A Brief History of Ramen

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Lisovskaya/iStock via Getty Images Plus / Lisovskaya/iStock via Getty Images Plus

If the first thing you picture when you hear ramen is a precooked block that comes with a flavor packet, you can thank Momofuku Ando. And World War II ... and the Yakuza crime syndicate.

Let’s begin in August 1945. Japan had just announced its surrender to the Allies, and Ando was walking through war-torn Osaka. The Allied Forces’ aerial bombing had wrought destruction on the city; the factory and office buildings Ando had constructed as a business venture were no longer standing. And on that fateful day, amidst the ravaged city, he walked by a strange scene. Someone had set up a makeshift ramen stand among the debris. People were lined up, waiting for a bowl. Apparently, this image stuck with the businessman; 13 years later, he perfected his formula for instant ramen and debuted it to the world.

Ramen is so much more than the food that gets people through rent week. The Japanese dish traditionally consists of wheat noodles, broth, an infinitely mutable seasoning base called tare, and optional toppings. There’s almost no limit to the styles and ingredients that can comfortably sit under the ramen banner.

To trace the history of ramen, let’s jump back to around 400 CE, when the first Chinese immigrants arrived in Japan. In the ensuing centuries, a fascinating, often-fraught relationship developed between the two powers, with cross-cultural exchange flowing in both directions. Either directly or indirectly, Chinese immigrants introduced the Japanese to the art of paper-making, the Chinese calendar, and Buddhism, along with new kinds of food.

One of the ingredients that was eventually imported to Japan from China was the wheat noodle lamian. And to understand its significance, we need to discuss pH.

The Basics of pH

Unlike many of the noodles diners were familiar with, lamian noodles are made with alkaline mineral water. pH is generally measured from 0 to 14, with pure water considered to have a neutral pH of 7. Simplified, when we say water is neutral, we’re really saying there are an equal number of hydroxide ions—the negatively charged OH-—and hydronium ions—the positively charged H30+—reacting with one another. We can represent two of those opposite ions existing in equilibrium as two atoms of the more familiar H20.

pH is calculated based on the concentration of those positively charged hydronium ions. Anything with a pH under 7, indicating a higher concentration of hydronium ions, is considered acidic. Basic substances, on the other hand, shift the equilibrium towards hydroxide ions and are labeled with pHs over 7.

So where does alkalinity come into play? Basic substances that can dissolve in water are called alkalis. So all alkalis are bases, but not all bases are alkalis. This solubility, or ability to dissolve in water, is critical when it comes to cooking.

These charged ions are “small, mobile and quick to react with larger, more complicated molecules,” in the words of food scientist Harold McGee. This means that the building blocks of food—fat, proteins, and carbohydrates— often behave differently as we change the pH of their environments. This is how ceviche is made: the acidic, usually citrus-based marinade surrounds raw fish with hydronium ions, which interact with the strings of amino acids that make up proteins. The proteins can then be unfolded from their original states, a process known as denaturing—the effect is for the raw fish to be essentially “cooked” by the acidic marinade.

When it comes to alkalis and the culinary arts, we’re usually talking about baking soda. In baking, it’s used to balance acidic flavors and to interact with acidic ingredients to create C02 bubbles. That acid/base reaction is kind of like a science fair volcano, and it helps doughs and batters rise. Alkalis are also used in the making of tortillas and in lutefisk.

When it comes to ramen, alkalis are, in some ways, acting more like the acidic ceviche marinade than they are the baking soda found in cookies. It’s not a perfectly well-known process, but we do know that alkalis can denature proteins, just as acids can. In Chinese cuisine, for example, seafood is sometimes soaked in an alkaline brine containing baking soda or egg whites before cooking. It gives shrimp a firmer, almost crunchy texture.

And when an alkaline substance is added to a noodle recipe, it apparently affects the way glutens interact in the dough. More water is absorbed into the flour, more starches break down, and the result is a springy, chewy noodle that’s less likely to dissolve in a bowl of hot broth. The chemical reaction between the alkaline solution and the dough also gives ramen its signature yellow hue.

The Origins of Modern Ramen

The first Chinese noodles served in Japan weren’t called ramen at all. They were known as shina soba. Shina is an archaic Japanese word for China and soba was a catch-all term for any noodles found in Japan at the time, though it usually referred to buckwheat noodles. Because of its offensive connotations, the word shina eventually fell out of use, and was eventually replaced by ramen, which likely came about from the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese term lamian. The word lamian comes from la, which means pulled, and mian, which means noodles.

Though there are many stories surrounding the origins of modern ramen, the one that’s most widely accepted by experts comes from the early 20th century. It’s believed that a noodle shop called Rai Rai Ken popularized the dish when it opened in Tokyo, Japan, in 1910. The Chinese cooks there served their wheat noodles in a salty broth and topped them with roasted pork, fish cake, and nori. These ingredients are still considered classic ramen toppings today.

Around the same time, Japan was becoming more industrialized. The country’s growing urban working class needed something cheap and filling to fuel their work days, and ramen filled that need.

Its ascent to worldwide fame entered a new stage during the Allied occupation of Japan after World War II. The post-war period brought on significant food shortages, and street food vendors were outlawed in order to conserve rations—a policy that began during the war. The only way to get ramen, which was something people bought from food stalls rather than made at home, was to find it on the black market. Illegal food vendors were a common presence in Japan throughout World War II, and they became more vital than ever in the post-war period, when government rations were often weeks late, through either legitimate shortages from decreased agricultural production or simple mismanagement of resources. Thousands of vendors were arrested for selling ramen after the war, most of whom were under the direction of the Japanese organized crime syndicate known as the Yakuza.

