Ramen made its first international splash in the 1970s when Nissin Food Company began exporting “Cup Ramen”. All of a sudden, ramen was available in any home at any time! Unfortunately, the commercialization of instant ramen was so successful that “instant noodles” might be the only kind of ramen you know! The good news is, there’s so much more to it than a bit of noodles in a styrofoam cup, and the Japanese really want to show you just how wonderful ramen can be!
In its simplest form, Ramen is wheat-noodles in a broth. But beyond that simple description lies a world of possibilities, as the noodles are often accompanied by any number of toppings. These toppings most often include a slice of roasted pork, fishcake, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, spinach, dried seaweed, corn, and (my personal favorite) a soft-boiled egg. However, it’s not unheard of to see entirely new takes on the beloved Japanese classic. Even the noodles and the broth are subject to new ideas! All-in-all, there are now over 40 different regional styles of ramen in Japan, each representing their respective regions with their ingredients. In this way, ramen is an expression of your location, and the best that it has to offer!
Ramen on the Silver Screen
It might sound strange to hear that Japan has produced a number of hit movies about ramen, but give them a watch and you’ll start to see just how culturally significant this dish is! If you’re either a foodie or a film buff, you owe it to yourself to give Jûzô Itami’s 1985 classic “Tampopo” a watch. From the very first scene, the film sets the expectation that it will be unlike any other. As the film goes on, Itami unveils the pillars of Japanese culture using the story of a struggling ramen shop as his unifying thread. For a western take on the topic, watch Robert Allan Ackerman’s 2008 “The Ramen Girl”, which follows an American as she discovers ramen for the first time, and begs the chef to teach her to make it. Through her experiences as a chef’s apprentice, she learns some valuable life lessons that the Japanese hold core to their culture. Another recommended watch is “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”. While this documentary has nothing to do with ramen, it is a great representation of how the Japanese approach cooking as a vocation!
Ramen has recently been seeing a surge in popularity in North America, and it’s in no small part due to its inclusion in food television. Chefs like Ivan Orkin of Ivan Ramen and David Chang of Momofuku have helped shine a spotlight on ramen. This surge in popularity has helped Japanese companies open new branches throughout North America. If you’re looking for some good ramen-related television, a few favorites come to mind. Netflix subscribers should take a look at “Chef’s Table” Season 3, Episode 4 – “Ivan Orkin”. This episode details the challenges that Chef Orkin overcame as a foreigner opening a ramen restaurant in Tokyo. Also on Netflix is “Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories”, and I’d like to draw your attention in particular to Season 2, Episode 4 – “Curry Ramen”.
Ramen has even made its way into manga! “Ms. Koizumi Loves Ramen Noodles” is an 8-part manga written and illustrated by Naru Narumi, and saw such huge success that it was turned into a 4-part live-action television series and a 12-episode anime! The books follows Yu Osawa, a young girl who befriends Koizumi, a transfer student at school. Koizumi is closed-off at first, but Yu learns of her love for ramen and uses it to get her to open up. As the series progresses, Yu learns all about the many types of ramen!
Ramen on your Trip to Tokyo!
According to ramen-culture.com, there are 380,000 ramen restaurants in Japan, with another 4,000 opening every year. There are lots of guides available that point you towards the best ramen restaurants, such as the Ramen Guide and the 2020 Michelin Guide (including the two 1-Star ramen shops in Tokyo).
Instead of giving you another guide, I want to tell you about a few key attractions around Japan. A few hours outside of Tokyo is the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum, which calls itself the “World’s First Food Amusement Park”. This museum includes exhibits that detail the history of ramen, but the highlights here are the noodle-making class, and the food market where you can buy sample sizes of ramen from all over Japan and the world (like France, Germany, Australia, and the U.S.)! Nearby in Yokohama is the Cupnoodles Museum. This location is similar, but focuses on Nissin Foods and their inventions of Instant Ramen and Cup Ramen. Here, you also have the opportunity to try ramen from around Japan, as well as customize your own Cup Noodles (both the exterior cup and the flavors of the ramen inside)! Lastly, if you’re lucky enough to be in Tokyo around late October through early November, you’re in time for one of my favorite food festivals, the Tokyo Ramen Show! In 2020, the event will host 18 ramen vendors for the first 6 days, and a completely different set of 18 ramen vendors for the last 5 days! That’s 36 different ramen shops to try! Entry into the park’s grounds is free, and a ticket for a delicious bowl of ramen is only ¥800!
Ramen is enjoyed at any time of day and at any time of year. So is it really so surprising to learn how highly regarded it is? This quintessential Japanese experience is more than just a food, which is why it is so lovingly represented and so voraciously slurped up in all its forms, from the bowl, to the screen, to the page, and even in its own FunkoPop! doll! And now, the next time you have the chance to enjoy a bowl of ramen, you’ll be able to appreciate just how much it means to the people of Japan, too!
If you’re a lover of all things ramen, here are a few fun ramen-related movies, books, and attractions worth checking out!