Ramen: A Tangled History of Japan’s Unlikely National Dish (ASIAN 258 )
Updated: Feb 25, 2022
You don’t need to see it, because you can guess the plot. Ramen Girl (2008) is a cross between Karate Kid (1984),Tampopo (1985), Lost in Translation (2003), and your standard rom com.
The story goes as follows. American girl (the late Brittany Murphy) meets boy and trails him to Japan. Boy dumps girl. Girl drowns her sorrows in a bowl of ramen. Then she finds herself. She apprentices with a tough Japanese ramen chef, discovers the beauty of traditional Japanese culture, gets a career, and wins a boyfriend upgrade. A gorgeous native man becomes the trailing spouse.
Critics predictably pounced on the Hollywood flop. The script writing was the least of its problems, however. Viewers objected to the way the director represented Japanese culture. Let’s face it, the poster with Brittany Murphy in a short red kimono (bathrobe?) is cringe worthy.
But as a historian and career glutton, the crappy cultural politics were not the only thing I noticed. I was stuck on the noodles and the question: How did ramen come to exemplify traditional Japanese culture?
On the face of things, this isn't a hard question to answer. Food writers often refer to ramen as the national dish of Japan. Like sushi (the other contender), the soup noodle is a common feature in Japanese life.
Experts estimate there are 10,000 ramen shops in Tokyo alone. The fad is not just a Japanese phenomenon. The artsy form of the instant noodle has also taken the US by storm. If you’ve been to Slurping Turtle, you’re aware of how pricey it can be, too. Don’t complain. It’s worse on the East Coast. Slurping a bowl of the stuff in Hell’s Kitchen or the Lower East Side will set you back twenty bucks.
Like most national dishes, ramen has a convoluted history. It began its career as something else. As with pad Thai or lumpia, ramen was once a Chinese dish. In the eighteenth century, Japanese called it Shina soba (Chinese soba). After the Second World War, the noodles went instead by Chuka soba (Chinese soba). If you haven’t already guessed, Shina was -- and remains -- a slur.
The slur, though, tells us loads. It reveals that ramen had its roots in China and that it owes a lot to some ugly politics. Here, I am not talking about bathrobes, but rather large-scale violence and imperialism.
The Chinese progenitor to ramen is a pork broth noodle. The Chinese still regularly serve noodles in soup, and in the south, pork remains a staple of the diet. The Chinese word for meat, in fact, is synonymous with pork. The wheat noodles, needless to say, have a long history in the Middle Kingdom.
So how did a fairly common Chinese noodle find its way to Japan and become the national dish? For an answer, we have to go back a couple of centuries, to the southern prefecture of Nagasaki.
Nagasaki should ring a bell. Catholic missionaries and Portuguese traders introduced Iberian foodways and New World ingredients to Japanese consumers first in Nagasaki. Remember castella, confeito, tempura, and kabocha?
As we learned before, the Tokugawa shogunate (1600-1868) took a hard line on Catholic missionaries. In hindsight, this proved to be a wise decision. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Iberians had a distinct taste for conquest. Think Goa, Macau, and Manila. The Spanish and Portuguese also made a habit of bringing the Inquisition with them.
But the Portuguese were not the last foreigners to set foot in Nagasaki. The Dutch were there, too. So were the Chinese. Chinese merchants flocked to Nagasaki in the seventeenth century. By 1688, one fifth of the city’s population was Chinese. Out of the 194 ships that docked in the harbor that year, 117 were from the Middle Kingdom.
The Chinese, however, were not free to mix and mingle with the natives. The shogunate strongly preferred that they live apart from the Japanese, in Chinatown. There, Chinese sojourners abided by their own customs.
Governments, however, can only do so much. As we know, good food has trouble staying put. Curious Japanese men wandered into the Nagasaki Chinatown and watched the merchants feast, copying down their menus. They were struck by the Chinese manner of consuming food. Family style offered a contrast to the Japanese way of serving each person a separate portion. Japanese observers also noticed that the Chinese ate a decent amount of meat – especially mutton and pork. At some point, a few of them tried the pork soup noodles and began making a version of “Chinese soba.” For details, read Kushner!
“Chinese soba” was something of a late bloomer. It did not immediately appeal to the Japanese mainstream. It was too fatty and meat-laden. The cultural matrix had to first change. For this, of course, war and occupation played a decisive role.
