Ramen

Momofuku Ando

Ramen is a Japanese adaptation of Chinese wheat noodles. One theory says that ramen was introduced to Japan during the 1660s by the Chinese neo-Confucian scholar Zhu Shunsui who served as an advisor to Tokugawa Mitsukuni after he became a refugee in Japan to escape Manchu rule and Mitsukuni became the first Japanese person to eat ramen. Most historians reject this theory as a myth created by the Japanese to embellish the origins of ramen.

According to historians, the more plausible theory is that ramen was introduced to Japan in the late 19th or early 20th century by Chinese immigrants living in the Yokohama Chinatown. According to the record of the Yokohama Ramen Museum, ramen originated in China and made its way to Japan in 1859. Early versions were wheat noodles in broth topped with Chinese-style roast pork. There are many related, Chinese-influenced noodle dishes in Japan.

Ramen consists of Chinese-style wheat noodles served in a meat-based broth, often flavored with soy sauce or miso, and uses toppings such as sliced pork, nori (dried seaweed), menma (fermented bamboo shoots), and scallions. Nearly every region in Japan has its own variation of ramen, such as the tonkotsu (pork bone broth) ramen of Kyushu in southern Japan, and the miso ramen of Hokkaido in the north. Mazemen is a ramen dish that is not served in a soup, but rather with a sauce such as tare, sweetened, thickened soy sauce with dashi (fish stock), vinegar, and other ingredients.

The word ramen is a Japanese borrowing of the Mandarin Chinese ‘pulled noodles.’ In 1910, the first ramen shop named Rairaiken opened in Asakusa, Tokyo, where the Japanese owner employed 12 Cantonese cooks from Yokohama’s Chinatown and served the ramen arranged for Japanese customers. Until the 1950s, ramen was called ‘Shina soba’ (literally ‘Chinese soba’). Today, the term ‘Chinese soba’ has acquired a pejorative connotation in Japan.

By 1900, restaurants serving Chinese cuisine from Canton and Shanghai offered a simple dish of noodles (cut rather than hand-pulled), a few toppings, and a broth flavored with salt and pork bones. Many Chinese living in Japan also pulled portable food stalls, selling ramen and gyōza dumplings to workers. By the mid-1900s, these stalls used a type of a musical horn called a ‘charumera’ (from the Portuguese ‘charamela’) to advertise their presence, a practice some vendors still retain via a loudspeaker and a looped recording. By the 1920s, ramen had become a popular dish when eating out.

In December 1945, Japan recorded its worst rice harvest in 42 years, which caused food shortages as Japan had drastically reduced rice production during WWII as production shifted to colonies in China and Taiwan. The U.S. flooded the Japanese market with cheap wheat flour to deal with food shortages. From 1948 to 1951, bread consumption in Japan nearly tripled and wheat found its way into ramen, which most Japanese ate at black market food vendors to survive as the government food distribution system ran about 20 days behind schedule. Although the Americans maintained Japan’s wartime ban on outdoor food vending, flour was secretly diverted from commercial mills into the black markets, where nearly 90 percent of stalls were under the control of gangsters related to the yakuza who extorted vendors for protection money. Thousands of ramen vendors were arrested during the occupation.

In the same period, millions of Japanese troops returned from China and continental East Asia from their posts in the Second Sino-Japanese War. Some of them would have been familiar with wheat noodles. By 1950, wheat flour exchange controls were removed and restrictions on food vending loosened, which further boosted the number of ramen vendors: private companies even rented out yatai (food cart) starter kits consisting of noodles, toppings, bowls, and chopsticks. Ramen yatai provided a rare opportunity for small scale postwar entrepreneurship. The Americans also aggressively advertised the nutritional benefits of wheat and animal protein. The combination of these factors caused wheat noodles to gain prominence in Japan’s rice-based culture. Gradually, ramen became associated with urban life.

In 1958, instant noodles were invented by Momofuku Ando, the Taiwanese-Japanese founder and chairman of Nissin Foods. Named the greatest Japanese invention of the 20th century in a Japanese poll, instant ramen allowed anyone to make an approximation of this dish simply by adding boiling water. Beginning in the 1980s, ramen became a Japanese cultural icon and was studied around the world. At the same time, local varieties of ramen were hitting the national market and could even be ordered by their regional names. A ramen museum opened in Yokohama in 1994. Today ramen is one of Japan’s most popular foods, with Tokyo alone containing around 5,000 ramen shops, and more than 24,000 ramen shops across Japan. Tsuta, a ramen restaurant in Tokyo’s Sugamo district, received a Michelin star in 2015.

