The Japanese Table Back Issues
A Taste of Instant Successby Takashi Morieda
According to a recent poll, instant ramen heads the list of top ten innovations originated in twentieth-century Japan that have left a lasting impression on the world. Karaoke, headphone stereos, TV games, CDs, cameras, Kurosawa films and sushi are also among the "Best Ten".
Noodles have long been a staple of the Japanese diet, with soba (buckwheat noodles) and udon (wheat noodles) considered traditional favorites. It was not until nearly 100 years ago that Chinese-style ramen noodles were introduced, quickly becoming a popular item on the Japanese menu.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Japan opened its doors to the outside world after more than 200 years of nationwide seclusion. Sea routes from the West had already been well established in the Asian region and, passing through Hong Kong, they brought large numbers of Westerners and Chinese to Japan. With many people deciding to stay, Chinatowns began springing up around such international ports as Kobe and Yokohama.
Tangmian—noodles served up in a bowl of soup—was among the numerous foods introduced to Japan by these Chinese immigrants. This inviting noodle dish gradually became a local favorite, and was often found on the menus of Japanese-run restaurants. Whenever the cuisine of one nation is introduced to another, flavor is often adjusted to suit local tastes, and tangmian was no exception. In time, the dish was adapted to the Japanese palate, with soy sauce added to the soup for flavoring. Local cooks also began putting katsuobushi (dried bonito) and konbu (giant kelp), which are used in stock for udon or soba, into the standard Chinese-style soup base of chicken bones and other ingredients, topping each serving of ramen with such typical Japanese garnishes as naruto (fish cake) and nori (dried laver). Just as Southeast Asian noodle dishes represent an assimilation of traditional and local tastes, ramen is a magical fusion of Chinese and Japanese foods.
Ramen has also been assimilated to suit local tastes in various parts of Japan. Among the different variations, which are basically enriched with soy sauce, some have become well-known nationwide for their distinctive flavors. Kyushu ramen, for example, is made predominately of pork-bone stock, while Hokkaido ramen is seasoned with miso or rich lard. There are also well-known varieties originating in particular cities. Kitakata ramen is one example. Even a little-known city like Kitakata becomes famous when its local ramen with handmade "frizzy" noodles gains popularity.
The Ramen Boom
Ramen was already an established part of the Japanese diet by the time the nation began experiencing major economic growth toward the end of the 1950s. As refrigerators, vacuum cleaners and other electric appliances increasingly became standard equipment in homes, reducing household chores, consumption of easily-prepared instant foods also began to spread.
Packaged ramen and curry roux were the first instant foods to appear on the market. Instant noodles could be made simply by either adding hot water or boiling them, and were enthusiastically received, even among consumers who had never eaten ramen. Ramen shops, too, began to proliferate, and today represent Japan´s largest food service industry.
Contrary to belief, it was not the popularity of ramen that led to the development of the instant variety, but the instant products themselves that contributed to the widespread demand for ramen. Today, the boom continues, and for some, ramen has virtually become an obsession. Shops known for particularly good selections invariably have long lines of customers waiting to get in. Television and popular magazines frequently feature detailed information about such shops and other ramen-related matters.
The history of instant ramen is reminiscent of American TV dinners. Full servings, including a meat entree, a side dish of potatoes and vegetables and a dessert, are provided in a compartmentalized tray that can be instantly warmed up, just like meals served on airplanes. In both the U.S. and Japan, instant foods began appearing around the time that more women began taking jobs outside the home and mass production of electric appliances started taking off. The U.S., however, was a world of wealth, in which the advent of instant meals was supported by an agribusiness that produced standard-quality meats and vegetables in large quantities, and where it was taken for granted that shops and households had refrigerators with freezers. By contrast, Japan appeared to be more humble, producing a meal that consisted merely of a small bag of noodles and dried soup, conveniently contained in a package that could be transported and preserved at room temperature, and that could be prepared simply with boiling water.
And yet, this convenient food was an amazing invention. Although instant ramen is a meal in itself, fresh ingredients—slices of meat, an egg, diced vegetables—can be added to enhance flavor and produce a nutritious offering. As a result, instant ramen has spread to virtually all corners of the world, while TV dinners have remained a favorite mostly within the U.S.
The fact that Japanese flavors have not been forced upon consumers, but instead, adapted to local tastes is another reason for the international success of instant ramen. In Southeast Asia, for example, it is flavored with fermented fish sauce, the basic seasoning of the region. Instant ramen sold in China has a flavor similar to that nation´s traditional noodles, while American and European variations are made with chicken or beef stock, and served with a generous portion of condiments. And around the globe, soy sauce-based instant ramen continues to be a best-seller.
Today, six billion servings of instant ramen are consumed annually in Japan, while 43 billion portions are cooked up worldwide. Adapting to local tastes and cultures, it´s no wonder that this convenient noodle dish has gained international acceptance to top the list of made-in-Japan products that have made a lasting impact on the minds—and the palates—of people around the globe.
Born in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture in 1955, Takashi Morieda holds a degree in cultural anthropology from Tokyo's International Christian University. He is a well-known photographer and specialist in food culture, as well as a pioneer in research of curries and Southeast Asian cuisine. Morieda is also the author of some 20 food-related books, and a volume of his photographs spanning a 20-year period has recently been published.