Ramen 101: A brief history of ramen

by Ramen Hero - June 23, 2020

Welcome to Ramen 101, an ongoing series that lays out everything you need to know about ramen to go from instant-only experience to full-fledged expert.

Every bowl of ramen isn’t just a meal, it’s the latest manifestation of a food tradition stretching back centuries.

While you certainly don’t have to be a ramen scholar to know that the Tonkotsu you’re currently slurping is delicious, knowing even a little bit of how many hundreds of years have passed to produce the palate-pleasing bowl in front of you adds an extra knowledge flavor, if you will, that makes each ramen experience even richer.

So in the spirit of bringing you even just a taste of that history, we wanted to take you through a brief tour of where ramen’s been, where it’s at, and where it might go.

 


Photo by Eggbank 

 

The Origins: While some claim that ramen is an entirely Japanese invention, the generally agreed upon consensus is that ramen evolved from Chinese wheat noodles brought to Japan by  Chinese immigrants sometime in the mid-19th century.

The Early Days: By the early 20th century restaurants in Japan that specialized in Chinese cuisine were serving bowls of cut noodles soaked in salt and pork bone broth with limited toppings, with the first dedicated ramen shops opening around 1910. This early iteration of ramen was also routinely sold in street food stalls, which helped spread the new dish to more and more people. 


The Instant Invention: In 1958 Momofuku Ando invented instant noodles, allowing anyone to make a version of the dish with only boiling water. Ando’s innovation explodes in popularity, bringing ramen to the masses for the first time and establishing ramen as a staple of Japanese food culture.

The Modern Period: Ramen continues to evolve in Japan, with each region and new generation of chefs bringing their own style and spin to the dish. Today there are approximately 25,000 ramen shops in Japan, with more than 5,000 shops in Tokyo alone, making the city the world’s undisputed ramen capital. 


The US Arrival: Given Japan’s intertwined cultural history with America, it was only a matter of time before ramen began to take hold in the US. With instant noodles laying down a foundation of familiarity, by the 2010s the demand for high-quality Honkaku ramen had led to rapid increase in the number of ramen shops in the US, primarily clustered in major metropolitan areas like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City.

At Ramen Hero we believe passionately that, much like the adoption of sushi, ramen will be the next Japanese food to be fully adopted and integrated into daily American eating habits. After all, some version of noodles in broth can be found in nearly every food culture, and the rich Umami flavor of high-quality ramen is fundamentally appealing to all humans.

The keys to spreading the gospel of ramen will be simply ensuring everyone in America has access to high-quality ramen, that they have some basic knowledge of ramen-ology (hence this Ramen 101 series), and that ramen in America continues to evolve.

While ramen’s taken many twists and turns over the years, the one thing that’s always held true is that it’s not a food that’s set in stone. While holding true to core Honkaku principles ramen’s always been about constant invention and re-invention, a never ending search for new flavors and refinements. Ramen’s not a destination, it’s a journey, which means becoming a ramen fanatic is a never ending quest to fill both your belly and your soul. 

We hope that gave you a solid foundation in ramen history. Stay tuned for our next Ramen 101 post where we’ll go deep on what specifically makes ramen Honkaku, or not. Until then, happy slurping!