The ramen: born in China, raised in Japan and international stars

Soup noodles originate from China. But it was when they arrived in Japan that they evolved into “râmen”. This evolution continues even today, merging with Japanese culinary and food culture, incorporating elements and trends from around the world. A food journalist explains the reasons for the continued popularity of ramen, and praises the flavor of its broth.

The only culinary specialty to evolve so quickly

In the field of culinary specialties, the ramen have a very particular existence. Objectively, there is no doubt that the origin of ramen comes from Chinese noodle dishes. The “Rairaiken”, founded in 1910 in the Asakusa district (Tokyo), is said to be the first ramen restaurant in Japan. It was then a Chinese cuisine establishment, which also offered shûmai (meatballs cooked and steamed in a dough casing) and rice bowls with Chinese-flavored accompaniment for a very popular clientele. It is these popular Chinese cuisine restaurants that are the source of ramen in Japan.

In the post-war period, ramen establishments multiplied on the model of buckwheat noodle restaurants, soba . Hence the name chûka soba (“Chinese soba”), at the time more popular than that of râmen (“spicy noodles”), as in “Maruchô Chûka Soba Ten” and “Haruki-ya”, open in 1948 in the Ogikubo district (Tokyo). Both are also founded by traders from the Shinshû region (now Nagano prefecture), a large buckwheat-producing region, with no real tradition linked to Chinese cuisine.

We should also mention narutomaki , an aesthetic ingredient made from fish paté which, although originally linked to Japanese soba , quickly established itself in ramen.

The importance of regional variations of ramen, which each have their own personal history depending on where they were born, should not be overlooked either. Since the emergence of the Internet, these different versions have become known and distributed throughout the country, at the origin of the “boom of local ramen”.

It is because they merged in the first place with the Japanese food culture that noodle soups are evolving at an accelerated rate on a global level, incorporating techniques from French, Italian, Southeast Asian cuisines, etc. They follow changes in lifestyle and current trends, veganism or sustainable development, gaining global popularity as a culinary specialty representative of Japanese cuisine: râmen. At the same time, there is no one ramen dish identical to any other, in terms of the nature and characteristics of the noodles, soup, and additional ingredients.

We can say that ramen is certainly the only culinary specialty to continue to evolve at such a rapid pace, and whose number of variations is virtually endless today.

Why are ramen restaurants easily profitable?

The ramen boom has continued almost unabated for over half a century. Since the period of the Japanese economic miracle , ramen have acquired the status of a national dish.

Founded in 1967, “Dosanko” has been a key player in the success of miso ramen and a pioneer in the development of multi-franchise stores. At its peak, the chain had approximately 1,200 outlets across Japan. The brand was one of the first to expand abroad. Since then, more and more restaurateurs have started franchising successfully.

In the râmen as in all the restoration sector, to be entrusted or to acquire a restaurant requires a long preliminary experience. This makes the franchise brand formula very risky without a large staff training post. So why did the formula succeed in the ramen? One of the main reasons is certainly the process of cooking a bowl of ramen.

Indeed, in the first place, this process is simpler than for other types of cuisine. Virtually no cutting, grilling or frying is necessary after receipt of the order. The only process required is to pour the sauce into the bowl, add the broth, cook the noodles and then arrange various add-ins on top. In fact, preparation is much more important than final cooking. The broth, in fact, takes a long time to prepare, as does the cooking of the roast pork, even, in some cases, the preparation of the noodles themselves. But all this is being prepared before the store opens to the public.

The preparation of the sauce ( tare ) and the broth is the key to the taste of ramen. The skills and experience of the artisans are absolutely essential, but with a central kitchen to prepare them in large quantities and provide several points of consumption, it is possible to maintain a certain level of quality without requiring highly qualified preparers in each point of sale. This is what made possible the explosion of truly delicious ramen restaurants all over Japan. This phenomenon, along with the popularization of instant noodles  ( cup ramen ) helped to make ramen a national Japanese dish, half a century after their appearance.

The rise of ramen in the world helped by Japanese pop-culture

Very quickly, the ramen then spread abroad. Today, ramen restaurants are common in many countries and regions of Europe, America and Asia. New York, for example, experienced a ramen boom in the 2000s and it is now said that there are over a hundred ramen restaurants there.

One of the pioneers of this trend was the establishment “Momofuku”, opened in 2004 by an American of Korean origin, David Chang, who has extensively studied Japanese ramen. In 2008, “Ippûdô”, founded in Fukuoka, added the ramen option to the New York lifestyle. The chain is also present in Paris.

There are several competing hypotheses to explain why ramen has become so popular in New York. One of these hypotheses would be the “Cool Japan” movement, whereby Japanese culture and sense of service gained popularity abroad. It is not impossible in fact that ramen have developed abroad in the same movement as Japanese pop-culture, anime, manga and video games. Many people became interested in ramen after seeing them staged in an anime or manga. The positive image of Japanese cuisine has certainly helped.

The quality of service and hospitality in râmen restaurants has also contributed to their popularity, in particular, it has enabled them to acquire the status of real “restaurants”, thus distinguishing themselves from the points of consumption of Chinese noodles and other Asian dishes that have never gone beyond the category of “fast food”, with margins and quality of ingredients that have remained low. Ramen, on the other hand, is expensive, which justifies a relatively high price. If the two categories are in competition, the ramen will never be able to win in the field of price, so the only way is to increase added value.

Pork marrow gives birth to umami, the fifth flavor

This would obviously not have been enough to establish the success of the ramen in a city like New York, without a particular appeal in the menus themselves. What attracted the taste buds of the locals was the pork marrow soup, now almost ubiquitous in New York ramen.

The broth obtained from slow and prolonged cooking of pork bones is rich in inosinic acid. With a sauce rich in glutamic acid from kombu seaweed and guanylic acid from shiitake mushrooms, a combined effect produces an excellent taste, called umami. Umami, now considered the fifth flavor, is the great specificity of Japanese cuisine, difficult to achieve by other culinary traditions.

This explains why the ramen chains that have developed abroad, including “Ippûdô”, essentially offer pork marrow soup. In communities where it is not consumed for religious reasons, the pork is replaced by bones of simmered chickens until a “white chicken soup” is obtained. Light soup ramen have been gaining traction recently, but it seems that opaque pork marrow soup and white chicken soup have played a key role in New Yorkers’ adoption of ramen.

Pork marrow soup is made by simmering pork bones until a white emulsion is obtained, making it a diet rich base. No other culinary specialty serves more than 30 cl, which is why ramen has long been considered in the United States and Europe as a soup rather than a noodle dish. While in Japan, many amateurs eat only the noodles and leave the soup base (a little too high in salt!).

So far, the vast majority of ramen restaurants abroad are imitation of Japanese restaurants. But recently, original ramen appear in various countries, according to a process which is reminiscent of the way in which the various regional ramen were developed in Japan, anchored in the eating habits specific to such or such country. This phenomenon is set to increase in the future.

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