After building his name on the back of his unstoppable bacon-dashi ramen, Momofuku’s David Chang surprised everyone when he recently declared the death of the Japanese noodle soup, known for its complex broths and springy alkaline noodles. Amid an onslaught of ramen burgers and ramen-ritos, it seemed like Americans’ unbridled love affair with the dish had transformed it into a limp caricature.
Barak Kushner, a food historian and associate professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Cambridge University, couldn’t be more against that death sentence, even if coming from a pioneer of Chang’s stature.
“Chang forgets that he lives in New York. The world is only beginning to see the edge of this food,” says Kushner, the author of Slurp! A Social and Culinary History of Ramen—Japan’s Favorite Noodle Soup, which traces ramen’s ascent into pop-culture ubiquity.
While the dish developed in early 19th-century Japan, ramen is a global phenomenon. “Ramen became my way of looking at the relationship between Japan and China in a different context,” Kushner says. “But today, you can find it around the world.”
Kushner also has a personal soft spot for the noodles. “I intensely disliked Japanese food when I first moved there,” he says. “I don’t come from an East Asian background. I grew up mostly kosher. One night someone took me out to eat at this small ramen shop and it was a realization. It didn’t seem like Japanese food to me, but I liked it. I ate more and more ramen as a poor student, and I started to ask myself, ‘Why is ramen an archetype of Japanese food when it’s not like the rest of the cuisine?’”
And so began his venture into the messy, complicated history of ramen. “What started as a Chinese food product ended up almost 1,000 years later as the emblem of modern Japanese cuisine,” he says.
Here, Kushner breaks down the evolutionary stages of ramen, from its primitive form as shina soba, to its widespread dissemination in a styrofoam cup.
Noodle Technology Borrowed from China
Starting around the 12th century, Buddhist priests who traveled from Japan to China to learn the Buddhist sutra were the first to spread the gospel of noodles. “Temples needed to make money to run,” Kushner says. “They were struck by the technology of making noodles in China and decided to bring it back and teach it in Japan.” Technologies derived from various parts of China, including milling grains and the fermentation of miso and sauces, made their way back to the island nation.
The noodles became an instant hit in the form of soba—traditionally made with buckwheat. “People wrote odes to it, priests became devoted to it,” Kushner says. “They actually banned one priest who became too popular in making soba.”
Adopting a Meatier Diet
From the 1600s to 1850, Japan’s economy stabilized and grew increasingly prosperous. “At this point, Japan was still trading and participating in diplomatic exchanges with China,” Kushner says. “The people ate a diet of noodle-based things, but not much meat.” The Meiji restoration of 1868 signaled the second big moment of change.
“Japanese culture really shifted as they tried to avoid being colonized. The great powers attempted to carve out spheres of influence, but the Japanese thought Westerners reeked of butter.”
Foreign perception of Japanese food was just as negative. The Chinese and Europeans found Japanese food disgusting. “They say it’s too fishy and salty. In fact, the first Chinese that came over in the 1890s immediately wrote back to China that Japanese food was horrible.”
In response to Japan’s reputation as a culinary wasteland, statesman Fukuzawa Yukichi urged the public to alter its eating habits and eat more protein, dairy products, and eggs—ingredients that would later play a crucial role in ramen’s evolution.
Primitive Ramen Is Born
In the early 20th century, Korean, Taiwanese, and Chinese immigrants moved to Japan to seek work. “Here you see the rise of industrialized Japan, or Japan as an empire. Not only are the Japanese being exposed to other Asian cultures, but the Chinese are dotted around Japan,” Kushner says.
More significantly, the Chinese students longed for the food of their upbringing. “They wanted meat that would stick to their bones, something that was caloric and tasty. The concept of savory and umami started to take hold. What developed in different parts of Japan was based on Chinese cooks—taking a love of noodles and adding more meat.”
This time period also marked the adoption of MSG in Japan. “You had a plate of noodles with leftover meat, and people sprinkled MSG on it,”Kushner says. “The noodles [at that time] are different because they’re not like soba. They’re making it with carbonate sprinkled in. Eventually, they’re constructing a broth that’s meaty and savory. And the broth becomes a signature mark of the entire dish.” This primitive ramen was known as shina soba, or Chinese noodles, and became a staple of the working class.
Momofuku Ando Invents Instant Ramen
The creation of ramen as we know it took form in the post World War II period, when American emergency aid arrived in the form of flour and lard. “The Japanese were told to make wheat, but they didn’t have ovens so noodles became increasingly popular,” Kushner says.
But it was the genius of Momofuku Ando—who figured out how to mass produce noodles—that pushed the dish to new heights.
“1958 marked the invention of instant ramen,” Kushner says. “It was originally designed as an antidote for starvation. In the late 1950s to the early 1960s, Japan had an economic takeoff. They were considered the economic miracle of East Asia and started working long hours. They wanted convenient food, so the sales of instant ramen went through the roof.”
Multiple flavor packs were created to appeal to a broad set of palates. Yet even more importantly, Ando realized Americans didn’t have the deep bowls typical of Japan, so he invented a styrofoam container to hold the ramen. By the 1970s and 1980s, instant ramen had taken the world by storm—and would become a saving grace for college students around the U.S.
International Explosion and Regional Differences
Thanks to broader awareness, regional specialists, and highly trained chefs entering the fray, ramen mania exploded. “In Japan, that boom was further solidified by this enormous popular culture attached to ramen,” Kushner says. “Magazines, TV shows, films, books, and cartoons devote themselves to the subject of ramen. People wait an hour or two for a new restaurant that sells a limited number of bowls a day. Eating becomes a hobby.”
Kushner sums up this phenomenon by comparing the preparation of ramen to listening to jazz: “You go to hear the masters when they play.”
Today in Japan, there are countless ramen-ya run by people dedicated to the craft. “They are day in and day out going to make their soup. Some of them make their own noodles, some of them have fancy machines. It’s all about the love they put into the product. In Japan, ramen is relatively inexpensive, but abroad this is not always the case.”
As tourism increased in Japan, so did the export of the dish. David Chang opened up Momofuku in 2004, which helped boost ramen’s popularity among non-Japanese diners in NYC and beyond.
Innovation continues to drive the cuisine. You’ll find less familiar styles like tsukemen, or dipping ramen, throughout Tokyo and at places like Tsujita in Los Angeles. In New York City, Ivan Orkin applies his Jewish heritage to the genre by serving a cheese mazemen and rye-flecked noodles. In Oakland, the owners of Ramen Shop are formulating a California-style with their Meyer-lemon shoyu broth.
“The sky is really the limit,” Kushner says. “Ramen is anything but dead.”