What is Ramen? How the History and Elements Lead to Modern-Day Ramen
Dec 16, 2021 - 10 min read
Ramen has become a national dish in Japan and is widely known overseas, including throughout the United States, but when asked to define it, even Japanese people may have a hard time doing so. Its origin may not be as simple to explain as one would expect, and while the Japanese recognize ramen as a food that originated in China, there’s inconsistency with the Chinese perception of the dish as they often call it, “Japanese-style ramen,” and recognize it as Japanese food. In addition, there are countless soups and noodle variations, starting with “tonkotsu”, “shoyu”, and “miso”, that might obscure the definition. Let’s first take a closer look into the definition of ramen and then unravel its historical background to enrich your ramen experience.
■ The Five Elements of Ramen
The noodles may be the easiest way to distinguish ramen from other noodle dishes. This is because the Chinese noodles in ramen use “lye water (kansui)” in the flour during the manufacturing process. This gives the noodles a distinctive chewy and yellow color – a major feature of the dish – that is different from other wheat noodles like pasta and udon.
This means that any noodle, despite its thickness, degree of curling or its boiling time, is referred to as a variation of ramen if lye water (kansui) is used for manufacturing the noodle.
“Dashi” (Japanese soup stock) is one of three elements that go into making the ramen soup base (the other two are “sauce” and, depending on the type of ramen, “fat/oil”). We will discuss all three of these essential ingredients in this article, but first, let’s start with dashi. The main components of this stock are animal materials (pork bones, chicken bones, and beef bones), seafood materials (kelp, dried sardines, shrimp, and sea breams), and vegetable materials (onions, Japanese leek, ginger, and garlic). The combination of these ingredients is unique to the characteristics of the restaurant.It’s important to mention here how soup stock is made. Soup stock is roughly divided into “thick white broth”, which is boiled over high heat for a long time and has a rich taste and flavor, and “clear broth”, which is prepared at a temperature just before boiling to keep its clearness. Thick white broth is often used in tonkotsu ramen, and clear broth is often used in shoyu ramen.
Sauce is also an important factor in determining the taste of ramen. It’s made by mixing spices and other flavors and ingredients with basic seasoning. Of these, soy sauce, salt sauce, and miso sauce are most commonly used.
Some local ramen dishes are characterized using fat/oil. It adds umami and keeps the soup hot by forming a layer at the top like a lid. The fats/oils used for ramen include onion oil, mayu (scorched black garlic oil), spicy oil, lard or roasted lard, chicken oil and shrimp oil.
The toppings used for ramen vary and are often associated with the localized style that’s offered. The following are typical combinations:
- Tokyo Ramen (shoyu soy sauce soup)
Bamboo shoots, chopped green onions and chashu (marinated braised pork belly) are often added. In some cases, it’s served with nori seaweed, spinach, and soft-boiled eggs.
- Hakata Ramen (tonkotsu soup)
Green onions and chashu are popular toppings, similar to Tokyo ramen, but they also add wood ear mushrooms. Only young green onions are used instead of regular onions. White sesame, pickled ginger, and pickled takana mustard with chili are placed on the table to use as you like.
- Sapporo Ramen (miso soup)
In addition to chashu, bamboo shoots, and green onions, it’s standard to add stir-fried vegetables like onions, cabbage, and bean sprouts to this ramen.
Though the example ingredients above have many commonalities, oftentimes, various ingredients are added or substituted according to the characteristics of the region and/or restaurant, which further enriches the variety of ramen.
All the variations created by freely combining these five primary elements in a bowl can be called ramen. In fact, in Japan today, there are many new “local ramen dishes” that reflect the regional culture while keeping the above five elements. In doing so, they foster a rich ramen culture throughout Japan. Tonkotsu ramen, which is popular now globally, is considered a local ramen originating from Kyushu, Japan. While this degree of freedom is both fun and complicated, it’ll be easier to figure out what your favorite style of ramen is by being aware of these five elements.
■ History of Ramen
Now that you have grasped the elements that make up ramen, let’s deepen that understanding by unraveling the history of ramen. From its birth in Japan to the ramen boom that spans the current world, ramen had twists and turns of history hidden within each bowl.
- What was the first ramen eaten in Japan?
In the diary named “Inryoken Nichiroku (蔭凉軒日録)” left by a monk during the Muromachi period, there’s a description of a dish that he ate called, “Keitaimen (経帯麺)” that he found in a Chinese book. The fact that this “Keitaimen” uses wheat flour and lye water (kansui) as ingredients, similar to the current ramen noodles, suggests that this may have been the first ramen eaten in Japan.