A wide variety of ramen exists in Japan, with geographical and vendor-specific differences even in varieties that share the same name. Although ramen usually has toppings, ramen can be broadly categorized by its two main ingredients: noodles and broth. Most noodles are made from four basic ingredients: wheat flour, salt, water, and kansui a type of alkaline mineral water, containing sodium carbonate and usually potassium carbonate, as well as sometimes a small amount of phosphoric acid. Although ramen noodles and Udon noodles are both made with wheat and are similar, they are different kinds of noodle.

The kansui is the distinguishing ingredient in ramen noodles, and originated in Inner Mongolia, where some lakes contain large amounts of these minerals and whose water is said to be perfect for making these noodles. Making noodles with kansui lends them a yellowish hue as well as a firm texture. Eggs may also be substituted for kansui. Some noodles are made with neither eggs nor kansui and should only be used for yakisoba (fried noodles), as they have a weaker structure and are more prone to soaking up moisture and becoming extremely soft when served in soup.

Ramen comes in various shapes and lengths. It may be thick, thin, or even ribbon-like, as well as straight or wrinkled. Traditionally, ramen noodles were made by hand, but with growing popularity many ramen restaurants prefer to use noodle-making machines to meet the increased demand and improve quality. Automatic ramen-making machines imitating manual production methods have been available since the mid. 20th century produced by such Japanese manufacturers as Yamato MFG. and others.

Ramen soup is generally made from stock based on chicken or pork, combined with a variety of ingredients such as pork bones, katsuobushi (skipjack tuna flakes), niboshi (dried baby sardines), beef bones, shiitake, onions, and kombu (kelp). Some modern ramen broths can also be vegetable-based. Tare is often added to broth to make the soup.

‘Tonkotsu’ (‘pork bone,’ not to be confused with ‘tonkatsu,’ ‘pork cutlet’) soup is broth with a typically translucent white colored appearance. Similar to the Chinese ‘baitang,’ it has a thick broth made from boiling pork bones, fat, and collagen over high heat for many hours, which suffuses the broth with a hearty pork flavor and a creamy consistency that rivals milk, melted butter or gravy (depending on the shop). Although Tonkotsu is merely a kind of broth, some people consider tonkotsu ramen (specialty of Kyushu, its birthplace) a distinct flavor category. Most tonkotsu ramen restaurants offer a system known as kae-dama, where customers who have finished their noodles can request a ‘refill’ (for a few hundred yen more) to be put into their remaining soup.

Torigara (‘Chicken bone’) soup is based on chicken bone broth and originated mainly in Tokyo. It is often used as a base for salt and shoyu ramen. There are four main types of ramen, shio (‘salt,’ the oldest), shoyu (‘soy sauce,’ the most popular), miso (fermented soybeans), Kare (‘curry,’ the newest). Shio has a pale, clear, yellowish broth made with plenty of salt and any combination of chicken, vegetables, fish, and seaweed. Occasionally pork bones are also used, but they are not boiled as long as they are for tonkotsu ramen, so the soup remains light and clear. Chashu (Chinese barbecued pork) is sometimes swapped for lean chicken meatballs, and pickled plums and kamaboko (a slice of processed fish roll sometimes served as a frilly white circle with a pink or red spiral called narutomaki) are popular toppings as well. Noodle texture and thickness varies among shio ramen, but they are usually straight rather than curly.

Shoyu ramen has a clear brown broth, based on a chicken and vegetable (or sometimes fish or beef) stock with plenty of soy sauce added resulting in a soup that is tangy, salty, and savory yet still fairly light on the palate. Shoyu ramen usually has curly noodles rather than straight ones, although this is not always the case. It is often adorned with marinated bamboo shoots or menma, scallions, ninjin (carrot), kamaboko (fish cakes), nori (seaweed), boiled eggs, bean sprouts or black pepper; occasionally the soup will also contain chili oil or Chinese spices, and some shops serve sliced beef instead of the usual chashu.

