A bowl of ramen is a self contained eating experience that goes beyond and differs from that provided by its soup counterparts around the world. For the most part, a bowl of soup is either blended or at least uniform in look and in taste-no matter where you put your spoon you will be met with a mouthful of taste and texture that will be repeated till you reach the bottom of the bowl. Ramen is much more than that of even a typical noodle soup in that it ever so majestically props up 2, 3 or even up to 9 or 10 ‘toppings’, spanning from ‘Cha-shu-‘ (slices of fatty, roasted pork), a boiled, raw or marinated egg, moyashi (bean sprouts), and/or several other ‘toppings’ that I will cover later.
To begin your anticipated eating adventure it is fairly standard to dip the Renge (Chinese ceramic spoon) into the soup upon which you will then slurp the hot broth into your mouth to get your first taste of what is to come. This slurping of the soup, and of course of the noodles as well, serves to both cool the temperature of the soup a bit as well as to increase the the taste and texture of the overall experience.
From here you are ready to selectively enjoy toppings one at a time, focus on a bunch of noodles that you have expertly gathered with your chopsticks, entwine the noodles together with a single topping, or float around taking a sampling approach targeting 1, 2 or a few toppings at a time.
You will notice that not too much talking is going on with your Japanese friends as the Japanese tend to be quiet and reserved at the best of times and when the TPO (I have heard that this is a uniquely Japanese term meaning ‘Time, Place and Occasion’) calls for it. As we all know eating ramen is definitely one of those times that calls for quiet and speed. Fast, focused and quiet is the way to eat ramen, no ifs, ands or buts when it comes to ramen.
How did ramen originate in, or come to Japan, and in what manner did this come about? Debate on to what degree ramen is uniquely a Japanese dish and to what degree is it an import from China.
The origin of the name ‘Ramen’:
Hypothesis #1:’Ramen’ ＜ラーメン、らーめん, 老麺, 老麺＞is said mostly likely to come from a type of noodle that has been in existence in China since way back in time. This noodle type is called, lā miàn, lamian,<拉麺>, and is made by repeatedly stretching out a flour based dough until it results in long elastic noodles. ‘Lamian’ literally means ‘pulled noodles in Chinese. As you can probably already surmise, it is theorized that the name ramen came from a Japanization of the Chinese pronunciation of ”Lamian’ and while this seems to be the most obvious explanation, there are others.
Hypothesis #2: This proposal is that ‘Ramen’ is a derivation of a type of noodle in China that makes use of a fermentation process when making the flour based dough which is referred to using the Kanji of ,’老‘ <meaning ‘to age’ and read as ‘Rou’>, and ‘麺‘ <meaning noodles>. So this hypothesis proposes that ‘Ramen’ comes from, ‘老麺‘, or Roumen, meaning ‘aged noodles’.
Hypothesis #3: This one proposes that the word ‘Ramen’ comes from a restaurant named, ‘Takeya’ <竹屋> that opened in Hokkaido’s Sapporo city in 1922. Apparently the wife of the owner of the shop really enjoyed the way the Chinese cook would yell out, ‘Haora-!’- meaning, ‘It’s ready!’ when he would declare the soup was ready to be served. The pronunciation then went on to morph into ‘Ramen’ amongst the customers of this shop. This one sounds a bit far fetched to me personally, but it is kind of fun to consider anyway.
Hypothesis #4:The name of a certain Chuuka Soba restaurant in Asakusa called ‘柳麺‘ <Ryuumen> went on to the derivated name of ‘ramen’.
A brief history of the birth of Ramen:
It is speculated that the first person to eat ramen in Japan was none other than the famous Ibaraki Daimyou, Tokugawa Mitsukuni who was fictionalized as the ridiculously popular character of ‘Mito Koumon’. This take on things proposes that a Chinese adviser to the Daimyou had prepared and served to Mitsukuni a Chinese soup later called ‘Shiru Soba’. But it would be stretching things a bit to equate ‘Shiru Soba’ with ramen and it was most likely nothing more than the aforementioned ‘Lamian’ noodles served in a light broth of some kind. That said, once again, it is fun to ponder on such an occurrence.
From some time around the second half of the Meiji period (ran from 1868 to 1912) small outdoor stands began to appear in the China town area of Yokohama that sold a noodle soup called, ‘Nanking soba’. This soup however was still quite far from what could honestly be called equivalent what we consider to be ramen today. It was, apparently lacking in any of the toppings like cha-shu-, menma or dried seaweed that are so common now and only featured chopped green onion placed on top of a salt flavored, clear soup with simple ramen noodles and was not called ramen regardless. It can, however, be considered to be the authentic roots of present day ramen. Most people who study ramen in Japan consider the birth of ramen to be toward the end of the Meiji period, in 1910 when a shop in Asakusa, ‘Rairaiken’ ＜来々 軒＞began selling a soy sauce flavored, pork and chicken broth soup that was called ‘Chuuka Soba’ <Chinese noodles> and yet which could not be mistaken for anything other than ramen. The owner of ‘Rairaiken’, Ozaki Kanichi, opened up the shop with a staff of 12 Chinese cooks that he lured away from Yokohama’s China town to help him in his endeavor. Ozaki’s courageous and risky move of selling a pork/chicken bone based noodle soup amidst an environment in Japan where there was not a single shop doing so, as most restaurants in Japan up until then were Katsuo <Bonito> and/or Konbu <kelp> based soups, paid off. ‘Rairaiken’ proved to be a huge hit with its simple menu of Chuuka Soba, Wan tan and Shumai and a catch copy that doesn’t sound out of place even today – ‘Chuuka Soba is cheap, delicious and will fill you up’. Unfortunately, this historic shop closed its doors in 1976.
The further development of the popularity and standardization of ramen took its next step with a noodle shop in Sapporo around 1922 with the opening of this shop, ‘Takeya’. A Chinese cook working at the shop added genuine Chinese recipes to Takeya’s menu which resulted in an explosion of popularity that prompted one of its regular customers, university professor, to request that they change the name to ‘Shina Ryouri-Takeya’ <Ramen cuisine- Takeya>. This Chinese cook, Ou Bunzai, went on to adjust the taste of his soups to more suit the taste of the shop’s Japanese customers by making the, until then, oily soup to a more miso based one topped with Cha-shu-, menma, and green onions resulting in the ever popular, Sapporo ramen. This development as added great impetus to the growth in the popularity of ramen all across Japan and can perhaps also lay claim to being the first ‘real’ ramen of Japan.
Another rather unknown factor behind the booming popularity of ramen in its early years was non other than that of General MacArthur. In an effort to spur on political unrest, leftists in Japan were playing up on the food shortages at the time for their own benefit were cleverly bypassed with MacArthur’s diverting of extra American wheat supplies to ramen shops and ramen carts. He even ordered the distribution of fliers saying things like, ‘America is spending $250 million for your food’, and ‘Learn to appreciate it properly’. These efforts resulted in a further boom in the popularity of this wheat based noodle soup.
Not to go overboard (too late?) in looking at the spread of ramen it would be negligent of me to not mention the iconic ‘sound’ of ramen. This is the sound of the ‘Charumera’ that vendors would (and in some places still do) play to announce the arrival of their ramen carts (or trucks). The Charumera is also used as part of the musical accompaniment section of Kabuki plays.
It is said that even the great writer, ‘Edogawa Ranpo’ <江戸川乱歩>, (and yes that is a play on Edgar Allen Poe – but I won’t go into that any more here because, well…..) used to pull one of these ramen carts around to make money before he became a best selling author.
Mentioning one more piece of trivia about the popularization of ramen, or instant ramen, was surprisingly the ‘Asama-Sansou incident’.
In 1972 members of the United Red Army took a Nagano inn keeper’s wife hostage in the Asama Sansou (inn) which resulted in a 10 day siege on the inn by the Japanese police. Over the 10 days of which much was covered on Japanese TV, the police as well as the hostage takers were seen to be subsisting on Cup Ramen in styrofoam cups. This precious free advertising in a particuarly high tension event helped to make Cup ramen perhaps the most long running and popular comfort food in all of Japan.
From one year to the next for as long as I have lived in Japan ramen is always ranked in the top 3 favorite foods usually following in 2nd or 3rd place behind sushi which is always #1. What explains this, and what exactly IS ramen?
It is commonly known amongst ramen aficionados that ramen is composed of the following 5 elements:
Chuuka soba noodles
Tare <たれ、垂れ> (a liquid blend of various elements)
An oil blend
Chuukamen <Chinese noodles>
Ramen noodles are made using wheat flour, salt and the ingredient that really separates ramen noodles from other types, ‘Kansui’ water which is an alkaline water that contains sodium and potassium carbonate. This ‘Kansui’ water was first employed when it was discovered that the water taken from salty lakes in China (Mongolia) would add firmness <Koshi> and a shimmering look to the noodles. It also apparently gives ramen noodles their unique, slightly yellowish look. Up until the end of World War 2 in 1945 most of the Kansui water used was imported from China. Following the war it was discovered that alkali carbonate produced in domestic Japan was perfectly acceptable. In recent years it has further been discovered that if the wheat flour is of a high enough quality it is easy to create ramen noodles made using salt that are indistinguishable from ‘Kansui’ water ones.
The noodles vary greatly in thickness depending on the type of soup they are to be used with. Generally speaking, the ‘heavier’ and richer the soup is the thinner the noodle. They also can be shaped in the wavy style that you often see with instant ramen noodles, or in a straight style that is often the preferred type amongst ‘ramen maniacs’.
Types of soup/ramen
This is a ramen made centered around a light pork and/or chicken broth that is flavored with soy sauce and a light Japanese ‘Dashi’ of dried seafoods and seaweeds and is quite often often taken to be ‘Tokyo ramen’, or kind of the standard image of ramen and is even a ‘Space food’ as this type of ramen has been consumed on space shuttle flights.
This ramen is based around a pork bone broth that is blended in with miso and originated in Sapporo, Hokkaidou. On the scale of thickness the noodles used in Miso ramen tend to be a bit thicker than than norm and the soup itself often features such toppings as corn, various vegetables and even a slab of Hokkaidou butter.
Tonkotsu (pork bones) ramen
Tonkotsu is made based on a rich, milky broth that is created by boiling pork bones over high heat for an extended period of time creating a thick broth full of collagen. In addition to this, the inosinic acid, fat and gelatin also play a part in producing a soup rich in umami that has a deep satisfying taste (can you guess what type I like the best?). The only drawback is that it can on occasion give off a slightly gamey smell which calls for a greater use of garlic, ginger and other spices. Tonkotsu ramen is most strongly associated with the Hakata ramen ＜博多ラーメン＞ of Kyuushuu.
Significance of the designs in Ramen bowls
Dragon mark <龍、Ryuu, Tatsu＞
This design is a symbol of a fictitious dragon that had the power to rain down sweet nectar and to make crops grow. As a general rule, only the Emperor could make use of this mark, but in the event that it was to be used by his vassals the dragon had to have only 4 claws distinguishing it from the Emperor’s design that had 5.
Phoenix mark <鳳凰, Ho Ou>
This mark is also a fictitious phoenix-like bird that in China was thought to be the greatest symbol of good luck.
The ‘鳳‘ represents the Emperor while the ‘凰‘, the Empress.
Lightning mark <雷文, Raimon, Kaminarimon>
This mark, ‘Raimon, Kaminarimon’ is the most orthodox ramen bowl design made up of repeating squarish whirlpools. It symbolizes the awesome power of nature in the form of lightning.
