A very short history of ramen by Barak Kushner
In Japan there is only one word internationally renowned for meaning noodle soup – ramen. There are other noodle dishes but none have had the power to launch international industries, attract hundreds of millions of customers, or have dozens of comic books, songs and movies produced in loving devotion.
While the world sees ramen as an icon of Japanese cuisine, it is actually is a dish that speaks volumes about the evolution of Japan and its historical relations with China. Japanese modern cuisine grew out of a mixture of adapting to new political and social pressures in the 19th century, which later restructured its own national diet as it emerged from post-WWII ruins.
All the while, in the background, were the fundamental elements – ingredients and dishware that Japan had incorporated over the previous centuries from the Asian mainland. It is in this intersection between a national renovation of taste and historical forces which made the arrival of ramen possible. It began as a lower class-noodle dish and then emerged as one of the most popular “convenience dishes” to hit East Asia and the world market. Instant ramen followed in the 1950s and that further galvanized consumer delight.
Looking at Japanese food history, particularly the development of ramen, helps us understand contemporary Japan and its transformation into a food-obsessed nation, far different from what its cultural origins and traditional image would suggest. In the end, a bowl of ramen noodle soup is much more than a wad of noodles served in a flavorsome broth with a variety of toppings and seasonings.
Ramen is a microcosm of East Asian history, and as such a most delicious way to combine digesting a new way to grasp why people eat in Japan the way they do and learn about history with the ends of your chopsticks.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to slurp – that is the sign that the dish is piping hot and ready to be eaten.
Barak Kushner, University of Cambridge
Simon talks to Asher Boote and Tsubasa Takahashi of The Ramen Shop, and ramen historian Barak Kushner of the University of Cambridge.