Two events in particular had a hand in changing ramen’s fortunes. The first was the Meiji restoration (1868-1912). This was in the wake of Commodore Perry’s forced opening of Japan to the West in 1853 (a series of unequal treaties followed in the decade to come). The young guns who toppled the Tokugawa shogunate and took command wanted to understand Western imperialists better. So they went on tours of the world. One of the things that struck them was how tall the British and Germans were. They wondered if height -- and Western dietary habits -- was the secret of European dominance. This was also the heyday of Social Darwinism. Our reformers thus kept notes of what these Westerners consumed. The copious bread, milk, and meat caught their attention. Was this the secret to keeping Japan safe?
In an effort to improve the “fitness” of the nation, the Meiji modernizers pushed high-protein foods. One of them, Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835-1901) wrote a political treatise in 1870. You can guess the thesis from the title, “We Must Eat Meat!”
The campaign to push wheat, meat, and milk was a flop. It worked up to a point with conscripts in the army -- but the general public remained unconvinced. Still, the movement paved the way for greater acceptance of ramen, which had two of these elements. What is more, “Chinese soba” could be adjusted to fit local tastes. Soup noodles were not as alien to the Japanese mouth as bread or beef roast. Plus, noodles had a long history in Japan: there was soba, or buckwheat noodles, and chewy udon. Not surprisingly, cooks began to adapt “Chinese soba” to Japanese tastes. They added fermented miso paste to give the stock an extra umami kick. What a classic example of local adaptation!
The second push, however, came later. The U.S. occupation (1946-1952) altered the Japanese cultural matrix (more details forthcoming in the next blog). If you haven’t noticed, there are close connections between cuisine and violence.
Instant ramen eaters around the world have the Yanks in part to thank – or to blame. Again, my discussion borrows from Kushner.
During the Cold War, the Americans offered “assistance” to the Japanese in the form of wheat shipments. They tried teaching Japanese women how to bake bread in the hopes that the Japanese would ditch the rice. That predictably went nowhere. But what to do about the surplus wheat? Fortunately, Andō Momofuku (1912-2008) had other ideas.
First, some background: Despite his Japanese-sounding name, Andō was not from Japan. He was an ethnic Chinese born in Japanese-controlled Taiwan. His original name was Wu Baifu. At some point, he spent time in prison for tax evasion and struggled with getting his career off the ground (things were tough in post-war Asia).
Andō, though, had two things going for him. The first was his wife. He married a Japanese woman, acquired Japanese citizenship, and changed his last name to hers. The second was his knowledge of food.
As someone who grew up in Taiwan, Andō was familiar with how pork noodles were prepared. He also knew, for example, that ramen was very time-consuming to make. So he came up with a method of mass producing -- and preserving -- ramen: quickly deep-frying it. He learned you could soften a brick of fried ramen without sacrificing the noodle’s springiness by immersing it in hot liquid for a few minutes. This trick was inspired by tempura. Tempura loses its crunchy texture when it swims in ponzu sauce. (Yes, there is a Portuguese layer to ramen, too). Andō’s corporation, Nissin, was born from this insight.
Is it right for Japanese people to claim ramen as the national dish? Here, I'll give you my opinion -- 'yes.' Ramen is now a part of everyday Japanese life. It has become a vehicle for Japanese chefs to express themselves. It is a dish that is currently an object of Japanese cultural pride. So, of course, it is Japanese. Much the way that dumpling is Chinese, Armenian, Korean, and Turkish, and pizza is quintessentially American.
But like many 'national' dishes, ramen was not the brainchild of any single culture or people. It was a group lift. Its incomparable texture and flavor brought together the efforts of people spread across space and time: from the Portuguese missionaries to the Chinese missionaries to the Japanese imperialists to the American occupiers. And Andō: an ethnic Chinese man with Japanese citizenship and a criminal record! Each of them contributed something to that dish. So the next time you have a bowl of the stuff (instant or otherwise), take a minute and remember all of the people who brought you this umami bomb. You’ll find that it’s a decent-sized list.
Experiences with ramen you would like to share?
See you on YellowDig?
Ramen is very time consuming to make! Most of my friends who like Japanese food usually wait until they can go to a good noodle shop. However, if you plan to be at home, this can be a good way of passing the time and improving your cooking skills. As usual, I recommend JustOneCookbook, which has a miso ramen recipe (one of my favorites).
Barak Kushner, Slurp! a Social and Culinary History of Ramen - Japan's Favorite Noodle Soup (2012)
George Solt, The Untold History of Ramen: How Political Crisis in Japan Spawned a Global Food Craze (Berkeley, 2014).
Eric Rath, Japan's Cuisines: Food, Place, and Identity (Reaktion Books, 2016).