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

This week, Big in Japan will be bringing you a four-part series on the most perfect of foods. Part I of the series aimed to debunk the myth of ramen as being mere instant noodles. Today’s column will trace the hundreds of years of history behind this savory snack.

I really love ramen.

I mean, how many other foods out there are the products of centuries of culinary revision? How many other foods out there crossed oceans of antiquity on multiple occasions? How many other foods out there have been adapted and re-adapted to local tastes time and again?

Bananas may have colonized the New World, coffee may have catapulted itself out of Arabia and salt may have built empires. But, none of these foods hits the spot quite like a steaming bowl of miso ramen topped with minced garlic and fresh bean sprouts.

The history and lore behind Nature’s most perfect food is worthy of textbooks.

Originating in China, scholars debate exactly when this hardiest of noodles was first introduced to Japan. Although it may have crossed over at several times during the history of Japan, the first recorded record of ramen-eating was in the late 17th century by the shogunate of the Tokugawa.

Needless to say, the Tokugawa dynasty was the first to unify Japan, so I think the connection between ramen noodles and empire-building is obvious.

Of course, ramen was not introduced to the Japanese masses until the Meiji era when the country first opened its doors to foreign interests. For most of Japan’s history, the diet consisted simply of steamed rice, vegetables and seafood, which is partly to explain why the country suddenly became incessant gourmands in the late 19th century.

During the Meiji era, American and European cuisine became the height of fashion, which sparked a large cattle- and pork-rearing industry in Japan. However, the real culinary revolution of the late 19th century was taking place in the Chinatowns of Kobe and Yokohama, where Chinese immigrants opened up food stalls in the busy ports. Here, along with gyōza (dumplings, ギョーザ), another one of my favourite dishes, Japanese commoners tasted their first bowls of sweet, delicious ramen.

As history will have it, World War II put something of a damper on the Japanese obsession with eating gourmet, though the food industry was quick to bounce back. In the 1950s, cheap US flour imports flooded the Japanese market, while ex-soldiers who had previously been in China proceeded to set up ramen shops across the country. In a few short years, ramen shops took Japan by storm, becoming something of a neighborhood landmark.

Much like McDonald’s in 1950s America, a family trip to the ramen shop was good eating.

The 1950s also brought about the invention of the instant noodle at the hands of the late Momofuku Ando, founder and chairman of Nissin Foods. Now, I don’t want to diminish the accomplishments of what has been regarded as one of the greatest Japanese inventions of the 20th century. After all, it’s Ando’s noodles that swept the world and the made ramen a household name. But, as I’ve no doubt tried my hardest to explain to you the reader, instant noodles are not ramen.

Still don’t believe me? In Part III, I discuss the varieties and flavors of ramen that you can find in Japan. In Part IV, I’ll highlight a few regional specialties, 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 kk+ (Noodle Chef) and Joey-Tigger (Cup o’Noodles) **