A salute to ramen

TOKYO —

Ramen – how to describe it? Why try? Everyone knows what it is. The mere mention of the name brings its taste – tastes, rather, for the flavors, ingredients and recipes are as wide as its geographical reach, which by now is everywhere in Japan and far beyond the national borders. Ramen is worldwide, like sushi, though a much later entrant than sushi to the English language (1972 versus 1893, according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary).

Shukan Gendai (Feb 16-23) celebrates ramen in all its dizzying variety. The dish was born in 1910 in Tokyo’s Akasaka, the heartland of plebeian – or, as we would say today, pop – culture. The first ramen restaurant was an establishment called Rairaiken. We call it ramen now but Rairaiken’s original name for it was “shina soba” – Chinese noodles. The noodles were steeped in chicken broth flavored with a dash of soy sauce. Price: 6 sen. A sen was 1/100 of a yen.

Its spread at first was slow – to Fukushima in 1925, to Kyushu in 1937. In Kyushu there occurred the first ramen mutation, from chicken broth to the pork broth which characterizes Kyushu ramen to this day. The second, in Sapporo in 1950, gave us miso ramen. The culture was growing, but hardly exploding. The explosion came in 1958, when Nisshin produced its first – the first – instant ramen. Suddenly ramen was everywhere, spawning regional variations that today define a locale as decisively as architecture, scenery or dialect do. To Nisshin too we owe the universality of the name “ramen,” which overwhelmed the earlier variations on the theme of “Chinese noodles.”

What’ll it be, then? Beef broth, pork broth, miso, soy, straight noodles, curly noodles? Or how about this, on the subject of noodles: in Tokyo’s Asakusabashi there’s an establishment called Fushan, famous for one-noodle ramen. That’s right – a piping bowl of ramen with one noodle floating in it – but that one noodle is 25 meters long. Price: 1400 yen – one measure of the distance ramen has traveled since its humble 6-sen beginnings.

In 1967 there emerged a new variety of “Sapporo ramen” called Dozanko, meaning literally a person (or horse) native to Hokkaido. Its distinctive ingredients are butter and corn. How it came by its name is anyone’s guess. It was born not in Hokkaido but in Tokyo.

Rairaiken, the original ramen restaurant, is no more, but it boasts an heir in Susumu Miyaba, who claims to follow the initial Rairaiken recipe at his Shinraiken restaurant in Anagawa, Chiba Prefecture. Price for a standard serving: 500 yen – hardly exorbitant for a taste of 103-year-old history.

  • 5

    badsey3

    http://www.instantramen-museum.jp/pamphlet_e.pdf (museum English)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Momofuku_Ando

    He was convicted of tax evasion in 1948 and served two years in jail. In his biography, Ando said he had provided scholarships for students, which at the time was a form of tax evasion. After he lost his company due to a chain reaction bankruptcy,

    Ando claimed that the secret of his long life was playing golf and eating Chikin Ramen (Chicken Ramen) almost every day. He was said to have eaten instant ramen until the day before he died.[9][10]

  • 4

    badsey3

    "On August 25, 1958, at the age of 48, and after months of trial and error experimentation to perfect his flash-frying method, Ando marketed the first package of precooked instant noodles. Called Chikin Ramen after the original chicken flavor, it was originally considered a luxury item with a price of 35Yen, around six times that of traditional udon and soba noodles at the time. Ando began the sales of his most famous product, Cup Noodle on September 18, 1971 (age 61) with the masterstroke of providing a waterproof polystyrene container. As prices dropped, instant ramen soon became a booming business.

    -this is a man that never gave up and he ate his instant noodles until death. Put some fresh veggies with your instant noodles and celebrate this man with a healthy meal.

  • 3

    Tamarama

    Ramen is special. It's truly a wonderful experience to go into a good Ramenya and sample their take on a simple, yet beautifully complex dish.

  • 3

    risugirl

    Ramen anyday!!!

  • -15

    Moonraker

    Too greasy, too salty, often full of MSG and dead animal extracts (whatever that might be).

  • -5

    smithinjapan

    I like the odd bowl of ramen, from a legit restaurant and not just some fast-food chain. The stuff is definitely too salty, full of MSG, and all around bad for you (especially instant stuff, regardless of whether you throw in some veggies), but it sure can hit the spot sometimes!

  • 11

    Tamarama

    often full of MSG and dead animal extracts (whatever that might be).

    I can tell you. Pig's bones and trotters are boiled veeeeery slowly to break down the meats, gelatin, fats and proteins to make that killer tonkotsu stock.

