What Caused the Ramen Boom in the U.S.

Mar 15, 2022 - 9 min read

In the past, the top three foods most representative of Japanese cuisine included sushi, tempura, and sashimi, but recently, ramen has squeezed its way onto the list as a definitively ranked favorite. In a 2009 survey conducted by the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), foreign visitors to Japan classified ramen as the second most satisfying meal in Japan after sushi. Since then, ramen has attracted a great deal of attention from outside Japan.

When discussing worldwide ramen popularity, it is impossible to leave the United States out of the conversation. Though the ramen boom in the United States started in the early 2000s, it is still heating up to this day. New ramen shops open daily, and it is not unusual to see lines of people outside of them. To this point, it is not too bold to say that ramen is no longer a passing fad but a part of American food culture.

However, the idea that ramen would travel from its motherland of Japan to be passionately assimilated into the American culture of the 21st century is a concept that Americans and Japanese alike may not have originally predicted. This article will unravel the cause and history of the ramen boom in the United States.

  • Index

 

■Instant Ramen Arrives in the U.S.

Before it was commonplace to eat ramen at a restaurant, Americans associated the dish to instant noodles. This widespread perception can be traced back to the debut of Nissin Foods’ Cup Noodle into the U.S. market in 1973. Cup Noodle was developed by Momofuku Ando of Nissin Foods on the premise that ramen would be accepted more in the U.S. market if sold in a container since most Americans do not own a bowl for ramen. Top Ramen by Nissin Foods and instant ramen by Maruchan also contributed greatly to its popularity. This was the start of ramen in the U.S., and with the addition of affordability and convenience, it quickly took off. However, what made it so popular turned out to be a double-edged sword as the image of ramen was tainted as an inexpensive fast food.
 

■On the Eve of the U.S. Ramen Boom

To set the record straight, Japanese-style ramen restaurants did exist in the U.S. before the ramen boom of the 21st century, however they primarily catered to the needs of the Japanese expatriates that lived and worked in the area. In addition, many of these shops were started by local Japanese people living in the U.S., as opposed to restaurant expansion of popular shops in Japan opening to the foreign market. Though that is not to say that you could not find one of those restaurants back then. They were rare, as it was less common than it is today for Americans to visit restaurants marketed to Japanese expatriates.

It was the spread of Japanese pop culture that aided in the change of ramen perception to the American consumer. The difference between authentic ramen served at a restaurant and instant noodles served at home became increasingly understood. The 1985 Japanese film “Tampopo” (introduced in the previous article, “ARE THESE BAD MANNERS?” DISCUSSING THE RAMEN-EATING ETIQUETTE”) is to thank for this change. The movie illustrates a chef’s passion and dedication in making delicious ramen and, for the American audience, this piqued curiosity and recognition of the dish.

Another influence that should not be overlooked is manga and anime. Prior to the ramen boom, many, especially young, Americans tuned into famous anime such as “Naruto,” witnessing their favorite characters feasting on the steaming noodles while at a restaurant. This image sparked hunger for a taste of the delicious-looking ramen that differed greatly from the instant ramen that they were used to.
 

■The U.S. Ramen Boom Sparked by Momofuku


Image by ©Simon Law,Flickr.com

Just as the perception of ramen was changing in the United States, David Chang opened Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York City in 2004. Before its conception, Chang was inspired by his time in Tokyo where he experienced firsthand the ramen boom that was sweeping Japan at the time. Japan was transitioning from an interest in local and regional ramen to that of the “creative ramen boom” in which flavor was influenced by artisan passion and expression.

In experiencing the limitless innovation that the Japanese craftsmen brought to the popular noodle dish, David Chang was keen on the potential of ramen in the U.S. Based on his experiences, he brought his own unique attention to detail to the ramen served at Momofuku Noodle Bar. It was perfect timing as the latest desire for authentic ramen that had already been fostered in the U.S. brought in many customers and ignited the ramen boom that continues to this day.

David Chang’s ramen succeeded in eradicating the image of the dish as a “cheap fast food” that for so long was instilled in U.S. perception. You may have noticed that Momofuku Noodle Bar shares the namesake as Momofuku Ando, the man responsible for expanding ramen to the American market. In fact, the restaurant was named after him. It is remarkably interesting and historically inevitable that both had such a strong influence on the market.

Since then, Ippudo (2008) and Ichiran (2016) from Japan have opened stores in New York, further catapulting ramen into American food culture. However, it is worth pointing out that Ippudo chose a “ramen dining” format with a waiting bar for their restaurant, which is familiar to the American clientele that enjoys eating slowly in groups. Ichiran, on the other hand, adopted a partition wall format, which is a famous feature of their original restaurant in Japan. It is an interesting contrast. In this way, the practice of Japanese ramen restaurants opening another location in the U.S. further stimulated the ramen boom in New York. From there, they spread across the country, mainly in urban areas. With the rise of social networking (SNS) around this time, the influence of delicious, authentic ramen engulfed the U.S., continuing to this day.
 

