A Weird and Wonderful History of Ramen

Photo by  @guacaholeymoley

Its exact origins are contested, but everyone agrees that ramen definitely comes from China. Like so many of our beloved foods, ramen is an immigrant.  With its characteristic baking soda soaked curls and endless reinventions, the noodle that would become Japan's national dish, beloved the world over, traveled to Japan on a wave of Chinese immigrants.

The most plausible origin story is that the first bowl of ramen served on Japanese soil was at Rai-Rai Ken in Tokyo. The restaurant was opened by a former customs agent who had lived in Yokahama’s Chinatown. They hired Chinese cooks, and popularized the dish then known as shina soba, or Chinese noodles.

According to NYU Professor and ramen historian George Solt, the curly noodles owe much of their twentieth century rise in popularity to imperialism. Imperial Japan was obsessed with all things relating to China and the rest of its imperial subjects, and so eating shina soba was a way to connect more intimately to the crown jewel of the empire. As Anneli Rufus writes in the Huffington Post, “to eat shina soba in those years was to symbolically gobble up China itself. As China represented the empire’s biggest prize, a bowl of shina soba represented nothing less than world domination.”

Ramen’s dreams of world domination were temporarily dashed when World War I arrived, bringing with it massive wheat shortages. During the war, it briefly became illegal to sell ramen, and people were thrown in jail over it. When the war ended, Ramen found its way back into style, the symbol of Japan’s postwar economic boom. Ramen was fuel for the tireless Japanese worker, propelling Japan into global greatness. Eating ramen was an act of resistance against the flood of European cuisine taking over the newly cash rich country.

Everything changed (again) when the Taiwanese Inventor Momofuku Ando invented instant ramen in 1958. For the hardcore foodies in the back, yes, that is where David Chang got the inspiration for the name of his now iconic NYC ramen joint. This was also when our noodles found their name. By this point, the word shina was seen as outdated at best and racist at worst. Nissan Foods decided to market Ando’s invention as “Chikin Ramen,” the word ramen being a Japanese transcription of the Chinese lamian (拉麵), a type of Chinese noodle.

Instant ramen was initially marketed as a luxury food, targeted at nuclear housewives, a key part of a wholesome, nutritious family. It was sold at six times the cost of fresh noodles.

Eventually, of course, instant ramen would become cheaper and cheaper to produce, prices would drop, and Nissan foods would start marketing the wonder noodle with just-add-water soup mix inside a Styrofoam cup. During this phase, ramen would go on to get millions of young Americans through their teens and twenties. But it would lose its mantle of culinary glory. It would be seen as cheap and fast, food for the sick and broke.

I remember telling my high school boyfriend I wanted ramen for dinner one warm Arizona evening. He curled his face in disgust.

“That’s what sick people eat.”

I remember the excitement in my stomach when my mother would let me bring a cup noodle for school lunch in sixth grade. Tearing the plastic wrap off, feeling the Styrofoam cup slowly warm as it filled with hot water. The heavy salt steam. Those weird dayglow dehydrated peas and carrots. It was the coolest lunch.

Years later, on a flight to Hong Kong with my college boyfriend, we were offered as much free instant ramen as we wanted. I forget the airline. We were sitting in economy but endless ramen felt like the highest level of luxury.

How did Americans grow to not only embrace but to worship ramen? How did we get to the place where we will stand in line to pay $18 for a bowl of noodles made by David Chang?

The answer can be found in the way ramen entrepreneurs like Change used the genius of Japanese food marketing to create a cult following for the wonder noodle on this side of the Pacific. Because of course Japan has particularly sophisticated food trend marketing.

“Over the last few years, we’ve developed a whole blogging culture around food in the U.S., with personal blogs on Tumblr and publications like Serious Eats, Grub Street, and Eater focusing on food trends. But it was already like that 20 or 30 years ago in Japan because of the many food magazines,” says Nathan Shockey, a professor of Japanese at Bard college and a huge ramen nerd.

“There are six or seven ramen magazines in Tokyo alone,” says ramen commentator Brian MacDuckston. “Countrywide, there are even more.”

Japanese ramen shop owners are deeply media savvy, fully aware that making delicious food is nowhere near the end of the work. Just as important is getting people to talk about their ramen. Even hole-in-the-wall places are up on all the latest PR trends and can find their way into top foodie publications. Shockey says restaurant media coverage in Japan is largely positive, which can indicate a collaborative, you-scratch-my-back relationship between restaurants and the food writers who cover them.

Photo by  Hello Tokyo

Photo by Hello Tokyo

When gourmet ramen first made it to the U.S., chefs brought with them an expertise in Japan’s hyper-specific food trend culture. A key aspect of successful ramen marketing is based in the psychology of the line. Very few ramen restaurants in Japan take reservations, in what appears to be a strategic move.

“Creating a line in front of the shop is a form of advertising for the restaurant,” says Shockey. Japanese restaurant patrons have learned that good food is worth sacrificing time and comfort.

One recent rainy L.A. day, I stood outside Tsujita in Sawtelle Japantown, waiting in line for some hopefully excellent tsukemin. Jonathan Gold (whom I think of as my fairy godfather, as in What Would Jonathan Gold do) had just released his list of the 101 best places to eat in Los Angeles. I was in town visiting friends, so it was time to eat my way through as much of his list as possible.

