For all their culture’s artistry, subtlety and sophistication, the Japanese are a practical people. So when, in 2000, it came time to answer pollsters about what they consider their country’s greatest accomplishments of the 20th century, the top choice was the essence of practicality: Instant ramen.
Instant “ramen” – which was actually just dried ramen noodles, not the complex soup that has become an international sensation – was invented in 1958 by Momofuku Ando. The inventor came up with a process to flash-fry pre-flavored noodles, which preserved them until it was time to add water. It wasn’t until 1971 that Nissin, Ando’s company, created the “cup of noodles” that we now generally know as instant ramen. But in whatever form, this form of noodles, now known by a mind-boggling array of names, and coming in a tongue-dazzling variety of flavors, has become an international sensation.
But instant ramen got the top spot in Japan because it perfectly fits the Japanese desire for simple, tasty food that can be eaten quickly and easily. Turns out the Japanese are not alone in this desire, as any college student can tell you. Instant ramen is also a source of pride because, no matter how many anime films or manga comic books are served to the world, or how many Toyotas or Hondas driven, no other Japanese invention reaches as far or as deep as Cup Noodles, Top Ramen…or Ramyeon in Korea, or even Instant-Nudeln (noodles) in Germany. Indonesia specializes in many dried versions of its national curries and noodle dishes. More than 100 billion packages of instant noodles are now consumed every year around the world.
Photo by Dave Liao via Flickr
China consumes nearly half of that number, and dwarfs all other countries’ consumption, even Japan’s, which comes in third. That makes sense, since ramen, as with many things we think of as distinctly Japanese, originally hailed from China. In fact, the original name for ramen, when it was introduced in the early 20th century from China, was shina soba, or “Chinese noodles.” Momofuku was himself born and raised in Taiwan, and began life with the Chinese name Go Pek-Hok. He became a naturalized Japanese citizen, married a Japanese woman and the Japanese adopted him as their own.
Ramen itself, as opposed to the instant variety, is currently enjoying a sushi-like vogue, variations of it Japan’s latest, greatest culinary export. One need only to wait in line for two hours at New York’s Ippudo to discover what the Japanese have long known: Ramen is a dependable, delicious and by-and-large affordable all-in-one meal. From the attention paid to the broth – when pork-based it is called tonkatsu, but there are many other bases – to the consistency of the noodles and the delicate garnishes of pork (chasu), dried bamboo shoots (menma) and seaweed (nori) – aficionados are known to obsess over every element.
Photo by City Foodsters via Flickr
Books have been written about the many subtleties and glories of ramen, but besides the broth, a crucial ingredient is one a casual diner won’t notice: Kansui is an alkaline solution that is added to the flour and water when making ramen noodles, and helps develop the gluten in the noodles to give them their characteristic chewiness, as well as their yellow color.
No self-respecting ramen lover would ever make the claim that instant ramen is even the same food as fresh ramen itself, let alone as good. Many ramen places, even as far away as California, won’t even allow their ramen to be delivered, because the noodles won’t reach their destination in the proper condition. Some Japanese get absolutely obsessive about their ramen.
So what was Momofuku Ando’s innovation? The trick was to flash-fry the noodles in such a way that they can be “reanimated” by the simple addition of hot water. We take it for granted now, but in 1958, it was a surprising and successful innovation. The result was noodles that, ideally, retain their texture, and the chewiness the Japanese prize. Add a blend of dried ingredients usually comprising monosodium glutamate (see umami), some dried green onions, or shrimp, maybe nori, and – it must be said – ungodly amounts of sodium, and voila: a meal. It’s not the most healthy of meals – most just-add-water ramens are the result of so much industrial processing that they make McDonald’s hamburgers look like health food by comparison – but don’t tell that to instant ramen fans.
Photo by Jason Lam via Flickr
Still, if instant ramen has been your idea of ramen, you owe it to yourself to visit one (or ten) of the world’s thousands of ramen houses, especially if you find yourself in Japan, where the choices will overwhelm – and delight. Make your way to the city of Fukuoka, on the island of Kyushu, and you will find more than 2,000 ramen shops…in a city of 1.5 million! In any case, “Japan’s greatest invention” or not, you will never look at instant ramen the same way again.