■Why the Ramen Boom is Still Going Strong

Since the year 2004 when Momofuku Noodle Bar opened and as of today as this article is written in 2022, the ramen boom continues to gain momentum. In the previous sections, the history and causes of the boom were dissected, but now it is time to switch gears to explain the reasons why the ramen boom is still going strong.

The most obvious reason lies in ramen’s “Umami” element. It is considered a familiar terminology for the fifth taste perceived by the tongue after sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Truthfully, it is a sensation that is difficult to describe in English, however, one notion that is agreed on is that Umami plays a vital role in the way we determine food to be delicious. Ramen is the perfect dish to experience Umami as the broth is a treasure trove for it. Ramen chefs put their heart and soul into their recipes in order to achieve the ideal Umami. The main ingredients used to make soup are animal-based (e.g., pork and chicken bones) and seafood-based ingredients (e.g., bonito flakes), but various ingredients such as kelp and vegetables can also be added to the mix. If you take into consideration the method of preparation and the distribution of each ingredient, the possibilities for flavor become infinite. There is no doubt that ramen craftsmen who seek to immerse themselves in these possibilities are still attracting ramen fans.

The next reason for the continued success of ramen is the relatively unique experience of eating at a ramen restaurant. In the U.S., as in Japan, many ramen restaurants do not take reservations, so inevitably, getting a seat at a popular ramen restaurant typically involves standing in line. This is a notable difference from other types of restaurants that commonly take reservations, and though one may think that waiting in line to satisfy a craving would be a turn off, it seems to have the opposite affect when it comes to ramen. Most people wait outside anticipating the delicious food that they are about to enjoy, and this seemingly heightens a desire for the dish. Furthermore, the act of slurping, which is considered bad manners in other cuisines, is encouraged when eating ramen. These points combined with the staff’s Japanese standards of hospitality create an unforgettable experience that cannot be replicated at any other type of restaurant. When Ippudo opened in New York, the New York Times described it as “a trip to Japan for only $13”, which is quite understandable.

The last reason for the ongoing ramen boom to discuss is the limitless freedom that ramen itself has. Before the noodle dish grew in popularity in the U.S., various Japanese dishes such as sushi and tempura attracted a lot of attention. However, ramen was different in that it was the first Japanese food in the U.S. that was customizable. While there are certain rules to enjoying sushi and tempura, ramen restaurants encourage customers to add various toppings according to individual preference. You are free to add basic toppings such as chashu (pork) and aji-tama (flavored egg) to satisfy your taste buds, as well as increase the flavor with added garlic and butter. If you are craving some spice, you are free to throw in some hot peppers, too. Furthermore, it is worth noting that ramen’s infinite possibilities allow chefs to think outside the box and create unique menus in the U.S. like ramen burgers and ramen pizza.

Considering the intrinsic attractiveness of ramen, we believe that the U.S. ramen boom will continue for the foreseeable future.
 

■The Future of the Ramen Boom

The ramen boom of today can be summarized by the marriage of its original perception as instant noodles to the recognition of authentic ramen. However, when discussing the projection of ramen in the coming years or decades, a key factor worth discussing is location. That is, authentic ramen stores, where craftsmen serve ramen with a special attention to the soup, are still largely concentrated in urban areas. To continue the ramen boom, the demand for authentic ramen needs to reach outside of cities so that people can enjoy it no matter where they are. The direction of the future ramen boom directly correlates to the supply chain that now attempts to satisfy the demand for authentic ramen throughout the U.S. In order to satisfy this demand, various attempts are being made. For instance, new ramen restaurants are opening in locations that reach a wider audience to provide them a chance to eat exceptional ramen. Another attempt would be online availability of high-quality ramen meal kits that can be shipped anywhere. In addition, Myojo USA is working to retail authentic ramen with fresh noodles, which are different from the dried noodles used in conventional instant ramen. This allows for a more authentic ramen experience no matter where you are.

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■Conclusion

In this article, the cause of the ramen boom in the U.S. was investigated. At first glance, it appears to have occurred without warning. However, after a deeper look, this seemingly sudden boom has been around longer than previously thought. Another factor that cannot be overlooked is the fact that the ramen boom in the U.S. occurred in resonance with the creative ramen boom in Japan. The ramen boom is still in full swing, but it is difficult to predict how this boom will develop in the future. However, the key words that are important in understanding the future trends of the ramen boom will be “creativity,” which is brought about by the freedom of ramen, and “accessibility,” which allows people to enjoy authentic ramen from anywhere. In any case, I look forward to the many fascinating experiences that the ramen boom will continue to bring.
 

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