What Is Ramen? – A Glimpse Into Why It’s So Popular In Japan

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Fall is here and the weather is becoming cooler every day. During this time, the best thing to eat would be something warm and comforting. Something like ramen!

Ramen is the iconic staple dish of Japan, being something that you must try during your trip here. Made from noodles, mixed with savory broth and topped with various toppings unique to each type, Ramen is definitely something you do not want to miss out on, and is far from the typical instant Maruchan noodles we Americans are so accustomed to eating.

Who doesn’t like to slurp some noodles, sip some hot broth, and eat savory toppings? Ramen is cheap, filling, can be bought practically anywhere, and is really delicious. It’s no wonder that it’s considered comfort food in Japan.

What Is Ramen? - A Glimpse Into Why It's So Popular In Japan

The History Of Ramen

People generally agree that ramen as a noodle-soup cuisine was introduced to Japan by China. But there is still an ongoing debate on how it was born in Japan. Three stories are popular.

The first story is about a Confucian scholar named Shu Shunsui. Shunsui was a refugee from China who took with him a Chinese ramen recipe when he fled to Japan. He became an advisor of Tokugawa Mitsukuni during the Edo Period. He is said to have served the first ramen to Tokugawa during the mid to late 17th century, but many experts reject the authenticity of this story because there are no historical records about it.

The second story states that ramen was first served in 1859 by Yokohama’s Chinatown immigrants. Chinese restaurants served handmade noodles in chicken broth. The Japanese called this Nankin Soba (from the old Chinese capital, Nanjing). But this dish was considered something to end a meal with and not a meal in itself. It also did not have any toppings, which is very different from today’s ramen.

The third story of the origin of ramen has some historical facts. In 1910, the first ramen restaurant opened in Asakusa, Tokyo named Rai-Rai Ken. The restaurant had a Japanese owner who employed Chinese cooks. Customers were served a dish of noodles with soy sauce flavored broth and toppings such as roast pork, bamboo, and scallions. This recipe has become a standard ramen recipe.

Whatever its origin may be, the Japanese used to call ramen, Shina Soba (支那そ) or Chūka Soba (中華そば), both meaning “Chinese soba.”

Besides Yokohama, other Chinatowns began offering their own noodle dishes. Chinese vendors spread their ramen and gyoza (dumplings) to locals by using hand-pulled portable food carts. In the mid-1900s, the food carts even played a musical horn called charumera to let people know they were in the neighborhood (some portable ramen stalls still do this).

At the turn of the century, Japan started becoming more industrialized. More people flocked to urban areas. Ramen became popular among laborers, students, and soldiers in the cities. It had carbs, salt, protein, fats, and water content—perfect for people who want cheap but filling food.

What Is Ramen? - A Glimpse Into Why It's So Popular In Japan

Ramen became the equivalent of today’s fast food. It was also very different from washoku (traditional Japanese meals). Washoku requires a lot of preparation time and people have to eat it slowly to savor all the food. But ordinary citizens no longer had a lot of time to spare on food, so ramen was a great alternative for them.

After World War II, ramen became almost non-existent because of the food shortage. The Americans imposed strict regulations on food supplies. People had to find creative ways to get food like eating whale meat. Rice was hard to come by but wheat flour was imported from the United States. The Japanese began to eat bread in the place of rice. Wheat flour was also traded in the black market, and the illegal vendors hawked cheap ramen whose noodles were made from wheat. Many of these vendors went to jail for this.

So, a combination of wheat flour from Americans, aggressive ads about the nutritional benefits of wheat, Japanese soldiers returning from places where wheat-based food was ate, and entrepreneurs selling ramen, boosted the popularity of the dish even further, at least among the working and lower classes. Among the wealthy, ramen was considered the type of food that you would eat only if you’re hungry and poor.

What Is Ramen? - A Glimpse Into Why It's So Popular In Japan

In the 1950s, the term “shina” was considered derogatory since it connoted a time when China was under the imperial rule of Japan. So, the name became ramen (ラーメン, hand-pulled noodles) based on the Chinese word la mian (hand-made noodles made from dough that is twisted, stretched, and folded into strands) or lao mian (老麺, ancient noodles). Sometimes people use the term soba, not to be confused with soba (buckwheat noodles), to refer to ramen.

In 1958, Momofuku Ando, chair of Nissin Foods, invented instant noodles. Initially, instant noodles were advertised towards middle-class women and children as something easy to cook but still “nutritious.” This advertisement was based on war propaganda that Western ingredients were more nutritious than Japanese ingredients.

When Japan’s economy started going upward, the country went into a build, build, build frenzy. When it was bidding to become the venue for the Olympics games, it began building venues and its infamous rail system. These constructions meant workers again needed fast but filling food. Many restaurants began to specialize in ramen. Regional varieties started to be created. Ramen was slowly but surely being adapted into a Japanese dish.

What Is Ramen? - A Glimpse Into Why It's So Popular In Japan

By the 1980s, Chinese stalls and diners were replaced by Japanese-owned ramen restaurants that employed Japanese ramen cooks. Being a ramen chef actually became a cool profession and office workers quit their jobs to start serving ramen. Menus became more specialized and became more expensive.

Eating at a ramen restaurant became a trendy pastime. It became the place not of manual laborers but young urban office workers. This is where the phenomenon of people waiting in line for hours began. People also began to travel to other prefectures just to eat regional ramen specialties.

What Is Ramen? - A Glimpse Into Why It's So Popular In Japan

Ramen-ya

A shop specializing in ramen is called ramen-ya. This can be a big fancy restaurant or a small stall. Today, there are over 30,000 ramen-ya across Japan. Most of them are small businesses and only about 20% are ramen-ya chains.

Generally, a ramen-ya has a long counter. Big restaurants have additional tables. Stalls, especially the movable ones reminiscent of traditional hand-pulled carts, usually have a single counter that can sit only two or three.

Ramen is also served in family restaurants, karaoke halls, izakaya (pubs), cafeterias, amusement parks, convenience stores, and vending machines.

What Is Ramen? - A Glimpse Into Why It's So Popular In Japan

Top Rated Ramen

Popular ramen shops have a vending machine that gives out tickets. This allows for a more streamlined process of serving customers. If you’re in Tokyo, then why not try eating at a Michelin-starred ramen-ya that still offers affordable dishes?

Japanese Soba Noodles Tsuta (more popularly known as Tsuta) opened in 2012 near the Sugamo station. Its chef-owner Yuki Onishi comes from a family of ramen chefs. In 2014, it got a Bib Gourmand award. In 2015, it was awarded a Michelin star. This was the first time a ramen-ya was awarded a star not only in Japan but also in the world. It has a unique ordering system. You get a numbered ticket in the morning then come back to Tsuta for your “appointment.” This reduces the waiting time to about 30 minutes.

Nakiryu also opened in 2012 near the Shin Otsuka station. The restaurant’s signature ramen is tantanmen (spicy ramen with minced pork topped with chopped scallions, chili, and spinach or Bok Choi). In 2017, it was awarded a Michelin star. Despite the accolade, it still serves ramen at a reasonable price. It can seat only 10 at a time. Waiting time can be 2-3 hours. It has an ordinary ticketing system and does not accept reservations. So, you have no choice but to wait in line. But once you get inside and you’ve given your order ticket to the chef, your bowl of piping hot and spicy ramen will be served in about 5 minutes.

Soba House Konjiki Hototogisu was awarded its Michelin star just this year. It’s near Shinjuku station. It offers different ramen types but the signature ramen is tonkotsu (pork bone broth) with hamaguri clam dashi (stock) and a lot of special toppings. The best thing about this restaurant for foreign visitors is that there are English explanations at the ticket vending machine. The restaurant can seat seven at a time so the queue can take quite a while. But just like Nakiryu, the ramen is still affordable despite the Michelin star.

Based on the offering of the ramen-ya above, ramen consists of three key components: the soup, noodles, and the toppings.

What Is Ramen? - A Glimpse Into Why It's So Popular In Japan

The Soup

Although ramen started with the Chinese, the Japanese localized it by changing the soup. The traditional Chinese ramen soup is usually made from pork bones and salt. Japanese ramen soup is made from chicken bones, pork bones, seafood, vegetables, beef bones, and other non-Chinese and local Japanese ingredients. But the four basic soup bases are:

What Is Ramen? - A Glimpse Into Why It's So Popular In Japan

Shio (塩, Salt)

The oldest type of soup. The broth is light, clear, and yellowish. Salt is the main flavoring, which is enhanced primarily by chicken bones. Flavoring is given depth sometimes by pork bones (but these are not boiled for very long), vegetables, fish, seaweed, and other ingredients.

What Is Ramen? - A Glimpse Into Why It's So Popular In Japan

Shoyu (醤油, Soy Sauce)

A clear, light, tangy, brown broth. Added to the stock are meat (mainly chicken, beef, pork, or fish is also added). Shoyu is the most common type of soup base. When the menu does not specify a soup type, you can be sure it’s shoyu.

What Is Ramen? - A Glimpse Into Why It's So Popular In Japan

Miso (味噌, Soybean Paste)

A thick, creamy, tangy, and brown broth. This type of soup originated from Hokkaido around 1965. The long winters of northern Japan needed a rich, hearty soup and thus the miso ramen was born. The basic broth has chicken, fish, or lard added to it.

What Is Ramen? - A Glimpse Into Why It's So Popular In Japan

Tonkotsu (豚骨, Pork Bone)

A cloudy, white, and creamy broth. Pork bones are slow-cooked over high heat for many hours. Pork fat enhances the pork flavor and chicken broth gives an additional layer in the flavor.

As shown above, the basic soups are enhanced by different ingredients. Other Japanese ingredients are dried bonito flakes, local butter, kelp, sake, dried sardines, pork fat, etc. Some ramen-ya also use other soup bases like those that are curry-based. Some experiment with unusual flavors like coffee or tequila.

The ingredients are important but how the ingredients are cooked is also important. Timing, temperature, and method can change how an ingredient tastes after all. For example, pork backbones have to be boiled over high heat to remove any harsh tastes. Meanwhile, whole chickens need to be boiled for a whole day for a richer flavor and to allow the meat to fall off the bones.

Each ramen chef guards his or her own special soup recipe.

What Is Ramen? - A Glimpse Into Why It's So Popular In Japan

The Noodles

Ramen noodles are made from wheat flour. But the Japanese knead a special kind of salt (sometimes a blend of different types of salt) and kansui (a special type of mineral water). This leads to the noodles’ distinctive taste, yellowish color, and chewy texture. This also makes ramen noodles different from other noodles made with wheat flour.

Noodles also come in different varieties depending on the thickness, firmness, or shape of the noodles. The three basic noodles are:

  • Hosomen (thin noodles). These are thin and stretchy. They can be boiled for only a short time. These are usually found in Hakata Ramen or Shio Ramen.
  • Futomen (fat noodles). These noodles need to be boiled for a long time. So if you’re really hungry, this type of noodles might not be the best for you. There is a subtype called gokubutomen that needs to be boiled for 10 minutes or more. These are chewy and best with creamy soups.
  • Chijiremen (Wavy noodles). We usually think of straight noodles when we think of ramen. But there are curly or wavy ramen noodles too. Miso ramen usually come with chijiremen.

Some ramen-ya allows you to choose the type of noodles you want. So you can personalize your ramen with thin, wavy, very firm noodles if you want to.

What Is Ramen? - A Glimpse Into Why It's So Popular In Japan

Toppings

There are a lot of toppings that can be added to ramen. What you will get will largely depend on the local and seasonal produce of the place you’re visiting. But the basic or usual toppings are:

  • Chashu: One or two slices of roasted pork.
  • Kakuni: Braised pork belly, served instead of chashu at some restaurants.
  • Menma: Salty fermented bamboo shoots.
  • Negi: Julienned or chopped scallions or leeks.
  • Karanegi: Negi mixed with chili oil; often topped over Miso ramen.
  • Moyashi: Bean sprouts, served blanched or raw.
  • Tamago: Boiled eggs (marinated, soft boiled, or hard-boiled); some ramen-ya put raw eggs that are eventually cooked by the hot broth.
  • Seaweed: Usually nori or wakame, but there are other types too.
  • Kamaboko: Steamed fish cake.
  • Narutomaki: A white kamaboko with a sawtooth edge and a pink spiral design.
  • Corn: Usually canned corn; topped over Miso or Shio ramen.
  • Takana-zuke: Pickled and seasoned mustard leaves
  • Mushrooms: Usually shiitake, but can be other local mushrooms
  • Ginger: Usually pickled but sometimes fresh ginger is also used

Some ramen-ya are starting to add Western ingredients like truffle oil, ham, or cherry tomatoes to their dishes.

What Is Ramen? - A Glimpse Into Why It's So Popular In Japan

Regional Varieties

As I stated earlier, there is a wide variety of ramen across Japan. Here are some of the famous ones:

  • Asahikawa Ramen from Hokkaido: This is an oily, shoyu ramen. The noodles are thin and wavy. The toppings are chasu, negi, menma, and tamago.
  • Sapporo Ramen from Hokkaido: Miso ramen was invented in Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido. This ramen has thick noodles and topped with specialties from Hokkaido like butter, sweet corn, scallops, crab, finely chopped pork, or squid.
  • Kitakata Ramen from Fukushima: This is a shoyu/tonkotsu ramen whose base is flavored with dried sardines. The noodles are thick, flat, wavy noodles. Toppings are negi, menma, and chashu.
  • Tokyo Ramen: The noodles are medium and wavy. The soup is shoyu-based with a touch of fish dashi (stock) since many ramen-ya in Tokyo were originally soba-ya (the buckwheat type) before they turned to ramen. Tokyo Ramen has the usual toppings plus spinach. Besides the three Michelin-starred restaurants I mentioned, there is a lot of good ramen-ya in Tokyo, specifically in the Ebisu, Ikebukuro, and Ogikubo areas.
  • Onomichi Ramen from Hiroshima: This is a Shoyu ramen with fish dashi from local seafood added into it. The noodles are thin, firm, and straight. Toppings are the usual plus some pork fat.

What Is Ramen? - A Glimpse Into Why It's So Popular In Japan

  • Hakata Ramen from Fukuoka: Hakata is where Tonkotsu ramen officially began. It has thin, straight, and very elastic noodles that come with thick slices of chashu. Additional toppings are crushed garlic, pickled ginger, sesame seeds, pickled mustard greens. These toppings are usually left on the counters so customers can mix and match according to their liking. You don’t have to go to Fukuoka to have some Hakata Ramen, though. It’s become a very popular variety across Japan. Ippudo, a very famous ramen chain, originated from Hakata and so it sells this type of ramen.
  • Okinawa Soba: The base is Shio soup with the usual ramen toppings. If you want broiled pork, then ask for Soki Soba.
  • Champon from Nagasaki: The broth is Tokotsu-based and the noodles are thick. The toppings of this regional ramen are unique: stir-fried bacon, seafood, and a lot of vegetables.
  • Yokohama Ramen: This has thick noodles in a broth that blends Shoyu and Tonkotsu. It contains the usual toppings. But what makes it special is that customers can specify what type of noodles they want, and how rich and oily broth should be.

What Is Ramen? - A Glimpse Into Why It's So Popular In Japan

Instant Ramen

No article on ramen can be complete without some discussion of instant noodles. According to a 2000 survey by the Fuji Research Institute, the Japanese considered instant noodles as the greatest invention of the 20th century. This was the same result in a poll conducted in 2017. Who would not agree with this result? Just add hot water and you can already enjoy Ramen. Now, most of you are probably thinking about the instant ramen from college. No, instant ramen is a completely different game in Japan.

Hundreds of instant cup ramen or ramen packets are sold everywhere, not just in Japan but worldwide as well. You can get them from supermarkets, convenience stores, and vending machines. But what you can buy only in Japan (unless you buy it online) are instant ramen from the Michelin-starred ramen-ya.

Nakiryu Tantan Instant Ramen

A product of the collaboration between Nakiryu, the 7-Eleven convenience stores, and Nissin. This was launched in 2017, shortly after Nakiryu received its star. It has a rich, creamy yet spicy soup; smooth noodles; minced meat (that actually does not taste like a sponge when it’s been rehydrated); and other toppings.

Tsuta

An instant ramen collaboration with 7-Eleven, which was launched in 2018. The Tsuta Japanese Soba Noodles has all the usual toppings that can be (even the truffle oil). The broth is almost like the actual Tsuta ramen. It’s light and has that truffle-seafood flavor.

What Is Ramen? - A Glimpse Into Why It's So Popular In Japan

Ramen-related Attractions

If you want to completely satiate your ramen obsession in Japan, then I suggest you pay a visit to Yokohama, which has the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum and the Cup Noodles Museum.

Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum

If you want to sample ramen from various regions in just one place, then go to the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum. It showcases the history of ramen plus it has around a dozen ramen stalls selling different types of ramen.

What Is Ramen? - A Glimpse Into Why It's So Popular In Japan

Cup Noodles Museum

Another museum that traces the history of noodles, this time the instant kind. You can even design your own cup noodles. There is a food court that serves all sorts of noodle dishes from around the world.

Congratulations

You just graduated Ramen school. Let me end this insight into ramen in Japan by reminding you of how many people enjoy this dish. You eat the noodles and toppings with chopsticks and sip the broth by drinking directly from the bowl or using a Chinese style spoon.

In my article on public etiquette, I mentioned that slurping noodles is considered normal in Japan. Doing this enhances the flavor of the broth and helps cool down the hot noodles. There’s also a popular idea that slurping is a polite way of telling the chef that the dish is delicious.

What’s your favorite ramen? Share it in the comments section.

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