Article updated on May 15, 2020
Text & photos: Claire Lessiau
Before visiting Japan, we had a hate & hate relationship with ramen (ラーメン) noodles! Associated to cheap student food, their instant version is the best-seller of Japanese convenience stores with 5.7 billion packages of instant ramen noodles sold in 2019 worldwide. To us, they are our go-to but not-so-nice fuel on several-day treks: salty, individually-packaged, light, never-ending expiration date, easy to cook as only hot water is needed (perfect in the wild as boiling it is a way to purify naturally-sourced water), and providing about 500 calories in only 100 grams! On the not-so-nice side, they are not healthy, and the flavors indicated by the color-code of the packages range from salty to very salty, leading to somewhat of a limited variety during multiday outdoorsy outings, and making dinner time a not-so-exciting moment…
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If you like… quick, cheap, hearty, & hand-made comfort food,
…you will love ramen noodles!
But ramen noodles can be much more interesting! They have conquered Japan, upgrading from the nourishing symbol of a post-war starving nation to a fashionable dish of which every region proposes its own variety. Ramen shops are now also conquering the rest of the world, so, let’s dig in!
The rise of ramen noodles [a symbol of recent Japanese evolution]
Ramen are a Chinese import. The myth states that the wheat noodles were brought into Japan in the 17th by a persecuted scholar. The more realistic version is that Chinese immigrants imported ramen in the 19th century. With the urbanization of Japan in the early 20th century, ramen became very popular among workers: affordable, they contained meat, were richer than the domestic soba noodles, and very fast to prepare and eat – cooks let the broth simmer all day, cooking the noodles upon ordering. On top of this, when Japan was suffering from malnutrition due to bad rice harvests, and food rationing following World War II, the US occupant imported cheap wheat flour, the base of ramen noodles. Combined to the fact that back then, traditional Japanese food was seen as less healthy than foreign food because the latter contained more meat, fat, and wheat, ramen noodles became a nourishing symbol of a struggling Japan.
Starting in the mid 1950’s, ramen became even more successful in the booming economy. Acclaimed by the construction workers for the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games building infrastructures (stadiums, expressways, or the Shinkansen high-speed train network), the affordable ramen also became a student’s favorite, and even more so with the invention of their industrialized instant versions by Momofuku Ando in 1958 – seen today in Japan as the greatest Japanese invention of the 20th Century!
In the 1970’s, creativity was thrown into the ramen broth. The salary man escapes the social pressure of the corporate world to push a ramen cart! This was the start of the ramen hand-made movement, that was necessary with manual workers vanishing for a new breed of white collars in the 1980’s. The adaption of ramen with many regional varieties turned them into a fashionable symbol, far from the post-war struggle they used to stand for, completely foreign to this new generation. This is how a Chinese import made of foreign wheat import became a real Japanese tradition and one of the prides of the country.
How to order ramen noodles
Ramen noodles are made of wheat flour, salt, water, and kansui (a type of alkaline mineral water). It is this kansui that differentiate ramen from udon and gives the ramen their yellow color.
Ramen comes in various shapes and lengths: thick, thin, ribbon-like, straight, or wrinkled. It is often the broth that dictates the kind of noodles to cook:
- Tonkotsu (豚骨) is a pork-bone-based broth, thick and creamy with a cloudy white color.
- Shōyu (醤油, or soy sauce) is a chicken and vegetable broth tainted clear brown by the soy sauce.
- Shio (塩, or salt) is a clear, yellowish broth based on salt added to either chicken, vegetables, fish, or seaweed.
- Karē (カレー) stands for curry.
- Miso (味噌) leads to a hearty and thick broth.
When it comes to toppings, the choices are almost endless! Keep in mind that the stronger the broth (like miso or curry), the stronger the toppings so that they are not completely overpowered.
How to eat ramen noodles
- Ramen are served in ramen-ya in Japan (sometimes, they are only a standing counter).
- As soon as your ramen noodles are served, dig in so that they don’t get soggy.
- Slurping is OK! Just like with soba noodles, taking air in helps cool down the noodles while enhancing their flavors.
- It is not necessary to finish all of your soup in the bowl, and if you do so it is considered a compliment to the chef.
- Ramen are served with chopsticks and a spoon for the toppings. It is completely OK to drink from the bowl.
If your take on ramen is the instant version (that you can find and cook for yourself in every convenience store in Japan), you will be surprised in Japan! Homemade ramen served in an authentic ceramic bowl, sometimes in a fancy decor, with healthy, fresh, and tasty toppings are a completely different experience!
Where to enjoy ramen in Japan: ramen-ya in transport hubs are often a good bet, and even more so if queues are long!
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