Ramen, that quintessential college food of choice, has roots beyond the thin plastic packaging, and outside the microwaves present in so many dorm rooms. Top Ramen, though the most familiar with most American diners, is not the only ramen there is. In fact, Top Ramen, though the effect it’s had on the college lives of so many around the world is undeniable, is probably some of the worst ramen ever. Like, really. The stuff apparently costs your body more energy to digest than you gain from eating it.
No, no, no, this post is about ramen as it was meant to be, as it was born to be, originating in the tried-and-true, completely authentic, Japanese province of… wait. What? This can’t be right… Ramen didn’t start in Japan? It’s actually from… China? Oh no, this is all wrong. Well, I guess, since I already started the article, I should probably finish it… Ok, fine.
Ramen is actually from China. The name ramen comes from the phonetics of Lau Mein, traditional Chinese noodles. Around 1910, according to The Book of Ramen, these Lau Mein noodles started to be brought over from China to Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. These noodles, combined with a tasty broth, instantly became a favorite among the residents of Sapporo (Hokkaido’s capital) and has, over time, become a gastronomic symbol. It’s now even considered a regional dish of the area around Sapporo, and has sparked a cult following the likes of which has seldom been seen in the food world. There are even museums dedicated to the eminently slurpable, chewy, broth-y, delicious dish.
According to the Ramen Museum, there are 26 types of ramen. 26 different base types of ramen. From wontonmen (ramen with wontons) to wakame-men (grilled nori ramen) and kakumi (braised pork belly) to kamaboku (fish cake, like naruto). Based on where you look, what region you’re in and what shop you visit, you can find any and everything in ramen, and it’s all amazing. There are, however, many trends in ramen preferences, such as a general tendency among Asians towards spicier soup, whereas Americans prefer the milder, more savory soups. Additionally, more people prefer thin broth, keeping away from oily ramen. The most popular flavor is still the original: Cha shu (the Japanese phonetic of Char Siu, Chinese BBQ pork) and leeks. In addition to myriad types of ramen, there are almost as many ramenyas (ramen stands/shops) in Tokyo as street corners. Over 5,000 in all, ramenyas are definitely some of the most popular places to eat in the city.
Ramen, in all its forms, has become something of a cultural icon, like Hello Kitty and Domo. It’s been exported all over the world, and is one of the most easily recognizable Japanese dishes of all time. It’s not the only borrowed food that’s become a national icon (tempura was originally Portuguese), but it’s one of the most popular. The Japan Times recently published an article about the love of ramen and its exportation around the globe (found here: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/nn20130116a7.html) in conjunction with the World Ramen White Paper Project, a Yahoo! Japan ramen ambassador promotion. Ramen’s impact has been felt all over Japan and, recently, throughout the rest of the world as well. If you’re looking for some excellent ramen in Salt Lake City, though, check out Dojo (http://www.dojoslc.com) or Ko Ko Kitchen (no website available, look it up on yelp or urban spoon), they’re rated as some of the best around.
So, for those of you interested in ramen, try going to the Ramen museum next time you’re in Japan. Next time you get your ramen though, think a little about how it came to be as popular as it is, and what it means to you when you see it. Few dishes have such an emotional pull, hopefully you’ve got some that you love!
Keep eating the good stuff!