From the Black Market to the Pantry

Ramen really became mainstream in 1958, courtesy of Momofuku Ando. Inspired by his decade-old memories of that makeshift ramen stand, he believed the cheap, working-class meal was a perfect fit for Japanese pantries.

All Ando had to do was transform the noodle bowl into something that could sit on a shelf for months and be ready to eat in minutes. He started by simply dehydrating noodles, but they didn’t cook fast enough for his liking. After months of experimentation, he discovered flash-frying.

Frying dehydrated noodles evaporates the water droplets trapped inside them and creates tiny perforations. This method solved two problems: less water in the noodles meant they were less likely to go bad, and all those holes meant they rehydrated faster when boiled. He added chicken flavoring to create his masterpiece.

Ando’s chicken ramen is often called the first product of its kind, but that may not be true. In his book, The Untold History of Ramen, George Solt points out that a company called Matsuda Sangyō actually debuted what Solt calls “an identical product” three years earlier, under the name Aji Tsuke Chūka Men, or Flavored Chinese Noodles. They never received a patent, though, and stopped making the product after a few months of weak sales. Where that company failed, though, Ando thrived.

Later, Ando would reflect on his decision to use chicken flavor, saying, “By using chicken soup, instant ramen managed to circumvent religious taboos when it was introduced in different countries. Hindus may not eat beef and Muslims may not eat pork, but there is not a single culture, religion or country that forbids the eating of chicken.”

Though his goal was to make ramen noodles accessible to everyone, his first product wasn’t as cheap to make as he had hoped. Anyone who lived on instant ramen through college may be surprised to hear that it was considered a bit of a splurge item when it debuted in Japan. At 35 yen, or around $1.85 USD adjusted for inflation, a packet was up to six times as expensive as other noodles at the time.

The convenience factor made up for the cost, though. Instant ramen was a hit and prices eventually went down—by a lot. Today, the average pack of instant ramen costs about a quarter, which means eating it for three meals a day would only cost around $275 a year. (Though with 1820 milligrams of sodium in every brick of chicken Top Ramen, that kind of diet probably isn't advisable.)

Ramen's Delicious Evolution

As ramen became synonymous with convenience food abroad, the ramen stalls that first popped up in the early 20th century experienced a resurgence in Japan. Though ramen was practically outlawed in the years right after the war, America’s presence in Japan actually boosted ramen’s profile in the long run. America sent cheap wheat to Japan during the post-war food shortages. This was partially a humanitarian effort to stave off hunger, and partially a political calculation: American leaders feared the prospect of East Asian countries turning to communism out of desperation or frustration with Western powers.

In the mid-'50s, Japan and America signed a series of agreements that sold surplus American wheat to Japan. At the same time, American propagandists teamed up with the Japanese government to extol the virtues of wheat as part of a healthy diet. One part of this propaganda campaign involved sending out “kitchen busses” in an attempt to teach the Japanese to bake bread, a plan that was doomed by the fact that many Japanese kitchens lacked ovens. They even suggested that a diet relying on rice could cause brain damage. When laws on food vendors relaxed in the 1950s, the dish’s now-healthy reputation, paired with its great value in a time of economic recovery, helped make it a success.

It was also around this time that the basic meal started to get complicated. Different parts of the country began developing or spreading their own styles of ramen. Fukuoka, which sits at the center of Japan’s pork industry, became famous for its tonkotsu. Not to be confused with the Japanese pork cutlet tonkatsu, tonkotsu is a cloudy stock made by simmering pig bones for up to 12 hours—sometimes even longer. This breaks down the fat, marrow, and minerals inside the bones to create a broth that’s unctuous and opaque.

Other areas are better known for their tare than their broth. Tare is the seasoning that’s ladled into the bottom of ramen bowls before the other ingredients are added, and in many cases, it’s the main source of salt in the dish. The miso in miso ramen is an example of tare. Chefs in Northern Hokkaido first had the idea to add fermented soybean paste to ramen as a hearty, savory antidote to the region’s cold winters.

But the earliest use of tare can be traced back to those first bowls of ramen served at the turn of the 20th century. In an effort to make Chinese lamian feel more Japanese, cooks seasoned their noodle soup with soy sauce—something that actually originated in China before making its way to Japan.

No matter the style of ramen, it almost always comes with toppings—seaweed, eggs, bean sprouts, corn, green onions, preserved bamboo shoots, and braised pork being some of the most common options. But while many Americans consume those ingredients in other dishes, ramen may be the only place they encounter the fish cake known as narutomaki. If you don’t recognize the name, you may know it as that white disc with the pink swirl in the center.

Narutomaki, or naruto for short, actually predates modern ramen. It was first made in the 19th century by shaping puréed whitefish into a loaf and cutting it into slices. The pink swirl in the middle is made from food coloring, and it’s inspired by the whirlpools of Japan’s Naruto Strait, hence the name. Today the swirl has a more modern connotation, with the word naruto used as slang for the @ symbol.

By the 1980s, ramen was a cultural phenomenon in Japan. Unlike other Japanese dishes that were tied to centuries of tradition, young chefs were free to experiment with ramen and elevate it to something beyond its blue-collar roots. But it would still take a couple decades for the dish to gain widespread respect in the U.S. Restaurant mogul David Chang is often given credit for helping Americans see ramen as something more than a quick, dirt-cheap meal. He opened Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York City back in 2004, named, in part, for the instant noodle innovator. A few years later, the Japanese ramen chain Ippudo opened its first location in the states. And soon, ramen may well rival sushi for the title of Japan’s most beloved culinary export.

This story has been adapted from an episode of Food History on YouTube.