Soup bowls filled with juicy Japanese nuggets are the world favourite instant meal. Lifelong Ramen devotee Kittie Walker explains why…
Steam filled with the aromas of oriental spices wafts across the room towards me. The anticipation builds as I sit and wait for my bowl to arrive. There’s nothing quite like stimulating all of your senses before indulging in comfort food that’ll drive away the winter chill. In fact, ramen is so versatile, it doesn’t matter how you’re feeling, what the weather is like or if you’re rushed for time – there’s a ramen for every occasion.
Like many office workers – and the entire universe, surely – I’m a fan of ramen. Not just the bowls filled with juicy nuggets. But even the instant packets of oriental noodles you reconstitute with boiling water.
It’s eaten all over the world including in Japan where it’s a cultural phenomenon and a celebrity in itself with manga, anime, songs, TV shows, films and events dedicated to it.
It’s always felt like you’re not indulging in a naughty snack. But rather consuming a hearty meal to keep you fuelled – mind, body and soul. I don’t feel guilty when inhaling ramen, because it’s a traditional food from one of the healthiest cuisines on the planet. Or is it? I hadn’t really given that question much thought, until I met Barak Kushner, author of Slurp! A culinary and social history of ramen – Japan’s favourite noodle soup, who has completely changed my perception of the dish.
Kushner is an academic from Cambridge University who hails from America. He is open, jovial and passionate about his field of study – all things Japanese. Talking to him about the culinary evolution of Japan – and more importantly ramen – over the last two centuries is a real treat.
“It’s important to understand ramen is not a usual food on many levels for Japanese society,” says Kushner “Think about their food aesthetics – everything is visually pleasing and simple with each component of the meal coming in a bowl or dish of its own – ramen is the antithesis of this.
“And that’s because it isn’t a traditional Japanese dish at all. It’s a dish that’s evolved over the past two centuries as Japan attempted to forge a separate cultural identity from China.”
It turns out – somewhat ironically considering some of the most famous ramen dishes are pork-based broths with pork belly on top, for hundreds of years the Japanese consumed very little pork – only the very rich or those needing protein on medical grounds consumed it regularly. The Japanese often used imagery of the pig to denigrate their Chinese neighbours. “The Japanese associated food tastes with specific cultures and they despised foods like pork, chocolate and butter, looking down upon the countries that consumed them.”
It’s strange, considering the Japanese were trying to set themselves apart from the Chinese, that they adopted a dish that’s intrinsically Chinese in origin. “Nanking Soba, Nagasaki Champon and Shina Soba, all forerunners of ramen appeared in Japan from the mid-nineteenth century. They originally sprang up in Chinese restaurants in Japan. They were aimed at Chinese students and businessmen, but soon the chefs of these restaurants realised they could start to widen their audience by creating dishes that would appeal to the Chinese and Japanese alike,” reported Kushner enthusiastically, “and because as a nation the Japanese had gone through much of their history malnourished, this new hardy dish appealed to them. Over the next hundred years, they adopted and made it their own.”
During the 1920s, the immediate forerunner of ramen took off in a big way. It was served in small pop up restaurants, in Chinese restaurants and from food carts in the more disreputable parts of town. It was a dish specifically for the underclasses. “Proper people did not eat ramen. Women certainly did not eat noodles and were considered low class prostitutes if they were seen to be consuming them,” continues an animated Kushner.
“It’s not until after the Second World War that we start to see the ramen and sticky white rice that we all instantly recognise as Japanese today. In fact, there’s an interesting story behind the ramen that was born out of the post-war period. Japan was devastated during the Second World War. There was severe rationing, which led to food riots in the streets. America stepped in to ease the crisis and to stop them from going communist – a real concern at the time. They sent them vast amounts of wheat, not realising that the Japanese did not eat bread or cook using ovens.”
This cultural faux pas spawned a “food group that has entwined itself with modern pop culture like no other, instant ramen was born to solve post-war starvation and malnutrition. It took ten years to develop, by which time, economically Japan was doing a lot better. Ramen was an instant hit.”
Kushner is an animated raconteur. As we sit there, he goes on to describe how the ramen is still evolving today, with no sign of it abating as the world’s favourite instant or comfort food. The latest marketing innovations are tailoring the flavours by gender – lighter and citrus tastes for women and heavier styles for men. There are even “light” versions for the health conscious, because, as a carbohydrate-based dish, they are highly calorific.
Noodle bars in Japan go to extremes to get people lining up around the block to get in. The shops make your visit a cultural event and an experience that you’ll be sure to pass on to your friends. This has not yet appeared in venues outside of Japan, but with many more Ramen restaurants opening in the UK, maybe we’ll see one hear soon.
I’ve come across many ramen snobs in my time, declaring this ramen or that ramen not to be traditional or authentic and therefore beneath their consideration. I am now fully equipped to counter their condescension with a factual history lesson. With all my senses fully satiated, I’m ready to take on the world. As I leave the restaurant, I give a brief nod to the Japanese women who went before me, willing to brave the scorn of their society just because they fancied a bowl of noodle soup.
Barak Kushner was a guest speaker at a meeting of the Birkbeck Food Group. Thanks go to Alex Colas and the Birkbeck Food Group for existing and arranging such informative and entertaining sessions. If you like to go to future events or join the groups mailing list email Alex Colas.
p.s. The book Slurp! A culinary and social history of ramen – Japan’s favourite noodle soup is outrageously expensive, but Barak advises that it will be available at a more accessible price in paperback soon. Ed. the book is actually coming out in paperback in February 2014 see the order form below for details. It costs 25 EUR, but you can get a 20% discount up until April 2014 by using this form:
image courtesy of By Sun Taro (Flickr: Honkamado@Sendai) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons