Big in Japan: An Ode to Ramen (Part I)

This week, Big in Japan will be bringing you a four-part series on the most perfect of foods.

I love ramen.

For some, it’s the heady aroma and subtle flavor of a finely aged cheese. For others, it’s the enticing sizzle and juicy goodness of a T-bone steak.

For me, it’s gotta be ramen – Nature’s most perfect food.

Now, I know exactly what you’re thinking. Ramen?!?! That cheap, instant ‘just add hot water’ garbage that they sell at the supermarket for ten cents a pack. That high-salt, high-fat, chemically-flavored staple food of starving and poor college kids the world over. That Styrofoam-packaged and MSG-coated food-like product that is about as nutritious as it is natural.

Well, let’s just say that you don’t know ramen like I know ramen!

Forget everything you think you know, and allow me to explain to you how ramen is SO much more than Cup o’Noodles.

For starters, Japanese instant noodles were first imported to North America in the 1970s, and since then have been commonly been referred to as ramen. In the 1980s, American manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon, and started marketing instant noodles as a cheap and filling food item for people on a budget. Needless to say, ramen has achieved cult status amongst teenagers and college students, who can eat their fill for less than a $1 a day.

Sadly, few people outside Japan have had the truly sublime experience of eating REAL ramen, which is nothing at all like the instant noodle garbage found at your local neighborhood supermarket.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Ramen (rāmen, ラーメン, らーめん or 拉麺) is a Japanese dish of boiled noodles that is typically served in hot broth, and garnished with a variety of toppings including sliced pork, hard-boiled eggs, garlic, green onions, bean sprouts and dried seaweed. Originating from China, ramen has been whole-heartedly adopted by Japan over centuries, and presently appears in a multitude of regional varieties and specialties.

Much like choosing a fine French wine or a particular Italian pasta, the allure of eating ramen is that there is a seemingly endless variety of dishes out there. Ramen noodles can be found in a dizzying assortment of shapes, sizes and thicknesses, while the broth can consist of anything from clear chicken to pork stock and chili to miso soup.

While the love of ramen may be the great social equalizer in Japan, it’s the toppings that distinguish your trucker’s stop noodles from your boutique bowl in Ginza. Indeed, ramen has undergone a number of transformations in recent years, and is now just as much as working-class staple as it is a high-end delicacy.

Still think ramen is nothing more than instant noodles?

So, stop by ‘Big in Japan’ this week for an in-depth look at the world of ramen. In Part II, I’ll trace the history of ramen from China to Japan. In Part III, I’ll discuss the numerous varieties and flavors of ramen that you can find in Japan. In Part IV, I’ll highlight a few regional specialities, and share some of my own ramen recipes.

Getting Hungry? Check out our delicious photo gallery of Japanese food. %Gallery-6477%

** Special thanks to Flickr users adactio (ramen) and heyjoewhereyougoingwiththatguninyourhand (99 cent ramen) shibainu (don don men)**