    Outstanding.

  • -1

    JeffLee

    As for the history, the version I heard was that Chinese residents of Yokohama invented it, attempting to make something from home with the limited ingredients available in Japan. But once the Chinese could get more authentic ingredients, they quickly abandoned ramen, and the Japanese took up the slack.

  • 0

    SamuraiBlue

    I believe Japanese will never full accept that ramen was a Japanese original but a Chinese dish that was orientated to suit Japanese taste buds.

    Having said that the Chinese themselves often say that their Ryumen is nothing like the Japanese ramen and seprates the two by calling ramen as Japanese style(日式).

  • 8

    SamuraiBlue

    Smithy

    Most Japanese dashi broth contains MSG since they use Konbu a source of natural MSG. Tomato is also a large source of MSG but I don't really see anyone complain a bowl of Minestrone soup.

  • -10

    Moonraker

    Pig's bones and trotters are boiled veeeeery slowly to break down the meats, gelatin, fats and proteins

    Ugh!

  • -1

    Steve Christian

    SamuraiBlue, like or not there is usually a bit of difference between a product being found naturally in foods, and having it removed using chemicals and processing and putting it in purified, concentrated form in other foods. Salt and sugar are fine examples of things that are pretty harmless when eaten with the food it came in, but become troublesome when concentrated, purified and thereby, over used.

    I tend to avoid ramen because it tends to be too much of things like MSG and salt, not just because they are present.

  • 1

    akkk1

    ...once the Chinese could get more authentic ingredients, they quickly abandoned ramen, and the Japanese took up the slack.

    Chinese still have their lo-mein which the Japanese reinvented as ramen. Just as the Chinese jiaozi was adopted as Japanese gyoza. That's just two of a many things Chinese that turned Japanese.

  • 1

    SamuraiBlue

    Steve

    If you're talking about the instant version then yes I agree. Too much MSG numbs the taste buds. I believe it is call "Chinese Food Syndrom". If you're talking about ramen at a ramen shop then you are wrong since they usually use Kombu and other vegetables for their broth.

    As for grease the old fashion Tokyo style has very little in it if you can find one.

    As for the origin of Ramen there are various views and opinions and not one single story. The one I personally like is the story about Mito Mitsukuni was the first Japanese to eat Ramen back in the 17th century.

  • 3

    Carcharodon

    Processed ramen noodles are evil. To your stomach what cigarettes are to your lungs.

    http://www.kvue.com/news/health/What-Ramen-Noodles-do-inside-your-stomach-152320655.html

    Eat freshly made Ramen, if you must eat it. That rule of thumb pretty much applies to all food though.

  • 2

    Nessie

    In 1967 there emerged a new variety of “Sapporo ramen” called Dozanko, meaning literally a person (or horse) native to Hokkaido. Its distinctive ingredients are butter and corn. How it came by its name is anyone’s guess. It was born not in Hokkaido but in Tokyo.

    In Sapporo, only tourists eat ramen with butter and corn.

  • 1

    SwissToni

    There's no convincing evidence to suggest MSG causes the so called Chinese Food Syndrome. It affects the body in the same way as the natural glutamate found in most foods, it simply enhances the savoury flavour. In normal quantities it's not at all harmful as proven by repeated international food standards agencies studies.

    On the other hand, the amount of salt found in most chain restaurants, ramenya included, will definitely add to your hypertension.

  • -2

    falseflagsteve

    Nice and filling for the poorer in society, though i would recommend never to tough the packet stuff. Some places have ok ramen but mostly the customers are the types i would not like to eat around and i am rather averse to loud slurping.

  • 0

    BertieWooster

    Nessie-san,

    In Sapporo, only tourists eat ramen with butter and corn.

    Right!

    In "Ramen yokocho!"

    Hah!

    I miss real ramen!

    And Sapporo Classic!

  • 0

    Steve Fabricant

    Fascinating the way it's achieved quasi-gourmet status. I'm thinking about "Tampopo".

    There's no shortage of good ramen places in Okinawa....crushed pickled garlic - yummmmm

  • 5

    Steve Fabricant

    Pig's bones and trotters are boiled veeeeery slowly to break down the meats, gelatin, fats and proteins

    Ugh!

    Moonraker - I hope you've never eaten Jello! Pig parts are mainstays of Okinawan cuisine, too.

  • -1

    Serrano

    I actually used to love ramen. Now I can't stand the greasy stuff.

  • -1

    BertieWooster

    Steve Fabricant,

    There's no shortage of good ramen places in Okinawa

    There are?

