Ramen’s Surprising History

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Barry Chin / The Boston Globe / Getty Images

In his new book The Untold History of Ramen, George Solt gives readers a chance to stew over the rich history of his savory subject. Like other mongrel creations of edible multiculturalism (think: pizza, curry, and cheap beer) ramen is many things to many people and consequently an effective vessel for tracking changes in consumer behavior. Solt goes deep on the ramifications of ramen culture, but he also focuses intently on the dish itself, which turns out to be surprisingly complex. Here are the most surprising facts Solt, a regular at Menkui-Tei in Manhattan, discovered during his research.

Geography Determines Color
The yellow tinge of ramen noodles comes from being made with water that is infused with baking soda (kansui), which gives them their color, slippery texture, aroma, and chewiness. In general, the farther north and east you go in Japan, the more kansui you’ll find in the ramen and the more colorful it will get.

No One Knows How Old It Is
As Solt tells it, ramen has three competing “origin stories” pegging the date of introduction to Japan as 1665, 1884, or 1910. Each story ties ramen to a different parent dish, but all of them trace the prototypal recipe back to a Chinese noodle soup precursor.

General MacArthur Made It Popular
Ramen consumption surged in Japan and steadily grew into a symbol of the country’s edible culture after World War II. Because U.S. authorities banned outdoor food vending and enacted severe rationing after the war, it was illegal to buy or sell ramen (although the food helped people get enough calories to survive). As Solt explains, “Black-market ramen stalls were the final destination of a large quantity of the U.S. wheat imported into Japan during the U.S. occupation.”

Cup Ramen Caught on Thanks to a Kidnapping
Instant ramen was developed by Ando Momofuku, founder of the Nissin Foods Corporation, in 1958. The styrofoam “Cup Ramen,” launched in 1971, received priceless exposure courtesy of the broadly televised Asama-Sanso incident, during which representatives of the United Red Army took a Nagano innkeeper’s wife hostage before being overwhelmed by a Japanese tactical assault team. Both cops and hostage takers subsisted on it during the 10-day siege.

Prisoners Love It
Instant ramen is the best-selling item at the Rikers prison commissary, outselling coffee, candy, and Coke.

There Are a Lot of Varieties
There are 19 official regional ramen styles recognized by Japan’s Raumen Museum: Asahikawa, Shirakawa, Kitahaka, Hakata, Yonezawa, Yokohama (Iekei), Takayama, Wakayama, Tokushima, Hiroshima, Kagoshima, Sano, Sapporo, Kumamoto, Tokyo (Ogikubo), Kyoto, Hakodate, Kurume, and Onomimchi – all featuring variations in ingredients, techniques, and terminology. For instance, traditional Tokyo shops use only chicken (not pork bones) in making the broth.

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