There’s also a theory that Tokugawa Mitsukuni (who many Japanese people know as “Mito Komon”) ate soba noodles made by Zhu Zhiyu, a Confucian scholar invited to Japan from China. This theory regards the soba as ramen.
However, what all these theories have in common is that the dish was available only to a limited number of upper-class folks. Unfortunately, it took a little longer for ramen to become widely accepted by the common people.
- Is shoyu ramen from “Rai Rai Ken” the origin of modern ramen?
During the Meiji era, the seclusion brought on by the previous era was lifted, and Chinese people entered the many port towns of Japan such as Yokohama, Kobe, and Nagasaki. In these cities, Chinatown was born. At first, the Chinese restaurants that opened in the Chinatowns offered mainly high-class course meals, but as the number of Chinese students increased in Japan, so did the number of Chinese restaurants for the general public. The Chinese noodle dishes offered at such restaurants (the Japanese called “Nankin soba [Nanjing noodles]”) became popular for being cheap and delicious, and Japanese people gradually grew familiar with the taste. In the process, “Nankin soba” was renamed to “Shina soba (Chinese noodles)”. It seems that at the time, the Japanese people used the names “Nankin” and “Shina” to mean “Chinese” or “foreign/imported”.
It appears that these noodles offered at Chinese restaurants were seasoned with thick salt soup, but it didn’t take long for a restaurant to open up that offered a Chinese noodle dish with light seasoning, which appealed more to the Japanese palate. The name of this Cantonese restaurant was “Rai Rai Ken” which opened in Asakusa, Tokyo in 1910. The Shina soba offered there consisted of thin curly noodles using lye water (kansui) in a light soy sauce-flavored soup, and the toppings were chashu, bamboo shoots, and green onions. This is what is considered the origin of today’s ramen, and “Tokyo ramen” strongly follows this style.
This Shina soba crafted for the Japanese liking was reasonably priced at 6 sen (about 300 yen in modern times) and was so prosperous that it sold 3,000 bowls a day at peak times. This is recognized as Japan’s first ramen boom. The high demand for this dish allowed for the number of restaurants offering “Shina soba” to increase in Tokyo, but it’s worth noting here that at the time, this noodle dish was not yet called “ramen”.
- Two historical events that affected ramen
At the beginning of its conception, the number of ramen restaurants (though they were likely not called that at the time) increased primarily in Tokyo and Yokohama during the Taisho era, due to the popularity of Shina soba at Rai Rai Ken. Sadly, many of them suffered great damage from the Great Kanto Earthquake that occurred in 1923. Due to this, the number of Chinese people living around Tokyo who lost their homes from the quake relocated to small and medium-sized cities in rural areas to open Chinese restaurants. This migration of ramen into other prefectures is considered the cornerstone of prosperity for local ramen in Japan today. In addition, the number of easily managed “ramen food carts” increased. Many food carts had to narrow down the number of items on their menus, which may have led to the conversion from ramen food carts to specialty restaurants today.
Moreover, during World War II, ramen had to survive the drastic changes of Japan. As the war intensified, many ramen restaurants were forced to close; however, after the war, many fields that were burnt down as a result of battle converted to black markets and the number of ramen food carts increased again due to the repatriates from China who learned how to make ramen and dumplings. They promoted “good, cheap, and high calorie” ramen, which gained nationwide popularity. It seems that the spread of ramen was also in correlation to the distribution of wheat flour by the US military, making it easy to produce ramen.
- Two inventions that triggered the expansion of ramen awareness
After overcoming many hardships, “Shina soba” gradually became more popular, but after the war, people stopped using “Shina” to describe the dish as it had a derogatory meaning towards China. Instead, it was replaced with “Chuka soba (also meaning “Chinese noodles”)”. At this point, the name “ramen” still has yet to be used for the dish. So, when did the name “ramen” develop? It’s said that the popularity of the name “ramen” is due to the world’s first instant noodle “Chicken Ramen,” developed by Momofuku Ando, the founder of Nissin Foods in 1958 (Showa 33). This cheap and delicious Chicken Ramen became explosively popular, and with the invention of the TV, and with it, commercials, “ramen” became a household name, replacing what was once called “Shina soba” or “Chuka soba”.
It’s not clear where the name “ramen” came from in Chicken Ramen, but there are various theories about the etymology of ramen. Here are some of the most famous ones:
- It’s derived from “Lā miàn (拉麺)”, a type of noodle from Lanzhou, located in northwestern China. ” Lā” in Chinese means “pull”.