    Tell me where!

    I know ONE that isn't bad.

    Most of the ramen I've eaten in Okinawa has been, well, sort of complicated.

    Not a patch on Sapporo.

    There are some GREAT soba shops, though.

  • 0

    Kimokekahuna Hawaii

    Actually impressed to see that people realize what MSG can do to your brain. I can not eat at Thai, Pho, Korean and Chinese restaurants where they add the stuff like seasoning.. Japan is smart enough to know you do not have to eat MSG or GMO foods. It is sad to see MSG in Nori.. peasant food does not mean bad food... actually it should be organic noodles.. Marukame opened an Udon shop in Hawaii and there is a line around the block each day.. and they do not use MSG and a little Hawaiian sea salt when used instead of iodized salt is better for your system. But it is always good to keep some cheap packets of Ramen for emergency food in case of Earthquake or WWIII.

  • 2

    JeffLee

    Japan is smart enough to know you do not have to eat MSG

    But Japan invented the stuff and is world's biggest producer of this chemical (Ajinomoto). I see it in almost all the packaged food in my Tokyo supermarket.

    The non-MSG restaurant you mention...is in the USA. Hello?

  • 0

    FPSRussia

    Sumire Ramen is the best in Japan IMO. With Sapporo Classic its so awesome.

  • 1

    Pidestroika

    1. I LOVE RAMEN!!!
    2. My favorite joint: Ramen Suika inside Ueno Station. VERY good!
    3. Worst Ramen-ya ever: cheap Chinese Ramen in Nippori; rubber band noodles with soup tasting like dishwasher water.
    4. Most exotic Ramen-ya: Uguisudani. Cook casually started spraying a cockroach running on the wall right beside us eating on the counter.
  • 0

    Hiroicci

    Ramen is one thing that I would defy anyone's orders (my doctor's, my gf's or God's) not to get.

  • 2

    Steve Fabricant

    @Bertie... I thought you'd have to have Jeeves look it up, but here is the info on Fu-Un, a small place near Shintoshin. It fills up quickly at lunchtime as does their parking lot:

    http://loco.yahoo.co.jp/place/fa47f8d6e7e5aa9f62a5bc3d82134d5aca0c85a6/?prop=search&ei=utf-8&q=沖縄県&p=風雲+ラーメン

    Another place I like is Ryukyu Tondou Shinmen (the place with the pickled garlic), in Yosemiya across from Ryugin.

    There is also a branch of a mainland chain (can't recall the name) in Makiminato on 58 that's pretty good.

    I avoid the very thick soups.

  • 0

    megosaa

    there's nothing better than a bowl of ramen after a night out of heavy drinking! after my 模合, it's ramen time! my favorite is 民民 at at uruma city.

  • 1

    Yubaru

    There's no shortage of good ramen places in Okinawa....crushed pickled garlic - yummmmm

    I think "good" is all in the mouth of the eater. Sure there are ramen shops in Okinawa but I don't know if I would qualify them as good.

    Also if you've been here long enough you'll see that there are few if any ramen only places that stay in business for any decent length of time outside of the chain type places and even those shut down too.

    FYI the one on 58 I believe is らーめん大阪村本店

  • 1

    afanofjapan

    Good ramen cannot be easily made at home, yet its such a cheap dish to eat out. I have been to so many ramen shops in my time in Japan, and continue to go at least once a week.

    My personal favourite is the ultra thick tonkotsu soup with thick noodles and lots of garlic. I try to eat at a new shop every week though my current favourite is bukotsu in Ueno

  • 0

    mdepaiva

    Ramen = soul food.

  • 5

    Dennis Bauer

    Tonkotsu miso ramen ooishi!

    @Moonraker "often full of MSG and dead animal extracts"

    most food is full of death things! THE HORROR!

  • 0

    sighclops

    i've been to the top three restaurants in japan, but have to say i still prefer tsukemen over ramen.

    tsukemen is for the true connoisseur ;)

  • -1

    Yubaru

    tsukemen is for the true sseur !

    Lol! FYI typically speaking tsukeimen uses the same ramen noodles and has had a boom recently because it can be served cold which has helped ramen sales in summer.

  • -2

    japan_cynic

    A decent ramen is a tasty meal. But what's with all this "regional variation" guff? Japanese food hardly changes from one end of the country to the other.

    Mind you, you could say the same about architecture or scenery, so maybe it's meant to be ironic.

  • 1

    Steve Fabricant

    Tsukemen = same nice noodles, maybe the same chunky ingredients, but with different, lighter, cold broth. That's worth trying.

