Ramen Takes Off as Global Soul FoodSociety Culture
Noodling Around in My Youth
Back in my high-school days in Aomori, way up in the north of Japan, it became a hobby of mine to wander around sampling the local ramen, which was made with soup based on a dried fish stock. Starting from that ramen-heavy diet, I immersed myself even deeper in the culinary world of ramen after moving to Tokyo to attend university. When I started living on my own there in 1998, the main difference between the ramen in Aomori and in Tokyo was the richness of the soup.
Up to then I had only been familiar with light soy-sauce-based ramen, so I was blown away to encounter the rich, tonkotsu (pork bone) soup of Hakata ramen from Fukuoka or Yokohama Iekei ramen.(*1) I took to riding around on my motorbike in a quest to find the richest soups out there.
As a university student I had ramen every day for lunch. The university I attended had campuses in the fiercely competitive ramen battlegrounds of Shibuya and Yokohama. The strolls I took every day in search of the next bowl of ramen were so inspirational that I would meet up with some classmates from the same university faculty to exchange opinions on the ramen we had tried.
These meetings of ramen enthusiasts grew into an officially recognized university club, called the Ramen Kenkyūkai (Ramen Research Group). And this, in turn, led to more and more media coverage, including not only magazine articles but also my appearance on the television program Terebi chanpion: rāmenō senshuken (TV Champion: Ramen Chef), which pitted my noodle knowledge against that of other ramenologists.
Researching Ramen, One Bowl at a Time
My first ramen guidebook as a chief editor, which featured ramen in Aomori, was published in 2004. Up to then I had written all sorts of articles for magazine features, but this was the first time to oversee an entire book. Research for the book was an intense experience that involved visiting over 100 ramen shops in just two months. But the process that spanned from the initial research up to the compilation and completion of the book built up my confidence, and now I’m proud to say that in the ten years since then I have published over 20 books on the topic of ramen.
These days my work for TV programs has been increasing, but my fundamental approach remains wandering around to sample ramen dishes. I’m not eating quite as much ramen as before, because I want to broaden my taste horizons with other delights like yakiniku (Korean BBQ) and sushi, but I’ve been keeping up my ramenology research by slurping back at least one bowl a day.
Ramen might seem an inconsequential sort of hobby, but I’ve been able to meet all sorts of people through a shared love of the dish, including corporate CEOs, professional athletes, actresses, and celebrities. And in the years ahead I want to promote ramen through these connections and the experiences I have had. I think that taking a more methodical approach to ramen—rather than my fairly haphazard way up to now—will help to further develop the industry.
Ramen Turns Japanese
How is it that Japanese ramen developed to the point where it has captivated so many people like me?
Before exploring that question I’d like to consider the basic characteristics of ramen in general. In my Ramen Guidebook, I defined it as a noodle dish that consists of a harmonious medley of soup, noodles, and toppings. Pork bones, chicken, and seafood (small dried sardines, dried bonito, kelp) are the main ingredients of the soup. Flavor-rich vegetables are added, reducing the meaty aromas and adding depth to the taste. Basic seasonings come in three types known as tare: soy sauce, miso, or salt. But dishes that bring out the flavor of basic ingredients such as tonkotsu and toripaitan (thick chicken broth) have also become quite popular in recent years. When the noodles are made, the wheat is kneaded with alkaline water, and this gives them a uniquely smooth texture.
The original Chinese dish known as lamian changed over the years, as did the name used in Japanese to refer to it, which has included Shina soba or Chūka soba (both meaning “Chinese soba”), and in the process it became a staple food familiar to everyone in Japan. Let’s take a historical look here at how ramen became so popular.
In 1910, a restaurant named Rairaiken was opened in Tokyo’s Asakusa district, which was the most bustling shopping area in Japan at the time. The restaurant hired a cook from Yokohama’s Chinatown and offered a dish called Shina soba that is considered Japan’s first ramen. Asakusa was a center back then for kabuki and movie theaters, so people would enjoy a bowl of ramen while they were out enjoying such entertainment. Ramen was still viewed as a foreign food, and was little known, but one can imagine that the combination of its novelty combined with the familiarity as a noodle dish that resembled Japanese soba must have made it easy for the new dish to gain popularity.
Chinese residents living in such Japanese cities as Sapporo in Hokkaidō, Kitakata in Fukushima Prefecture, and Kurume in Fukuoka Prefecture encouraged the spread of ramen in the early Shōwa era (1926–89). It continued to be a fairly unfamiliar dish that was seen as Chinese cuisine until after World War II, when it began to evolve into the sort of distinctively Japanese food that it is today. Stalls selling ramen began to spring up all over Japan after the war to meet the demand of soldiers returning home and also because wheat was much easier to obtain than rice back then. Many of today’s well-established ramen shops got their start during the ten-year period from around 1945 to 1954. This was also a period when distinctive ramen styles emerged, like Kyūshū-style tonkotsu (pork bone) soup, or the miso soup featured in Sapporo ramen.
