First things first: real ramen is not cooked in a microwave.
If you haven't yet delved into this hot culinary trend, you might be wondering how the cheap packets of dried noodles you ate in college suddenly made the leap to high-end restaurants. But the truth is, those microwavable noodles bear no resemblance to the ones being served in fancy metropolitan noodle shops across the country. In fact, today's ramen noodles have much more in common with the ones being served 100 years ago.
So just what is ramen, anyway? And how did it suddenly become so popular? Below, we break down ramen's tasty evolution.
Ramen is widely considered a Japanese invention, but there's much debate over whether the noodles were first made in Japan or China. It's easy to see how the dish's origins could have gotten a bit murky: ramen-noodle shops first sprang to popularity in both countries in the early 1900s, and the noodles were actually called "Chinese soba" noodes in Japan up until the 1950s. It was Chinese workers selling meals from food carts who likely first introduced the Japanese to the wheat-based noodles, but ramen's popularity in Japan skyrocketed after the Second Sino-Japanese war, when Japanese troops returned home from China with a new appreciation for Chinese cuisine. This led to a suggen surge in new Chinese restaurants throughout the country.
So while it's hard to say with 100% accuracy, it's probably not too far fetched to say that ramen was a dish invented in China, but made trendy in Japan. And there's certainly no doubt that Japanese restaurants have really made the dish their own since being introduced to it.
Photo by Andrew Nawrocki for Groupon
Like so many other types of noodles, ramen is made from wheat flour, water, and salt. That mixture is kneaded together into a dough, then rolled (or hand-pulled), cut, and steamed. But there's a crucial ingredient that makes ramen different from any other type of noodle: kansui, a type of alkaline water that gives ramen noodles their signature springy texture. While it's possible to mimic the effects of kansui by substituting it with baking soda, true ramen artisans will make the extra effort to track down a bottle of the real stuff.
When trying to pinpoint exactly how ramen went from a college-dorm staple to a form of haute cuisine, it is first necessary to examine how the noodles ended up as a dried, microwavable pantry item in the first place.
The 1950s and '60s were a booming time for the instant-foods industry—not just in America, but everywhere. So it makes sense that instant ramen noodles first made their appearance in Japan in 1958. But, according to a piece by The New Yorker, the popularity of the new dehydrated-noodle cups soared after a live television broadcast showed police officers eating cups of the noodles during a hostage standoff in freezing-cold weather. The event immediately sealed instant ramen's reputation as a warm, nourishing meal that could be quickly prepared in times of crisis, and that reputation has endured to this day.
Instant ramen finally made the trip overseas in 1971, when the company released a new version with an English name: Cup Noodles, later re-branded as Cup O'Noodles.
Handcrafted ramen noodles never went out of style in Japan, but most food experts credit the opening of New York's Momofuku Noodle Bar with making authentic, handmade ramen a hit in the states. But while the hand-pulled noodles are certainly a treat for anyone used to the freeze-dried version, the true appeal of today's ramen is tied up in the question of what to add to ramen.
Indeed, in many cases, it's the ingredients that are added to the noodle bowl that generate the most attention. Instead of a styrofoam cup filled with noodles and thin broth, today's ramen shops serve bowls filled with tonkatsu, a rich, savory broth made by slow-simmering pork bones; shio, a notoriously salty broth made using a combination of chicken, vegetables, seafood, and seaweed; as well as vegetarian versions. And the dish's toppings are seemingly endless: pork belly, green onions, soft-cooked eggs, dashi, and even lobster are all fair game, and guests are often encouraged to build their own creation using any combination of broth and toppings. It's the creative nature of today's ramen scene that keeps the trend feeling fresh more than a decade after Momofuku's arrival, and it makes the dish the pefect collision between tradition and innovation.
This article was originally published in a different format and has since been updated by our editors.