Ramen is dead. Like Frankenstein’s monster with a kitten, we’ve killed it with our big dumb love; with our matzo-ball ramen, ramen burgers, ramnuts, and ramen-ritos. Break out the black veils, cover the mirrors—no less an authority than David Chang has declared there’s no future for ramen in America, and it’s our own damn fault.
Tonkotsu obsessives and haters alike: Why couldn’t we have just loved it a little less, or loved some of the other, equally iconic Japanese noodles a little more? Why have we never built a soba temple, or an icon to udon? Why did Americans latch on so hard and so quick to ramen, of all things?
The infant of the country’s starchy strings, ramen appeared in Japan in the late 1800s, and the first dedicated ramen shop opened in 1910. At the time, it was a Chinese-inspired oddity known as shina soba (literally, “Chinese noodles,” but don’t call it that now—turns out shina is a racist shitstorm of a word). After World War II, Japanese soldiers came home from China with a taste for the politically correctly named chuka soba (still “Chinese noodles,” less racist), or ramen (from lamian, the Chinese name for the noodles). From then the noodle soup as we know it was on the come-up, but even into the 1990s—as Chang describes in his noodle obituary—ramen was an outlier, a “‘cool’ food made by outsiders fighting against the mainstream.”
In contrast, both udon and soba have been around so long their origin stories are more myth than history. Depending on who you ask, the thick, wheat-flour-based udon may have been invented by a diplomat in the 6th century, by a Buddhist monk in the 9th century, or by a different Buddhist monk in the 13th century. Buckwheat soba first made an appearance around 300 BCE, and by the 7th century CE was massively popular as a nutrient-dense miracle food during times of famine.
None of the three are easy to make, though ramen is arguably the most accessible (chemistry class: the noodle’s color and chewy-springy texture come from their alkalinity, which can be achieved by toasting baking soda in the oven before adding it to the dough). Soba’s delicate, nutty-earthy flavor requires fresh buckwheat, and purists wait for the harvest season to eat it straight from the field. Udon is just flour and water, but the dough is exhaustively kneaded, then pounded underfoot to get that signature slippery-chewy texture. It’s such a pain in the ass to make that most restaurants in Japan don’t even bother to prepare their own, instead shipping it in from one of the regions where noodle-stomping is tradition. But while most objects of foodie obsession focus on the handmade factor, even now, most of our most prized ramen joints don’t make their own noodles.
And therein lies the answer.
Ramen may have existed in Japan from the end of the 19th century, but for its first 50 years it was just a workingman’s quick-serve restaurant staple meant to fill you up and get you out the door quickly. It didn’t become a true national icon until the 1950s, with Momofuku Ando’s gamechanging invention: instant ramen. As that first generation of instant-ramen-raised kids grew up, they built the basic noodle into a hyper-obsessive cultural phenomenon, much the same way that American kids raised on McDonald’s and Pizza Hut became the adults willing to pay $35 for the DB Burger or ship $25,000 pizza ovens over from Naples.
Ramen may be dead, but its shambling zombie corpse is going to be around for a long time.
In Japan, ramen’s reputation was cemented in the 1985 “ramen western” movie Tampopo and the 1994 construction of a ramen museum-slash-theme park. In the U.S., ramen’s reign began with a marketing campaign. Ando’s Nissin Foods began distributing its Top Ramen in the U.S. in 1971, and the first major ad campaign hit in 1978, featuring a “Mikey Likes It” wannabe kid and the Campbell’s-lite slogan “Oodles of Noodles.” (The kid is even eating the stuff with a spoon—or trying to, with noodles sliding all over the place—in an attempt to make it appear All-American.) Eighteen years later, that first American ramen generation had bought enough 50-cent packets to pay for a 3-D Top Ramen cup in Times Square, its billowing steam echoing another American icon, the Eight O’Clock Coffee cup.
Poor old udon, meanwhile, has been appearing on Japanese restaurant menus in the U.S. since the early 20th century but has never really caught people’s attention. Its second-fiddle fate could be due to its ultra-chewiness, a prized feature in Japan but one of the more “foreign” textures common to Asian foods—like sticky natto and rubbery fish cake—that have historically been a hard sell to American palates. Or it could be that there’s no iconic udon dish on which to pin an identity; it can be pan-fried or served in soup, like the little-bit-of-everything nabeyaki udon.
Soba had a good run in the ’80s and ’90s, its delicate nature and labor-intensive production appreciated by fine-dining crowds looking for new culinary temples to worship in. Ruth Reichl’s 1993 review of Honmura An, a SoHo soba specialist, reads like a religious pamphlet: “Even the air seems purer here, and when you look around, you see that every object has been carefully chosen to harmonize with the rest.” Ultimately, soba’s preciousness is what sealed its fate. The shift from soba-respect to ramen-reverence, says Pete Wells, has echoed the American palate’s movement “from subtle flavors to assertive ones; from a dining scene in which pork played almost no role to one in which it was the emperor of meats.”
Soba’s association with a macrobiotic, health-driven diet hasn’t helped its supremacy in the U.S. Photo by Food’s Eye View
It doesn’t help that soba’s been leading a double life as a health food—the polar opposite of ramen’s more-is-more sodium-fest. Open any issue of Shape or Fitness or Women Laughing Alone With Salad Monthly and you’ll find at least one swapperoo recipe that laughably substitutes dark, earthy soba for pale white pasta in a “healthier” alfredo sauce that features no cream, no cheese, and a mega-serving of lonely tears. Thank the macrobiotics movement for this, a diet fad popularized in turn-of-the-century Japan that focused on whole grains and seaweed. A missionary named Michio Kushi brought the eating regimen to Massachusetts in the ’50s, claiming, among other things, that it could cure cancer (he later died of cancer). He began importing and selling macrobiotic ingredients—like soba—to the American hippies who were just beginning to formulate their own whole food movement. Soba’s high-protein, nutrient-rich composition has made it catnip for the diet crowd ever since.
Today, ramen is the ultimate combination of instant gratification and comfort, the two values leading American culinary culture. The process for making it may be a 24-hour death march of boiling bones and building flavor-enhancing tare. But like foie gras-stuffed burgers and paper-thin-crusted pizzas, most of the people who wait in hours-long lines for their ramen fix aren’t going to the trouble to make it themselves. To them, ramen takes only as long as it takes the bandannaed dude behind the bar to slap out a fresh batch of noodles from the water and ladle in some broth and garnishes. Though—as Chang rightly points out in his ramen op-ed—there are dozens of styles still deserving of the spotlight; it’s just that the pork-fat-slicked, belly-laden tonkotsu ramen that rules the U.S. hits all the right buttons. Ramen may be dead, but its shambling zombie corpse is going to be around for a long time.