Explosion of Online Ramen Information
When ramen made with tonkotsu or miso soup began to appear all over Japan, ramen began to be seen as a new distinctive culinary culture of its own, rather than an extension of Japanese soba. The development of instant ramen and spread of ramen franchise chains in the latter half of the 1960s and early 1970s, led to Sapporo ramen and Hakata ramen, which had been considered as local cuisine until then, to become key ramen categories.
The next big step forward in the popularity of ramen clearly was founded on the emergence of the Internet. Soon after the release of Windows 95 in 1995, a new sort of communication network began to take shape. Unlike before, where information had been filtered through print publications and television programs, it became possible to get first-hand reactions from people through their websites or SNS services.
This made it possible to obtain, free of charge, timely information full of lively details about new ramen shops, off-menu items, or popular shops to visit when on holiday—and it was all interactive, with users sharing information. Bringing together a huge quantity of data on the roughly 30,000 ramen shops nationwide fostered a sudden rise in popularity. And the shift from PCs to smartphones has only made it easier to share information, which is good news for the future of ramen
The World Views Ramen as Japanese Cuisine
The ramen industry was subject to even more fanfare in October 2014, when the Michelin Guide Tokyo 2015 listed 22 ramen shops. The restaurants were not awarded stars, but they were featured in the Bib Gourmand section that highlights establishments where diners can enjoy an outstanding meal for ¥5,000 or less.
Foreigners’ traditional image of “Japanese cuisine” has centered on tempura and sushi. Ramen, in contrast, has been viewed more as fast food or Chinese cuisine up to now, but with the listing in the prestigious Michelin Guide it has been recognized as a distinctive culinary item. It would be no exaggeration to say that this marks the global recognition of ramen as an integral part of Japanese cuisine.
And preparations are already underway to further expand the global reach of ramen as Japanese cuisine, such as the announcement in 2014 that the Cool Japan Fund will be investing ¥2 billion to promote the overseas expansion of the Hakata Ippūdō chain of ramen restaurants, which features tonkotsu-based Hakata ramen.
Ajisen Ramen: The Overseas Pioneer
Ramen began to broaden its reach outside Japan back in 1994, when the Kumamoto-based ramen chain Ajisen Ramen opened a restaurant in Taiwan. The following year the chain opened another restaurant in Beijing, and in 1996 expanded to Hong Kong as well. This move influenced other big-name ramen restaurants like Hakata Ippūdō and Menya Musashi to enter the Hong Kong market, where there is a thriving restaurant industry.
Today Ajisen Ramen has around 700 outlets overseas, which is an enormous number considering that even the biggest ramen chains in Japan do not operate more than 500 shops.
In 2010, Hakata Ippūdō entered the Hong Kong market, where Ajisen Ramen had already paved a way for Japanese ramen. Hakata Ippūdō teamed up with the leading restaurant operator Maxim to open four restaurants in the city, and it is now expanding to Shanghai, South Korea, and even Indonesia. The website Yelp chose the chain’s New York City outlet, which opened in 2008, as the top restaurant in all of the United States, helping to set off a ramen boom in the Big Apple.
And now in 2015, the much-acclaimed Osaka-based ramen chain Ryūkishin, which is famous for its salt-based soup, has opened a shop at Expo Milano. This is another chance to showcase ramen as a typical Japanese food.
Taste Buds Evolving Overseas
The popularity of ramen has been spreading rapidly in Asia, particularly in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore. These countries tend to refer to ramen as “Japanese-style ramen” to distinguish it from their own local noodle dishes. Japanese ramen tends to cost about three times more than local fare, which usually sells for around ¥200 a bowl. The Japanese ramen shops in these countries tend to be located in major shopping complexes or upscale commercial districts, and have come to be seen as places that families or couples might visit on special occasions.
In this overseas expansion, the tonkotsu ramen shops are far out in front of the other styles of ramen. Ajisen Ramen, which boasts the largest number of shops in the world, is a tonkotsu style restaurant chain, as are Hakata Ippūdō and Butaō—and even the pioneering fish-based soup specialist Menya Musashi offers tonkotsu ramen at the shops it opens in other Asian countries. As was once the case in Tokyo, fans of ramen in those countries tend to prefer a thicker soup, and this may be why tonkotsu soup, which differs so clearly from the more simply flavored noodle dishes in continental Asia, has won people over.
In 2013, Japanese cuisine, or washoku, was registered as an intangible cultural asset by UNESCO, designating it as traditional cuisine that needs to be safeguarded. But ramen has become the most popular type of Japanese food by continually progressing.
Made with wheat, which is grown around the world in quantities on par with rice, ramen has taken off as a world-beloved food, and I hope the age is now arriving where I will be able to travel the globe while sampling tasty bowls of ramen everywhere along the way.
(Original written in Japanese and published on July 23, 2015. Banner photo: The Ippūdō ramen shop in New York. © Jiji.)
(*1) ^ Yokohama Iekei ramen is a combination of tonkotsu soup and thick, straight noodles. The dish stems from a chef who trained under a Yokohama-based ramen shop named Yoshimuraya.