In the year 2000, Japanese citizens were asked to look back at the 20th Century and name their country’s best invention. Was it the Walkman perhaps? Karaoke? Computer games? No, the Japanese people chose instant ramen as their greatest contribution to the world. If that sounds strange to you, consider this: as of 2010, instant ramen is consumed globally to the tune of 95 billion servings a year. Clearly not all of those are being slurped up by college students in their dorms. How did ramen get so big? Where did it come from and where is it going now?
The story of ramen is not an ancient one. It appears in Japan in the early part of the 20th Century by way of a Chinese-style soup called shina soba. Shina is a phonetic rendering of the word China, and soba are buckwheat noodles, although the ones used in shina soba were actually wheat-based and were more elastic than Japanese soba noodles. Some suggest that the popularity of shina soba as well as other cultural imports from China were connected to the expanding Japanese empire of that era. Without getting into the politics of it, after World War II, ramen became the more accepted name. “Ramen” is based on the Chinese words for pull, “la” and noodles “mian.” The two words together refer to the process by which the dough was hand-stretched into thin strands. By mid-century, ramen was being served from street carts and noodle shops throughout Japan.
One thing that makes ramen unique and at the same time incredibly versatile, is that rather than being simply broth-based, broth and flavorings are considered separate components. The broth element is rather simple, made from pork or chicken bones, sometimes both, or with the addition of dashi, a type of fish stock. There are four basic flavorings: Shio, shoyu, miso, and tonkotsu. Shio is simply salt, shoyu is soy sauce-based, miso is the familiar fermented soy bean paste, and tonkotsu is a very rich stock produced by the long simmering of crushed pork bones. Another variable is the toppings added to the noodle soup: a soft-cooked egg, fishcake, preserved bamboo shoots, seaweed, scallions, and thin slices of pork or even shrimp tempura. The many different combinations of broth, flavoring, topping and occasionally type of noodle, make up the distinct regional varieties that can be found across Japan.
Instant ramen was invented in 1958 by Taiwanese-Japanese businessman Momofuku Ando, as a way of using wheat flour supplied by the United States to ease ongoing food shortages in postwar Japan. Initially it was a luxury item, but eventually production costs dropped and with their long shelf life, the instant noodles became a household necessity in Japan. In 1971 on a visit to America, Ando got the idea to package the noodles in a Styrofoam cup and instant ramen spread to the U.S. and around the world. A decade later instant ramen reached a kind of cult status. As a half-Japanese kid growing up in the 1980s, Kenji Lopez-Alt, Managing Culinary Director at Serious Eats, ate instant ramen at least once a week. When I asked him what it is about ramen that inspires such devotion, he told me, “It has the same appeal as the hamburger or pizza. It’s an every-man’s food that people from all walks of life can afford and enjoy. It’s one of those great equalizers in the food world.”
Because of its low price point, inevitably questions about the nutritional value of this convenience food arose, even spawning an urban legend about one unfortunate student whose autopsied intestines were supposedly found to be wax-lined due to a steady ramen-only diet. There’s no truth to it, but health concerns about the MSG and sodium-laden flavor packet and the noodles high-carb profile have led people to explore ways to make ramen healthier by adding protein and vegetables and forgoing the seasoning packet for more natural flavorings. Google “ramen upgrade” and you will find dozens of ways to personalize ramen with your own add-ins and spices. But why stop there? On SeriousEats.com you can find Kenji Lopez-Alt’s thirty ways to “hack your ramen,” including cross-cultural mash-ups like ramen-topped Shepherd’s Pie, sweet and sour ramen with chunks of spam and pineapple, and a ramen version of Pad Thai flavored with fish sauce, lime and peanuts. There’s at least one restaurant in New York City that offers a hamburger with ramen noodles standing in for the bun, although Lopez-Alt doesn’t recommend making them, he says “they’re not as good as plain ramen or regular burgers, and more difficult to make than either. Why bother?”
Is this where our Ramen story ends? Au contraire! The obsession with this soup has now come full circle with high-end ramen shops popping up in cities across America. The name for this trend–“kodawari” is similar to the term artisianal. Ingredients are painstakingly sourced for the most authentic taste, everything from the water and flour used to make the noodles to broth. The New York Times recently ran a story high-lighting ten of the best places to eat ramen in New York City, several of which are within walking distance of my office in midtown Manhattan (woo-hoo!). Don’t want to venture into the city? If you have three days, a large pot, and are willing to seek out some exotic ingredients you can make your own real deal ramen at home. Ivan Orkin, who is the first American to ever open a successful ramen shop in Japan, includes his signature recipe in his new book “Ivan Ramen.” It’s thirty pages long, but Ivan cautions it’s still nearly impossible to replicate his recipe unless you live in Japan.
But don’t despair! There is hope for those of us who want a little something in between instant and three-day ramen. If you want to make a quick homemade version it’s best to go for the shoyu variety. In a deep pot, heat a teaspoon of sesame oil and gently sauté a minced clove of garlic and a teaspoon of minced ginger. After a minute or so, add two cups of chicken stock and one cup of dashi. Instant dashi stock, called Hondashi, comes in a little amber-colored jar with a red cap. If you really like ramen, its good to have this, but you can always just use plain chicken broth. Bring the mixture to a boil and add one tablespoon of sake, three tablespoons of soy sauce and one teaspoon each salt and sugar. When it comes back to a boil, strain the soup into bowls. In the meantime you should be boiling water in a separate pot for the noodles. Look for fresh ramen noodles, dried, straight ramen, or “chukamen,” which look more like the curly instant noodles in Asian groceries. In a pinch you can use angel hair pasta–try adding a tablespoon of baking soda to the water to get a more characteristic flavor. When the noodles are just cooked through but still firm, drain and add to the broth in the bowls. Top with chopped scallions, cooked egg, seaweed, fishcake, or whatever leftover meat or vegetables you have.
If that still sounds like too much trouble, you can always grab a Cup Noodles. Don’t worry too much about it being unhealthy. Remember Momofuku Ando, the man who invented instant ramen? He ate it every day of his life until he died — at the age of 96.
Whichever you choose, eat it while it’s hot and don’t forget to slurp!