Miso ramen reached national prominence around 1965. This uniquely Japanese ramen, which was developed in Sapporo Hokkaido, features a broth that combines copious miso and is blended with oily chicken or fish broth – and sometimes with tonkotsu or lard – to create a thick, nutty, slightly sweet and very hearty soup. Miso ramen broth tends to have a robust, tangy flavor, so it stands up to a variety of flavorful toppings: spicy bean paste, butter and corn, leeks, onions, bean sprouts, ground pork, cabbage, sesame seeds, white pepper, and chopped garlic are common. The noodles are typically thick, curly, and slightly chewy.

Kare ramen is a relative newcomer, cooked with curry soup. In Japan, several cities claim to be its place of origin. The city of Muroran claims it originated there in 1965, while the city of Sanjo city claims to have had kare ramen for over 80 years, and the city of Katori also claims to have been the site of its origin. Curry soup is mainly made with pork bones and vegetables and is seasoned with curry. The noodles are thick and curly. Toppings include chashu, wakame seaweed, and bean sprouts.

While standard versions of ramen are available throughout Japan, the last few decades have shown a proliferation of regional variations, commonly referred to as ‘gotouchi’ ramen. Some of these which have gone on to national prominence. Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido, is especially famous for its ramen. Most people in Japan associate Sapporo with its rich miso ramen, which was invented there and which is ideal for Hokkaido’s harsh, snowy winters. Sapporo miso ramen is typically topped with sweetcorn, butter, bean sprouts, finely chopped pork, and garlic, and sometimes local seafood such as scallop, squid, and crab. Hakodate, another city of Hokkaido, is famous for its salt flavored ramen, while Asahikawa in the north of the island offers a soy sauce-flavored variation.

Tokyo-style ramen consists of slightly thin, curly noodles served in a soy-flavored chicken broth. The Tokyo style broth typically has a touch of dashi, as old ramen establishments in Tokyo often originate from soba eateries. Standard toppings are chopped scallion, menma, sliced pork, kamaboko, egg, nori, and spinach. Ikebukuro, Ogikubo and Ebisu are three areas in Tokyo known for their ramen. Yokohama ramen specialty is called Ie-kei. It consists of thick, straight noodles served in a soy flavored pork broth similar to tonkotsu, sometimes referred to as, tonkotsu-shoyu. The standard toppings are roasted pork, boiled spinach, sheets of nori, often with shredded Welsh onion (negi) and a soft or hard boiled egg. It is traditional for customers to customize the softness of the noodles, the richness of the broth and the amount of oil they want,

Hakata ramen originates from Hakata district of Fukuoka city in Kyushu. It has a rich, milky, pork-bone tonkotsu broth and rather thin, non-curly and resilient noodles. Often, distinctive toppings such as crushed garlic, beni shōga (pickled ginger), sesame seeds, and spicy pickled mustard greens (karashi takana) are left on tables for customers to serve themselves. Ramen stalls in Hakata and Tenjin are well known within Japan. Recent trends have made Hakataramen one of the most popular types in Japan, and several chain restaurants specializing in Hakata ramen can be found all over the country.

Ramen became popular in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan where it is known as rishi lamian (‘Japanese-style lamian’). Restaurant chains serve ramen alongside distinctly Japanese dishes, such as tempura and yakitori. Interestingly, in Japan, these dishes are not traditionally served with ramen, but gyoza, kara-age and others from Japanese Chinese cuisine. In Korea, ramen is called ramyeon. There are different varieties, such as kimchi-flavored ramyeon. While usually served with egg or vegetables such as carrots and scallions some restaurants serve variations of ramyeon containing additional ingredients such as dumplings, tteok, or cheese as toppings.

Outside of Asia, particularly in areas with a large demand for Asian cuisine, there are restaurants specializing in Japanese-style foods such as ramen noodles. For example, Wagamama, a UK-based restaurant chain serving pan-Asian food, serves a ramen noodle soup and in the United States and Canada, Jinya Ramen Bar serves tonkotsu ramen.

Instant ramen noodles were exported from Japan by Nissin Foods starting in 1971, bearing the name ‘Oodles of Noodles.’ One year later, it was re-branded ‘Nissin Cup Noodles.’ packaged in a foam food container (It is referred to as ‘Cup Ramen’ in Japan), and subsequently saw a growth in international sales. Over time, the term ‘ramen’ became used in North America to refer to other instant noodles.

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