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Tuesday, July 29, 2008
It came, it saw, and it bowled over Japan
It has slurped its way into becoming Japan's favorite food.
Thousands of ramen eateries lure people day and night. Noodle enthusiasts line up outside ramen joints given high kudos for taste, and swap notes about others also serving delicious fare. And for people on the go, there's the instant variety, available at any supermarket or convenience store.
Here are some basic questions and answers about ramen:
When did ramen come to Japan?
Ramen originated in China. One theory has it that the first Japanese to slurp them up was Tokugawa Mitsukuni (1628-1701), who headed the Mito domain in present-day Ibaraki Prefecture, better known as "Mito Komon" from a popular TV drama. A Chinese Confucian lecturer who visited Japan made ramen for the warlord sometime in the mid to late 17th century.
"Nippon Ramen Taizen" ("All About Ramen in Japan"), written by the study group Iidabashi Ramen Kenkyukai, says that a friendship treaty signed with the Qing Dynasty in 1871 brought more Chinese to Japan, and with them their home dishes, including ramen.
In the Meiji and Taisho eras from 1868 to 1925, ramen began to enjoy popularity among Japanese eating at food stalls. During this time, the taste was altered to fit the Japanese palate, the book says.
Syuji Yamashita, a food analyst at the Japan Food Analyst Association, said ramen became Japan's favorite food during the rapid economic boom from the mid-1950s to the '70s.
What kinds of ramen are available?
Rairai Ken, a ramen shop that opened in 1910 in Tokyo's Asakusa district, began serving a soy sauce-flavored ramen with "menma" (bamboo shoots), "charshu" (sliced roast pork) and sliced green onion. These ingredients became the standard ramen for Tokyo.
The soup stock may be beef-, chicken-, pork-, fish- or vegetable-based, or combinations of all, and hence the flavor is based on the mix.
Soy, miso, salty and "tonkotsu" (broth boiled with pork bone) are popular flavors. Some shops serve combinations of these flavors, including miso tonkotsu or soy sauce tonkotsu.
Many regions offer localized ramen. For instance, the Hakata district in Fukuoka Prefecture is known for its tonkotsu ramen, while Sapporo is famous for miso ramen.
Why did ramen become so popular?Yamashita of the Japan Food Analyst Association points out several contributing factors.
Before ramen began spreading in Japan, noodles were already part of the culture, particularly "soba" (buckwheat) and "udon" (wheat flour) noodles, so ramen fit right in, Yamashita said.
The instant noodle products, which became widely popular a few decades ago, also spread the popularity of ramen.
"Instant ramen is so convenient. You need only add hot water," he said. "Plus, it is inexpensive."
Yamashita said there are countless ingredients to allow ramen shops to be creative, including adding tomato soup. Even cheese is melting its way into some bowls.
"No matter how unique a bowl of ramen is, people accept it. I think that's something both chefs and customers enjoy," he said.
The popularity of ramen can be seen in the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum, which offers a street scene from 1958, the year Nisshin Co. debuted instant ramen. The retro street boasts nine ramen shops specializing in fare from various regions around Japan.
There are also countless guidebooks on where to eat ramen, while ramen-related Web sites list thousands of eateries and reviews.
How big is the ramen industry?The Nippon Ramen Association says it is difficult to tally the nation's ramen restaurants as well as the size of the domestic market because such eateries can be vaguely defined.
Ramen may not be the main specialty at all eateries where it is served, including some franchised restaurants. Also, Chinese restaurants offering noodle dishes may also qualify as ramen establishments.
The government does not currently survey ramen shops, but there were 34,434 with combined sales of ¥666 billion in 1992, according to data released by the predecessor of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
As for instant ramen products, the Japan Convenience Foods Industry Association says the amount produced in Japan was equivalent to about 5.35 billion meals in 2007 and 1,088 different varieties were on the market.
What are some recent ramen trends?Some diners are preferring ramen served with less soup.
For instance, "tsukemen," which people eat by dipping noodles in a small soup bowl, like soba, is becoming popular.
Another recent popular ramen that is short on soup is "abura-soba," in which, like pasta, noodles are mixed with sauce and toppings and served in a bowl without broth.
Yamashita said the number of "izakaya" pubs specializing in ramen is on the rise. These offer a variety of dishes in addition to various ramen fare, and offer more comfortable atmospheres that the standard eat-quick-and-get-out counters.