Faster and smarter in the app... Download now

The History of Ramen noodles

Made famous for being the favored dish of a popular japanese anime character, the steaming bowl of ramen noodle soup has around the world become a symbol of japanese pop culture and comfort cuisine. In this article we're going to explore the origins of this world-famous dish, as well as what makes it such an international hit.

What is Ramen?

For those of you who aren't clear on what ramen is, allow me the honor of introducing you to something spectacular. Ramen is a simple dish consisting of chinese-style wheat noodles in a soy-sauce based broth, traditionally served with sliced pork, green onions and dried seaweed topping.

Though there are hundreds of delicious variations riffing off the traditional style (from tempura-fried fish and vegetables, to curried pork) it's the traditional combination that has a special place in peoples' hearts as the option everyone turns to for a good, honest meal that warms the soul.

Types of Ramen

Shoyu - the oldest traditional style, shoyu ramen is made with a soya sauce based soup with added chicken and vegetable stock, commonly served with curly noodles, bamboo shoots, green onions, boiled egg, seaweed, black pepper and fish cakes. A popular variation on the shoyu ramen is to add chinese spices and chilli oil to the soup for a spicier finish, and this is often served with sliced beef.

Miso - A relatively new style of ramen, this kind of ramen was invented in 1965 in the northern city of Sapporo. Winters are harsh in the area, and this is reflected in the heartiness of the miso ramen, a soup based on the rich miso bean paste blended with chicken or fish broth. This kind of ramen is often served with sweetcorn, butter, leeks, bean sprouts, onions, ground beef, cabbage, sesame seed and garlic.

Curry - Another relatively new riff on the classic ramen dish, a curry ramen features a soup made from pork bones and vegetables and seasoned with curry. The noodles themselves tend to be thicker and you'll often see this dish served with chashu, wakame seaweed and beansprouts.

Shio - a ramen soup made with chicken, vegetables, fish and seaweed resulting in a broth that's pale and clear. This kind of ramen is often served with chicken, pickled plums, kamoboko and narutomaki (both types of fish rolls).

Tonkotsu - a thick broth made from slow-cooked pork bones giving it a cloudy white colour. Tonkotsu ramen is usually served with sliced pork, spring onions, seaweed and takenoko mushrooms.

Who invented Ramen?

Who then is responsible for the legendary combination? A common mistake made by many is to confuse Momofuku Ando, as being the founder of the dish. Mr. Ando was in fact the inventor of the convenience food instant-ramen, which has since become a global culinary phenomenon, but that's a conversation for another time.

The real origins of the dish cannot be traced back to a single person. It's widely held that the specific kind of wheat noodle used in ramen noodle soup was introduced to Japan by chinese immigrants in the late 19th century, with portal food stalls selling ramen and gyoza dumplings to hungry workers.

By 1910, the first established ramen restaurant had opened up in the port city of Yokohama and with the rice shortages that followed the second world war, noodles became a popular alternative.

Why is ramen so popular?

How is it that this simple combination of wheat noodles in a meat broth, has lasted through the decades, becoming one of japan's most popular culinary exports?

At the turn of the 20th century, when Japan was yet a burgeoning economy, ramen was an extremely popular dish amongst the urban working classes for the fact that it was both cheap and filling.

Several decades later, when Japan had established its economy and European cuisine was beginning to make inroads into the culinary scene, ramen still managed to retain it's appeal as a nostalgic dish, harking back to the time when the country was on the rise economically.

Fast-forward to today, and there are over 51,000 registered ramen restaurants in Japan, with many more unregistered.

What's most surprising, is that the tradition of ramen in Japan has escaped corporatization with over 80% of ramen restaurants operating as independent small businesses. Ramen chiefs have preserved the tradition amongst themselves of allowing employees to start their own restaurants helped along their way with recipes and business advice.

A strong sense of tradition and nostalgia coupled with the fact that ramen is the everyman's food, has made the dish an enduring classic in Japanese cuisine and one of the most popular culinary exports.

Related content

If you enjoyed this article and would like more info on travel to Japan, check out our other posts on the topic.