Ramen is so much more than instant noodles and a flavor packet.
This scrumptious noodle dish evolved into a North American phenomenon in the early 2000s. And it has continued expanding ever since. From food carts to higher-priced sit-down restaurants, ramen has officially taken its place in the West. But what is the history of ramen?
In this article, I’ll share the broad strokes of where ramen came from and how it got to North America. We’ll also take a quick look at modern-day ramen culture in the West, and what a ramen dish consists of, so you can try making your own.
Origins of Ramen
Ramen’s origins began in China, the land of exquisite noodle dishes.
While there are still ongoing debates about exactly when in history ramen’s initial creation happened, it seems to have made its first meaningful appearance in the late 1800s.
When Chinese immigrants built Chinatowns in Japan, they brought these wheat noodles with them. Cooked in a mixture of baking soda and water, called kansui, these yellow and chewy noodles were served in flavorful meat broth. The kansui imparted a toothsome texture and golden hue.
This comforting soup was affordable, tasty, and filling. And so it became popular with blue-collar workers in the early 20th century. You could find it at Japanese street food stands 24-7.
By the 1950s, the street food craze spun off into Instant Ramen products. These were marketed toward families as a quick but nourishing dinner choice.
Nowadays, ramen is a national Japanese phenomenon.
Each regional ramen dish has its own unique flavor and style. It’s most often served in a meat broth made from pork bones or chicken stock. However, vegetarian options such as miso-based broths are increasingly available.
One of the best aspects of ramen is the toppings, which vary widely depending on regional specialties. Some common meaty, protein-rich toppings include chashu (braised) pork, pork belly, fish cakes, and soft-boiled eggs. Vegetable-based toppings can include anything from bamboo shoots, mushrooms, and green onions to seaweed and much more.
Brief History of Ramen in America
Instant ramen brought this dish to the West.
Nissin takes it’s place in history as the first creator of instant ramen in 1958. It brought Cup O’Noodles to the U.S. in 1973 and eventually Top Ramen. At around the same time, the Japanese company Maruchan established a base in Los Angeles. There the company created and marketed its own versions of instant noodles in a cup.
So ramen was first introduced in the West as a low-cost convenience food. While Japanese restaurants serving true ramen did exist from the 1950s to 1980s, their clientele was almost exclusively Japanese. It took a good while for ramen to gain respect as a legitimate restaurant food.
Thanks to increased interest in Japanese pop culture in the 1980s and ‘90s, authentic ramen began to claim its place on the American palate. But the true ramen craze in the United States exploded in 2004 thanks to David Chang, chef, and founder of Momofuku Noodle Bar restaurant in New York.
Chang’s approach to making true ramen with a creative touch taught the U.S. just how tasty authentic ramen could be. Since then, more Japanese restaurant companies have opened locations in the West, and their appreciation of the taste and culture of ramen continues to grow.
While ramen was known for decades as more of a cheap convenience food for college students, it’s found its place today as a fairly high-end restaurant meal. Part of ramen’s continuing appeal in North America is its versatility. It can accommodate just about any craving or dietary preference.
However, there are some core ingredients that ramen must include to be considered as such. We’ve listed what needs to be in your bowl to make it reasonably authentic. We’ll also discuss what ramen is not, through other noodle dishes that can be confused with it.
Basic components that ramen must include:
- Broth – Can be made from pork bones, chicken, fish, or miso. Broth may also include soy sauce.
- Noodles – Ramen noodles are a specific type of chewy, golden-colored noodle that’s boiled in a salty, alkaline solution.
- Toppings – Common authentic Japanese ramen toppings can include braised pork, green onion, a flavored soft-boiled egg, bamboo shoots, and/or fish cakes.
Common North American toppings can be similar to foods like braised pork or a plain hard-boiled egg. But ingredients you might not see in Japanese ramen, like bok choy or shiitake mushrooms, also appear in American-style ramen.
Common dishes that can be confused with ramen
- Udon noodles are thick and chewy and served as a brothy soup like ramen. However, the noodles are way thicker, chewier, and white in color.
- Yakisoba noodles are made with the same noodles as ramen, but are not considered the same dish because they’re stir-fried with vegetables, proteins, and sauce.
- Pho is a Vietnamese dish that’s also a brothy noodle soup. However, its noodles are much thinner, white in color, and made from glutinous rice flour (as opposed to ramen’s wheat-based noodles). Pho broth is also distinct from typical ramen broths.
- Ramyun is a South Korean dry noodle similar to instant ramen. It is usually made from instant noodles, a packet of freeze-dried vegetables, and a soup seasoning packet.
Ramen restaurant culture in North America
With the explosion of ramen’s popularity in North America, it’s been altered to suit American tastes and dining preferences. This includes having a huge variety of appetizers available at ramen shops that wouldn’t be served in Japan, and may not even be Japanese. There are also extensive drink menus that wouldn’t be available at a Japanese ramen joint.
In Japan, ramen is looked at as fast food to be slurped up in a hurry. American diners, however, tend to socialize and relax when dining out. This makes it into an event. For this reason, ramen tends to be served at a hotter temperature here compared to Japan, with many more accompaniments available.
If you love ramen in all its shapes and forms, you might be surprised to know that you can make ramen right at home. When it comes to making the perfect ramen eggs, sous vide offers one the best ways to cook them to a soft, custardy texture, like Momofuku does. You can also cook the more traditional but equally delicious ajitama ramen eggs.