- It’s derived from “Laomian (老麺)”. Laomian refers to fermented dough.
- It originated from a cafeteria called “Takeya” that opened in Sapporo, Hokkaido in 1922 (Taisho 11). The owner’s wife heard a Chinese chef in the kitchen yelling “haole (好了)” (meaning “it’s alright”). Inspired by the chef’s shout, it seems that she devised the name “ramen” for a pepper steak noodle (肉絲麺) offered there.
With the spread of Chicken Ramen, “ramen” gained national recognition in Japan. But considering the events that triggered the worldwide popularity of ramen, we can’t go on without mentioning the existence of Cup Noodles, the world’s first instant ramen noodles in a cup. The reason for the development of Cup Noodles is that Momofuku Ando, the developer of the above-mentioned Chicken Ramen, tried to sell Chicken Ramen to a supermarket in Los Angeles with the aim of expanding into the foreign market. However, Ando was reminded of the fact that people in US didn’t have chopsticks and proper bowls needed to eat ramen. He saw an American customer crush the chicken ramen into a paper cup and pour boiling water into so that he could eat it with a fork. This gave Ando an idea of how to market ramen to countries outside of Japan, without being bound to specialty bowls or chopsticks. And so, instant cup ramen was born after many various efforts in perfecting the preservation process, and Cup Noodles was released on September 18, 1971 (Showa 46). Today, it’s sold in 100 countries around the world. Momofuku Ando, who developed the Chicken Ramen and Cup Noodles that made ramen widely recognized in Japan and around the world, has made such a great impact that you could call him, “Mr. Noodle”.
- Modern and future ramen
In this way, ramen has been a popular dish of the general public for many years, but recently, the reimagining of ramen as an elaborate soup dish has been reassessed. In Japan, there are some famous ramen restaurants listed in the Michelin Guide. Additionally, ramen restaurants overseas have gained popularity. There are several possible reasons for this, such as “the influence of anime and manga,” “high-quality customer service”, and “the image of a deep and craftsman-quality gourmet food”. But the most essential reason is that the umami of the soup is appreciated and respected overseas.
On the other hand, the global expansion of instant noodles, which originated as Cup Noodles, is now consumed in China, Indonesia, Vietnam, and India more than in Japan, and has become a global dish consumed about 100 billion meals per year. The reason for instant noodles being accepted by many people around the world is due to the efforts of manufacturers in each country incorporating their own noodle culture and taste (for example, Mie Goreng in Indonesia and Tom Yum Kung in Thailand) successfully into ramen. It’s reminiscent of the Rai Rai Ken, who made efforts to match the taste of their own people based on the original Chinese noodle dishes. This cultural growth of ramen isn’t surprising, as one only needs to follow the five elements to then put their own spin on the dish. With the creation of Japanese ramen, this diverse noodle dish can be seen in many variations around the world.
So, what does this mean for ramen’s future? First of all, ramen restaurants believe that “local ramen around the world” will expand, with the influence of the area in which it’s conceived, fusing with the local climate and food culture. For instant noodles, products incorporating local tastes have already been developed and widely accepted, and new ways of eating ramen unique to the local area such as “ramen burger”, “ramen pizza” (Myojo USA’s recipe can be found here) and “birria ramen” have been devised. Based on this trend, it’s safe to assume it’s only a matter of time before local ramen that’s unimaginable to the Japanese people will be born all over the world.
On the other hand, it’s thought that ramen eaten at home will continue to evolve beyond instant noodles. One such direction of evolution is to meet the demands of “easily recreating the high-quality restaurant taste at home.” Currently, many companies are competing to improve the quality of such homemade ramen, and Myojo USA succeeds in meeting such demands by lining up many types of fresh ramen noodles (unlike dried noodles of instant noodles). If you haven’t tried fresh ramen noodles yet, give these recently evolved homemade ramen dishes a taste!
Click here to discover Myojo USA’s fresh ramen noodle variations:
Click here to find where you can get Myojo USA’s fresh ramen noodle products:
It can be said that ramen is a Japanese food influenced by Chinese noodle dishes. However, due to its high degree of freedom to adjust its taste, ramen is considered as food that absorbs the flavors of all cultures in Japan and around the world. Ramen evolves every day, and its definition is no longer restrained to the category of Japanese food. It’s exciting to think that as long as there are people in the world who love and appreciate ramen, new styles of the dish will continue to surface. Keep an eye on the ramen network that spreads all over the world!
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