Happiness, Joy mark <双喜文, Soukimon>
This design is literally the Kanji ‘喜ぶ‘ doubled up. ‘Yorokobu’ means happiness or joy and so this obviously means tons of happiness and since 1 can represent the groom and 1, the bride, this mark is also often used for wedding ceremonies.
Have you heard of this social phenomena known as ‘Noodle Harassment’?
Briefly stated it is another in a long line of real, or subjectively real, or purported to be real, but is in actuality a mode of simply complaining about any and everything that supposedly ‘hurts’ one. This very recent, and luckily rare complaint by non-Japanese that the act of someone sitting next to, or near you who is slurping their ramen, soba or udon noodles bothers you to the extent that you suffer a mild to beyond mild form of trauma. Yes, this is apparently true. There are even shops in Tokyo (and perhaps elsewhere) that now offer partitioned seats so these ever so tender hearts do not have to be exposed to the, gasp, horrendous act of a Japanese person happily slurping away at their noodles in their vicinity.
Why is this such a silly claim (as if you needed to be educated about it)?
First, slurping cools the noodles and the broth and makes it more easy to eat. Sure, this factor does not apply to cold noodles, but the other ones do. Read on.
Second, slurping aerates the noodles and more importantly the broth which makes the tastes mellow out and expand in flavor on your taste buds before you swallow. Scientifically speaking it actually makes the soup and noodles taste better. I have seen this explained in detail on TV before (the Japanese love these kinds of shows) and I for one was totally convinced. Wine tasters frequently do this ‘slurping’ effect when tasting wine. You will also notice that after a liquid is in your mouth, giving it a chew will release extra aromatics for you.
A quote found on line about this:
“‘Deliciousness” is conveyed by the sound of slurping, and further, slurping does in fact make the noodle taste better. In a graphic, the expert showed how wine connoisseurs gurgle wine, sucking air through their mouths to force air into the nasal passage, allowing the flavors to spread. The concept is the same with slurping noodles. The flavors of the noodles and soup are multiplied when slurping. The gaijin panel as well as the Japanese host and observers had their “aha” moment and the gaijins decided they would practice slurping.”
Thirdly, to some degree eating ramen is a battle with speed. If you take too long to eat your ramen, the noodles will get mushy (or as the Japanese say, ‘Nobiru’) and that is never a good thing.
Fourthly, and I don’t want to just say, ‘Hey, when in Rome, do as the Romans’, but it just looks bad; I mean really bad when someone (I never seen a Japanese person over the age of 5 do this) gently places noodles in their mouth and politely chews on them. It honestly ruins one’s appetite, I mean it ruins it for the one witnessing such a freakish act.
Following are a few quotes from Japanese upon hearing about Nu-hara ＜ヌーハラ＞：
I saw an announcer on TV who was so proud of herself for taking care not to slurp her noodles in front of a foreigner in a ramen shop. How crazy is that? So much for ‘Nu-hara’, it is the foreigners who blasphemize Japanese culture that are in the wrong. That’s it, ‘culture harassment’….abbreviated as, ‘Karuhara’.
‘Noodle harassment?! This is Japan! Noodles taste good precisely because you slurp them!’
‘It is totally out of place for foreigners to tell the Japanese how they are to eat noodles.’
‘So what is next? Are Indians going to come here and tell us to eat rice with our right hand?’
I am sure that there will continue to be foreigners who are put off and apparently even mildly traumatized by the sound of Japanese who make a slurping sound when they (we) eat noodles, but I personally can see no compelling reason to not do so.
It would not be fair to write a bit about ramen and not mention the great movie, ‘Tampopo’. If you haven’t seen it and you love Japan and Japanese food and culture, you must put it at the top of your list of movies to watch. It is a comedy, but through this kind of Japanese ‘Shane’ as Japanese ramen master, you will learn a great deal about Japan and ramen.