Mr. Gold had raved about Tsujita, so I was here, standing in the rain for ramen, sophisticated Japanese marketing in action. Tsujita was nice enough to provide complimentary umbrellas, which we were all grateful for, but they let no one wait inside the tiny space.

Just as the wet and cold had started to seep into my skin, just as I was starting to give in to a totally irrational self-pity, I was welcomed into the steamy warmth.

“Back in the primordial days of 2010, I had barely heard of tsukemen, a Tokyo-born dish of bare cooked noodles served with a super concentrated dipping sauce of reduced, fish-scented pork broth, which apparently is the next stage in ramen’s evolution,” Mr. Gold says in his 2011 review of Tsujita.

I had not heard of tsukemen until I read Mr. Gold’s review in early 2018, but I would follow Mr. Gold off a cliff, so I was eager to try it. Here’s how he describes it:

“Or better yet, get the tsukemen: thicker, burlier, more slippery noodles, pure chew, with the tensile strength of hand-pulled Lanzhou mian; with syrup-dense dipping sauce, porkier than pork itself.”

To quote another of my literary heroes, Manuel Muñoz, “Okay?”

Mr. Gold goes on to note the many rules of Tsujita noodle slurping. I’m a sucker for rules-restricted eating, as long as it’s motivated by flavor and not orthorexia. The rules were one of the factors that drew me to the place. They did not disappoint.

Here are the rules of tsukemen at Tsujita:

1.     You may choose to add slices of fatty pork and a slow cooked egg.

2.     Eat the first third by dipping the noodles into the broth on its own.

3.     Eat the second third with powdered chilies

4.     For the final third, you will add a squeeze of lime.

5.     When you have finished your noodles, a server will come and pour hot water into your dipping bowl. To quote Mr. Gold, “It has become soup.”

For me, the careful following of rules heightens both the dish’s flavor and comfort. There is a relaxing of the muscles that comes from letting myself be led down a delicate path. Eating this way, I notice the subtle umami notes brought out by chili, the brightness that comes to the fore with lime. By the end, I am almost too full to drink the soup, but by now I’m in deep with this ramen. I push on, and I’m glad I do. The soup tastes like the memories of strangers. Gold ends his review thusly:

“I sent a couple of visiting friends who run one of the best three or four restaurants in the East Bay to Tsujita, telling them that they might find the tsukemen life-changing. The next day, they were contemplating a move to West LA.”

I look at myself in the bathroom mirror and find the eyes of a milk-drunk baby.

Ramen has always been a near religious experience for me, at once elevated and comforting. Something that satisfies me at such a deep level, that after a particularly good tonkotsu, like the one I had at Mu Ramen in Long Island City last year, I look at myself in the bathroom mirror and find the eyes of a milk-drunk baby. This feeling is heightened at a place like Mu, whose tonkotsu the Times described as “gorgeously full-bodied and almost chewy; as you wind the noodles into your mouth, the droplets that cling to them feel like heavy cream.” Sitting at the polished black bar, watching the bones boil in the kitchen, Mu felt like a temple. The broth was so thick you could almost bite it, and eating it felt like worship.

But the thing about ramen is that it doesn’t have to cost $18 and be served in a temple by a Per Se vet. That 25 cent Maruchan ramen in the orange package, the one that tastes almost as good raw, that stuff will soothe the rough red edges of your soul. That stuff was the only thing I could reliably eat as my teens, twenties, and early thirties were ravaged by chronic GI issues. It’s still my go-to whenever my stomach throws a tantrum. The summer I thought I might be celiac was a waking nightmare.

I was turning all of this baggage and history over in my mind when I stopped by Tucson’s new Raijin Ramen the other day. Tucson has a way of living at the tail of most food trends. For example, poke just became a thing here. So it makes sense that we wouldn’t get our first true temple to ramen until 2018. What has surprised me is how Tucson restaurant goers have embraced the place. Thirty-seven percent of Raijin’s Yelp reviews mention the line.

“I was aware of the fact that the line is always out the door, but I didn’t expect it on a weeknight too,” said one Yelper.

This is a town that let the excellent Caribbean rum bar Saint House go out of business, a town boasting zero excellent South Asian restaurants. I had always assumed Tucson never had a real ramen place because there wasn’t a market for it. But Tucsonans love Raijin.

“I’ve lived in Japan for 11 years,” says Kail C on Yelp, “and this is definitely the most authentic ramen I’ve had in the States.”

Even at 2:00 pm on a Wednesday, Raijin had a line. For any non-Tucsonans reading this, that is unheard of here. I think I got the last bowl before the kitchen closed the lunch service. The wait staff was friendly, professional, efficient. Everything you want in a place that uses the old line-out-the-door marketing trick. I ordered the black garlic tonkotsu. As my friend Will likes to say, I sure do love my tonkotsu.

The fragrant landscape my server placed before me had all the usual elements of ramen I have grown to love: the golden hills of corn, the wide plains of roast pork, and that cheeky soft-boiled egg, peaking up over the horizon.

The broth was at once decadent and delicate. It tasted the way soaking in a hot tub overlooking the ocean on a cold day feels. And if the mouth experience was a tiny bit less transcendent than the one I had at Mu, it was made better for being sold somewhere I could drive rather than fly to.

I ate as much of the milky life blood as my stomach could hold. I thanked and paid and tipped my excellent server. I walked out into the sunny Tucson winter day, happy that wherever I go, there ramen is.