  • 0

    bass4funk

    Living in Kyushu, the heart and Capitol of Ramen, every corner, you can't beat the ramen here. Who the heck cares if its too salty, everything is bad for you, in that case why not something that at least tastes good. I prefer Kumamoto ramen. Heavy on the garlic. Tonkotsu is a bit to smelly for me, don't mind the animal parts (come on we have all been to an Izakaiya, but if you don't like animal extracts, then never heat hot dogs, sausages or ANY processed meat, that includes chicken nuggets (yum) miso ramen is great as well. As long as people don't over indulge and make it. 7 day a week ramen eating habit, there is nothing to worry about.

  • 0

    lucabrasi

    I live right in the centre of the tonkotsu ramen area, but I'd have to agree that the smell can be a bit overpowering, especially walking past a ramen shop on a hot summer afternoon. I'd go for miso ramen every time, but it's not always easy to find down here.

  • 0

    bass4funk

    @luca

    Come to Fukuoka, miso is EVERYWHERE and it's sooo good. Selection is enormous.

  • 1

    megosaa

    i can see myself swimming/slithering' in a massive bowl of ramen! :D

  • 0

    BertieWooster

    Steve Fabricant,

    Thank you very much for posting the map for Fu-un.

    I had forgotten that place. My wife found it on the internet and we had lunch there a couple of years ago. Actually, it was very good. The master had a good taste in music too, as I recall.

    I take back what I said!

    Because I lived in Sapporo for years, I prefer Sapporo-type noodles to the Kyushu noodles at Fu-un. The closest I have found is Sanpachi. Although it's a ramen chain, the taste varies from shop to shop. I tried the one in Shintoshin and didn't like it - very oily. But the one we often go to is Ramen Sanpachi, Tomishiro-ten, Okinawa-ken, Tomigusuku-shi, Tagami, 66-1.

    I agree with you about tsukemen. It can be very good. More suitable to the Okinawan climate than the hot variety.

    There is also Tantanmen at Yonabaru Soba, just after the bridge coming into Oroku, opposite Onoyama-koen. It isn't exactly ramen, the noodles are okinawan, but the soup and "guu" is very ramen-like.

    But, for me, the best is the ramen we eat at home. My wife is dosanko (Hokkaido-born) and cooks excellent ramen. We buy the noodles on the internet. That's another thing that's rare to find in Okinawa - good Hokkaido-style ramen noodles.

  • 1

    Xeno23

    When, as a teenager, my family left Japan I wept for the thought of never eating ramen again; lo and behold, a few years later it was everywhere in the USA! What a relief! And now, world-wide, there's a kind of ramen renaissance / explosion, so you don't have to go too far to find a relatively proper ramen shop. The simple fact that within easy driving distance there are dozens of shops purveying all sorts of styles - this is a happy thought.

    Just think on this: how many college kids' lives has ramen saved? Off hand, I'd say all of them...

  • 0

    Yubaru

    That's another thing that's rare to find in Okinawa - good Hokkaido-style ramen noodles.

    Try the Mistukoshi supermarket at Tomiton across from Ashibina in Toyosaki, Tomigusuku, I've bought Hokkaido produced ramen noodles there before. They are great, but are pretty good.

  • -1

    Moonraker

    @Dennis Bauer.

    @Moonraker "often full of MSG and dead animal extracts"

    most food is full of death things! THE HORROR!

    There is a difference between dead things and that which can be squeezed out of a dead animal.

    Unrelatedly, I don't really expect ramen eaters to be very sophisticated in their tastes. It's ok. Most taste buds, Japanese or other, can easily be fooled with plenty of salt and grease and various "extracts" and additives. There are whole industries based on just that and most people really have no idea what they are eating when they go out, for ramen or anything else. There is a lot of talk here about this or that ramen shop having this or that ingredient like the consumer is some kind of connoisseur but my guess is almost all the customers have no idea what is going in it or anything else they eat. The propensity to desire ramen mainly after boozing says a lot. It is like kebabs or wieners or hamburgers in different parts of the west.

  • 0

    Yubaru

    They are great, but are pretty good.

    Sorry meant to write they aren't great, but are pretty good.

  • 0

    Steve Fabricant

    @bertie wooster -- I'd like to get directions to the one in Tomigusuku since I go there often. Maybe continue discussion on FB?

  • 0

    tkoind2

    We call Ramen "Comfort Food". Easy, quick, endless variety and adaptable to each and very consumer. What more could you ask for?

