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.