Waiting for a table at a popular ramen spot in Vancouver, I shamefully realized that I didn’t actually know if ramen was Japanese or Chinese. This was especially embarrassing as a fairly well travelled self-proclaimed foodie. That wasn’t the only thing I didn’t know about ramen.
The most basic description of ramen is ‘wheat noodles in a savory broth’. But considering the Japanese have more than one museum entirely dedicated to ramen, you know there’s more to the story.
The Japanese use two main descriptors for ramen; noodle thickness and broth richness. In fact there are four main noodle types: thin, thick, wrinkly and hirauchi (flat). The broth is a variation of umami or savoury, known as the fifth taste after sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Umami flavours are generally derived from proteins which have been degraded by fermentation (soy sauce) or time (aged cheddar), and usually with natural enzyme action too. The broth may contain things like soy sauce, miso, pork or chicken bones, sardines, kelp or other vegetables. There’s no hard and fast rules, anywhere from five to forty ingredients can be found in the broth. Ramen is a umami superstar.
I haven’t even got to the toppings yet. Roasted seasoned pork belly, soft-simmered eggs, spiral fish cakes, delicate seaweed, young bamboo shoots, fresh yellow corn, fragrant green onion, even creamy salted butter. Each bowl of ramen is influenced by its regional origins and the ramen masters’ imagination.
It turns out my confusion between Chinese and Japanese origin was justified. Until the 1950’s the Japanese called ramen ‘shina soba’ which literally translates as China noodle. There are varying explanations, but this Chinese dish was introduced to Japan in the late 1800’s. It became a cult classic in 1958 when Momofuku Ando invented instant ramen, better known as instant noodles.
Momofuku was an inventor and the founder of Nissin Food Products Co Ltd. Instant noodles are were made by flash frying cooked i.e. wet noodles. This reduces the moisture content of the noodle below 5% and increases the porosity, making them quick to rehydrate. A sachet of flavourings (salt, sugar, MSG, spices etc.) simulates the broth. Today over 95 Billion servings of instant noodles are eaten worldwide each year. There’s even a dedicated museum in Japan called the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum. No kidding. The Japanese believe the instant noodle is their best invention of the 20th century.
If you’ve heard the name Momofuku before it’s perhaps from David Chang’s acclaimed New York restaurant chain, and yes the name is a direct nod to Momofuku Ando. Entire books have been written on the history of ramen. It’s so much more than it first appears, a product of rich history and ever evolving food culture. Something to think about next time you’re slurping some soup n’ noodles. Happy eating.
Extra for experts