  • 0

  • 0

    2020hindsights

    There is a difference between dead things and that which can be squeezed out of a dead animal.

    Like what?

    • Moderator

      Stay on topic please.

  • 1

    Tamarama

    Moonraker

    There is a lot of talk here about this or that ramen shop having this or that ingredient like the consumer is some kind of connoisseur but my guess is almost all the customers have no idea what is going in it or anything else they eat.

    Based on what? A hunch? The fact that it contains animal products? Why does someone who enjoys a bowl of Ramen have no inherent ability to discern between good food and bad?

    I'd love you to tell me.

  • 1

    Fadamor

    The stuff is definitely too salty, full of MSG, and all around bad for you (especially instant stuff, regardless of whether you throw in some veggies), but it sure can hit the spot sometimes!

    I guess the implication is that salt and MSG are "all around bad for you". Salt is only bad for you if you have a condition such as high blood pressure that an increase in salt intake will worsen. MSG... can't find a single RELIABLE study that has indicated that it's bad for you. From Wiki:

    In 1986, FDA's Advisory Committee on Hypersensitivity to Food Constituents concluded that monosodium glutamate poses no threat to the general public but that reactions of brief duration might occur in some people. Other reports have given the following findings:

    The 1987 Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization placed monosodium glutamate in the safest category of food ingredients.

    A 1991 report by the European Community's (EC) Scientific Committee for Foods reaffirmed monosodium glutamate's safety and classified its "acceptable daily intake" as "not specified", the most favorable designation for a food ingredient. In addition, the EC Committee said, "Infants, including prematures, have been shown to metabolize glutamate as efficiently as adults and therefore do not display any special susceptibility to elevated oral intakes of glutamate." Legislation in effect since 06/01/2013 (sic), classifies Glutamic acid and glutamates as Salt substitutes and Seasonings and condiments with a maximum level of consumption of 10 g/kg expressed as glutamic acid.

    Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glutamic_acid_(flavor)#Safety_as_a_flavor_enhancer

  • 0

    kaminarioyaji

    Miso Tokotsu Ramen: It's heart attack in a bowl, but by god it tastes so good. Agree with what someone said above about it being Soulfood.

    I'm now in Kyushu, but remember a great place named Tsukumo Ramen (Has the Kanji for 9-10-9) in Ebisu (Go out the west exit toward Meiji Dori, and then it's on the other side of Meiji Dori going towards Aoyama, about 100m up on the right) and their sister shop in Tsudanuma (Chiba pref).

    For it's customizability, Ichiran (nationwide chain) are always worth a venture in.

    Anyone ever tried the legendary Ramen Jiro in the Tokyo 'burbs? I never got around to going whilst there, but friends said "There's Ramen, and there's Ramen Jiro"

  • -2

    Moonraker

    Tamarama

    Why does someone who enjoys a bowl of Ramen have no inherent ability to discern between good food and bad?

    Well, if they would still eat it without the fat and salt then perhaps they could discern but usually people who eat that much salt and fat cannot taste anything much. Try going without salt and fats for a while and see how the sense of taste changes.

    Adding salt, fat and sugar is a cheap, effective and easy way to deceive the sense of taste. Hence almost all restaurants (and processed food makers) load up their food with these, including ramen shops. But, in addition, there are whole industries producing artificial tastes and aromas for addition to food. There is a factory near me. And regulations are not so strong on this here. Keep your nose open to these artificial smells when you are out and about.

  • -1

    SamuraiBlue

    Moonraker

    What you post is scientifically incorrect.

    Salt and sugar working osmotic pressure within a solution breaks down the cell wall membranes within food thus releasing flavor within the cells. Without it the amino acid within the cell can only be release through chewing and which is a fraction of amount from the amount released through breaking down of cell membranes.

    Of course too much salt and/or sugar will mask the taste but you need a certain amount of salt and/or sugar to actually gain the full flavor of any ingredient.

  • 1

    wipeout

    Adding salt, fat and sugar is a cheap, effective and easy way to deceive the sense of taste.

    It's also the foundation of cooking. Try making an apple pie without any added fat or sugar.

  • 1

    Fadamor

    Follow-on question: If ramen is a Japanese invention, why is it spelled in katakana rather than hiragana?

  • 0

    lucabrasi

    @Fadamor

    Excellent, Sherlock Holmes-style question!

  • 0

    Hansaram

    Having said that the Chinese themselves often say that their Ryumen is nothing like the Japanese ramen and seprates the two by calling ramen as Japanese style(日式).

    Don't remember the Chinese said anything like that.

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