Ramen, one of the most popular foods in Japan, is actually not among its most traditional. Ramen traces its roots back to China, and even today “ramen” is often spelled with the katakana script used for foreign words. Although ramen was once a foreign food, Japanese cooks have been adapting and developing it for several hundred years now, and so ramen has truly become a Japanese classic. There are estimated to be between 100,000 and 200,000 different ramen shops throughout Japan. Not only that, but in 1958, Japan developed instant ramen, which has gone on to be produced and enjoyed all over the world, by some 90,000,000,000 customers a year. Within Japan, regional ramen specialties and the individually perfected recipes at each shop make eating ramen an exciting experience every time.
In Japan, ramen is popular with all age groups and people of all different backgrounds. It is simple, affordable, fast and delicious. Ramen is usually served in small shops with counter seating, and served promptly so that its flavor will be optimal, so chefs must be deft. However, there are also ramen restaurants that have a more relaxed atmosphere, where customers might take more time with their meals. Besides the usual ramen shops all over Japan, there are also special ramen theme parks and museums that offer a chance to sample ramen varieties from famous shops all over the country. There are even tours offered at instant ramen factories, where guests can learn how their favorite convenience food is made.
Ramen consists of three basic parts: soup, noodles, and toppings. Although it is a simple food, the variations and different combinations of flavors and ingredients make the flavor possibilities endless. The soup stock is either clear, or a thick, milky broth known as “tonkotsu.” The clear broth is a stock made from chicken or pig bones, seafood, vegetables, or some combination thereof. The milky tonkotsu broth is made by boiling down pig bones for a very long time. Eventually, the collagen in the bones breaks down and gives the broth its milky quality. Either broth is then seasoned with soy sauce, miso, or salt, the three traditional ramen flavorings. Every shop has its own special recipe and precise methods of preparation, leading to an endless variety of flavors and qualities for customers to enjoy.
Next, noodles are chosen by the cook in order to suit the broth perfectly. The noodles are always made of flour, but the type of flour used affects their taste and texture, so each cook uses his own special blend of flour to make his noodles. Ramen noodles can either be straight or crinkly. Straight noodles slide easily down the throat and are great for diners in a hurry, while crinkly noodles absorb more of the soup, imparting the broth flavor to every bite. The thickness and length of the noodle are also carefully selected in order to best set off the type and taste of the broth. These noodles are made first, then added to the soup when it’s been placed in the bowl, then covered with toppings.
When it comes to toppings, almost anything is possible, but there are a few standard favorites. Popular vegetables for ramen toppings include cooked bamboo shoots, green onions, bean sprouts, and seaweed. For protein, “chaashuu” roast pork, seafood, or boiled eggs are often added. Some shops also offer additional sauces or seasonings that customers can add at their own discretion. Toppings are part of what makes ramen such a hearty, satisfying meal.
Ramen was brought to Japan from China in the late 17th century, when it is believed that a Chinese Confucian scholar offered the food to daimyo Tokugawa Mitsukuni. Although the noodles were described as similar to udon noodles, which were then popular in Japan, ramen did not catch on right away, probably due to the meat in the broth and added as a topping. Because of Buddhist principles, eating meat had long been taboo in Japan. However, in the late 19th century, Chinese communities in port towns added soy sauce to their ramen. This favorite Japanese seasoning made the dish more palatable to Japanese people, and ramen became a hit.
In 1958, instant ramen was invented when Japanese cooks hit upon the idea of infusing the noodles themselves with the soup flavor and drying them, allowing customers to simply add water to reconstitute a favorite meal in a quick and easy manner. In 1971, the disposable cup was added, and now instant ramen can be found all over the world—it even traveled into space on the Discovery shuttle!
All kinds of famous regional specialties exist. Kitakata in Fukushima has so many ramen shops, it’s known as “Ramen Town.” Its ramen is flavored with locally-made soy sauce, and the thick, flat, crinkly noodles are topped with chaashuu, green onions, and bamboo shoots. Hakata in Fukuoka is famous for its tonkotsu soup and features straight, thin noodles perfect for customers in a hurry. Sapporo in Hokkaido specializes in miso ramen with firm, crinkly noodles served with stir fried bean sprouts and vegetables. Miso ramen, which was invented about fifty years ago, is one of the most popular ramen varieties today. It is prepared by adding miso paste to the bottom of the bowl before the broth is poured in. Noodles are then added and followed up with the toppings, as they would be with any type of ramen.
There are new styles of ramen being developed, too. “Tuna ramen” is ramen in a soy soup topped with raw tuna. “Milk ramen” comes with locally-grown vegetables and cheese, and has milk added to the broth. The “ramen burger” is made of patties of fried ramen as a bun, with chaashuu pork in the middle. Given this constant innovation, there is always something fresh happening in the world of ramen. From local favorites to comfort food in orbit, ramen is sure to continue to be popular for a long time to come.