What is ramen?
Fast food that evolved in Japan
Ramen is enjoyed all across Japan as a national Japanese food. The soup made by adding soy sauce, salt, and miso to dashi soup stock, made by stewing pork bones and chicken carcasses for many hours, is an invention unique to Japan. In this soup, noodles made by kneading flour and brine water are immersed, with different ingredients such as roasted pork fillet (char sui) and sungan placed on top. Although there are other types of noodles in Japan, such as soba and udon, this versatile soup that can become either smooth or thick has a wide degree of freedom as a dish, thus allowing people to choose the ramen they want depending on their tastes. Therefore, it has become entrenched as a popular dish. There are various types of ramen depending on the eating method, such as tsukemen, where noodles and soup are separated, and abura soba, where the noodles are served with thick sauce and not soup.
It is said that there are over 42,000 ramen specialty restaurants in Japan, and more than 200,000 restaurants in Japan, including regular restaurants and Chinese restaurants, which serve ramen. Long-established ramen chain restaurants, such as Ramen Jiro and Taishoken, are popular in Tokyo. There are even zealous fans who are referred to as ‘devotees’. Additionally, instant noodles well-known in Asian countries have originated in Japan. Eighty-five billion instant noodles are produced in the world each year, and they have become such a popular food item that they are now even used as space food. In recent years, Japan has seen an instant noodles boom, with delicious products being produced, which can match that of specialty restaurants.
A history of evolution since its introduction over 100 years ago
Just like its byname “chuka soba” (Chinese soba) suggests, it is said that ramen was introduced from China. An eminent historical figure called Tokugawa Mitsukuni, who is known by his moniker Mito Komon, was said to have been the first person to eat ramen in 1659. Since eating meat was avoided in Japan at the time, ramen that used pork fat was not common. It became more common in about 1880, after restaurants in the Chinatown districts in Yokohama and Nagasaki started to serve the dish. In 1910, Rairaiken, which is referred to as the oldest Japanese ramen restaurant, opened in Asakusa, Tokyo. The reputation spread that it was cheap and delicious, with people queuing up on an almost daily basis. Furthermore, ramen restaurants in big cities, such as Sapporo and Hakata, became popular one after another, gradually making ramen well-known among the general public. Thereafter, when World War II ended, ramen came to be widely eaten mainly in the black market as a meal that was convenient and satisfied the appetite.
At the time, there were many places that offered ramen at food carts. Tenka Ippin, which presently has franchise restaurants all across Japan, was also one such restaurant. Chicken Ramen, the first instant noodles to be sold in the world, was launched in 1958. This served as an impetus for the rest of the world to know about ramen. As a side note, the oldest ramen restaurant that still exists is Daikan Honten in Hyogo. It is a famous store that has 100 years of history. The traditional-style taste that remains unchanged even to this date is still popular among many customers.
Dashi soup stock, noodles, and ingredients – their combinations are limitless
There is a saying in Japan that “the life of ramen depends on the soup.” Fundamentally, ramen soup is made by mixing stewed soup stock called ‘dashi’ and a small amount of sauce that has a thick savory taste. These two flavors combined result in a delicious ramen, to the point that the balance between the flavors is exquisite. Major ingredients that are used to make dashi are pork bones, chicken carcasses, seafood, and vegetables. The flavor of dashi will greatly differ depending on the ingredients used and it can be thick or smooth. Furthermore, the effect of flavor is influenced by combining these ingredients and the length of time they are stewed. Since the flavor of dashi will be different even if the same amount of ingredients are used depending on how fresh they are, attention also needs to be paid even to temperature and humidity. Additionally, there are three types of sauces, which determine the flavor of the soup: soy sauce, miso, and salt. In Japan, there are over a dozen different types of soy sauce. Therefore, what to use to make the sauce depends on the chef’s skills. There are restaurants that blend six different types of salt to make the sauce. A delicious soup cannot be made if the chef doesn’t have many years of experience and sensibilities toward taste. Moreover, everything is wasted if the soup that is made does not match with the noodles. There are also different types of noodles, and the variations are not just limited to the thickness of the noodles, but also the shape (circular or rectangular) and whether they are straight or frizzy. Since the extent to which the noodles are boiled also plays a big role, the chefs never let their attention be diverted away from the noodles being boiled in an iron pot. Japanese ramen of today is built upon the efforts made by countless chefs.
Local ramen is a Japanese culture.
In different parts of Japan, there have been ramen dishes referred to as “local flavor ramen”, which developed independently with characteristics of that region. Therefore, depending on the place you visit, the flavor of ramen will differ completely. One of the best typical examples of local flavor ramen is tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen from Fukuoka and Hakata. Tonkotsu ramen is characterized by thin noodles about 1mm in width served in a white soup with a strong aroma. You can taste a very thick, rich flavor with tonkotsu ramen. There are many food carts in the Fukuoka/Hakata region that operate till late-evening that provide this ramen, and residents frequently eat tonkotsu ramen on their way home from a night-out of drinking.
Miso ramen is the main ramen in in the city of Sapporo in Hokkaido. Aji no Sanpei that opened in 1961 triggered a major boom in the industry, in which at the time using sauce made of oil was the standard. This ramen also goes by the name “Sapporo ramen”. The eating method of melting butter in the soup also originated in this region, a method that is now widely-known across Japan. In Yamagata, a region that is known for having a high consumption rate of ramen per person, Sakata ramen is popular, which has a distinct rich mild taste. The sauce made by mixing pork bones, chicken carcasses, and seafood, cannot be readily available in other regions.
There are countless other examples, including Kitakata ramen and iekei ramen from Yokohama. Those who would like to taste all these different types of ramen at once are advised to visit Shinyokohama Ramen Museum in Yokohama. Famous ramen restaurants from around Japan have their shops open with visitors able to enjoy different flavors in small amounts.
Furthermore, in recent years the ramen industry has been moving away from the usage of char siu (grilled pork). Therefore, there has been an increase in the type of ramen in which the ingenuity of ramen shop owners could be seen in its preparation method and its usage of ingredients such as chicken and beef, instead of the conventional pork char sui. Additionally, a new genre called the “vegetable type”, which uses vegetables diluted to a potage state, appeared on the scene, proving to be popular.
Recently, techniques and innovation concerning ramen have been actively explored, as seen with the development of limited edition products made through collaboration between young ramen store owners. On the other hand, how to pass on the traditional ramen flavor is becoming an issue, with long-standing ramen restaurants that were founded during mid-50s and 60s closing as store owners have grown old and retired.
At the same time, “local flavor ramen” has been garnering attention at ramen events held in Japan, since the appeals of a local region can be seen from its ramen. Local flavor ramen is becoming one of the joys of visiting different regions when travelling in Japan.
Go to the top of the page
- Soba is also a representative of Japan, alongside ramen.
- Curry rice
- Neither dish is of Japanese origin but one can say that the curry rice and ramen have accomplished a unique development in Japan.
- Sakata ramen
- Local ramen that is consumed in the region since the early days. Yamagata has the highest consumption of ramen in Japan.