gives us an irreplaceable insight on its people’s identity. We’ve read about Dan-dan noodles of Sichuan, Crossing-the-bridge noodles of Yunnan, Bamboo-pole noodles of Guangdong, macaroni of the Naples, even instant noodles that prevail around the world and countless kinds of noodles that serve as a symbol of their birthplace. Some of the articles focus on the author’s encounter with the food, others emphasize the intriguing stories behind the dish. In Dunlop’s passage introducing his experience in Chengdu, he mentions the origins of a variety of “small eats”, such as “Zhong boiled dumplings” and “Lai rice balls”, all named after the cook who had invented them, these later popular street foods are no doubt leaving their mark in Chengdu’s culinary history, and with them the pride of common workmen who have dedicated their lives to make food that please their customers. The tale behind “Crossing-the-bridge rice noodles” may be a folklore to give the recipe a legendary touch, but it nevertheless engraves the toils of ancient Chinese scholars and the pressure they face when attending the Imperial exam. On the other hand, the macaroni of Naples was a product of industrial evolution, it signified the ending of an era of hunger and poverty, as a luxurious commodity became affordable to common households. I could only imagine the joy of Neapolitans when cheap macaroni first emerged in the markets. Noodles certainly do not speak, but they easily answer where they come from and what they’ve been through. From the readings, despite the writer’s identity as a foreigner or a native, they seem to have no trouble acquiring the recipe of the pasta and therefore were able to share it in their published work, and the notion of these regional customized food taking the role of bridges between nations thrill me. Nowadays, one may not have to be in a region to know about it, and the easiest way is by tasting its cuisine and learning the story behind the food.
Noodles in Chinese culture “is not only a source of human nutrition, it also plays many roles in the aspects of religion, economy and etc.” (Na Zhang, Noodles, traditionally and today, 1) Chinese “cakes” that later evolved into the thin noodles that we are familiar today have been an efficient way of transforming wheat into both healthy and tasty aliment Chinese labels their nation as the realm of ritual, many ceremonies from ancient times can’t proceed without the proper food. Noodles also dutifully played their part in such a society, different kinds of noodles where served on diverse occasions, some for a wish of good health and longevity, others which symbol friendship and filial piety. Although in modern times people tend to neglect these meanings and consume noodles due to fondness of the taste father than the significance, the stories behind this staple food most certainly responds to the core values of Chinese culture. Noodles in China remind the people of who they are and what they treasure.
Pasta of Italy, on the other hand, records the country’s social and economical progress, as Italy herself, like China, has many regions and was united into a sovereign nation in the 1800s. Pasta is a reminder of the nation’s glorious history, back in the Roman era when she conquered Europe and certain regions of Africa and Asia, and therefore different kinds of Italian Pasta bear names that are introduced to the nation from foreign cultures. The popularization of Italian pasta was also closely connected to the nation’s industrial and economic developments “Homemade pasta moved early from family kitchens into the workshops of the mills.” (Vita, Encyclopedia of Pasta, 7) Where machines where invented to accelerate the production process, making pasta affordable to commoners.
As my blog’s title indicate I would describe noodles as a song that one doesn’t need to understand the lyrics. The taste of food, similar to the rhythm of songs, is a universal language shared and enjoyed by people in every corner of the world. Noodles narrate the struggles of people and emphasizes on the value they hold important. I would define noodles as a cultural bridge, connecting more than regions oceans away, but also the past to present. I would use a painting of Mondrian to represent noodles; although they share simple compositions, they possess a complicated and connected nature.

Piet Cornelies Mondrian, Red, Blue, Yellow, 1941