Uncover past and present history about ramen from all over Japan
The origins of Ramen
Ramen was born when the Chinese noodle dish came to Japan and fused with Japanese cuisine, combining men (noodles), dashi (soup stock), tare (sauce), ingredients, and fat or oil. There are limitless recipes that include variations in style and flavor, such as soy sauce ramen, miso ramen, salty ramen, pork bone ramen, and dipping ramen. Each region in Japan also has its own local style of ramen that reflects the climate, environment, and cuisine of the area. With its unique evolution in Japan, ramen has now crossed the seas and become a popular dish throughout the world.
The roots of ramen can be found in Chinese noodles. There are records in Japan dating back to the 15th century that keitai-men was eaten, a noodle made from almost the same recipe used today to make modern ramen (although this was not something available to the common people at the time).
In 1858, Japan opened up after 200 years of being shut off to the outside world, signing trade agreements with various foreign countries and opening its ports the following year. This brought an influx of foreign cuisine from abroad, and Chinese noodle dishes started to spread throughout Japan.
The birth of the ramen shop
In 1870, the first Chinese restaurant opened in Yokohama. Chinese cuisine had existed for many years as a high-class cuisine featuring a main course, but with an increase in students coming to Japan from China during the latter half of the Meiji Period, there was a growth in the number of Chinese restaurants. It was then that the first ramen shop Rairaiken opened up in the Asakusa neighborhood of Tokyo in 1910, featuring ramen as a fusion of Chinese noodles and Japanese cuisine. Rairaiken was a huge success, serving 3,000 bowls on busy days.
The influence of yatai
With the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, Tokyo and Yokohama, where so many ramen shops had set up, suffered serious damage. Since the earthquake, the number of yatai (street stalls) increased because they were easier to open than a brick and mortar restaurant. These yatai were different from other shops on the street, and in order to reduce the number of items on their menus, most yatai proceeded to sell only ramen. Most ramen shops had to shut down when the Second World War began in 1939, but there was another increase in the number of yatai again after the war as people returned from China.
The five main elements of ramen
Ramen does not have a single recipe, but is instead born from an almost limitless number of variations through the combination of 5 main elements: men (noodles), dashi (soup stock), tare (sauce), ingredients, and fat or oil.
Noodles are characterized by how they are made (hand-churned, straight, curly), the type of wheat used, thickness, the amount of water (the percentage of water added to the noodle), and the shape, which can all be changed to create an original ramen noodle.
Pick your ingredients
There is no set list of ingredients, but standards include roasted pork fillet, menma, spring onions, followed by boiled eggs, nori, cloud ear mushrooms, bean sprouts, and spinach. Besides that, wontons, butter, ground chili pepper, ground meat, leeks, mitsuba, corn, and cubed meat are also used.
Pick your soup
Ramen can be classified by the type of soup. Common examples include pork-bone ramen (where pork bones are boiled until they appear cloudy), chicken-bone ramen (prepared in the same way, but with chicken bones), and seafood ramen (containing a large amount of seafood).
Pick your style
Ramen that cannot be classified the soup or the tare can be grouped by the style. There is ramen that comes with the noodles separate from the tare called “dipping ramen,” ramen without soup called “mazemen,” and ramen popular in the summer time called “hiyashi chuuka”. Many different shops specialize in differently styles.
Find your local
Japan is an island nation spanning a large area from north to south, and thus has varying seasons, climates, and topography that impact the cuisine and local cooking. Regional differences in ramen are called “local ramen” (go-tochi ramen). The different types of local ramen are featured at the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum. Each region of Japan also has its own a ramen-themed amusement park, where visitors can experience each regional variety of ramen without needing to cross the country by train or airplane.
Born from the cold winters of Hokkaido, Sapporo ramen has a thick broth with vegetable and garlic extract – this ramen warms you from the inside. Ingredients such as chuuka-nabe and bean sprouts are fried up in a pan, into which the soup is poured to create a single broth. Moderately thick noodles are used that are slightly curly.
Hakodate is relatively warm for Hokkaido, and the ramen here is a simple salty ramen (shio ramen). It features roasted pork fillet, menma, and shredded spring onions as ingredients, as well as a clear soup, and moderately thin, straight noodles. These characteristics make Hakodate ramen similar to what was originally brought from China.
Invented by the ramen shop Ryuu Shanghai in Akayu, Yamagata Prefecture, this was the first miso ramen in Honshu. It features a ball of deep red miso made with chili peppers in the middle of the bowl that customers mix into the broth bit by bit to suit their tastes. It also features wide, wavy, flat noodles.
Flavored with a soy sauce soup much like the noodle cuisine originally brought from China, the evolution of Yokohama ramen has followed a unique path. This combination of thick, pork bone and soy sauce with thick noodles has come to be a style referred to as kakei (lineage) in recent years, a name popularly used instead of calling it Yokohama ramen.
Kyoto cuisine is generally known for being only lightly flavored, but the ramen here actually has a strong taste. The soup uses a pork or chicken base, and although it can largely be divided into 3 lineages, all of those lineages have a noticeably rich flavor.
Tokushima is a region with 3 different kinds of soup. Instead of roasted pork fillet, the most popular ramen here has salty-sweet ingredients made by cooking boneless rib, and features a raw egg topping. The noodles that are used are short and soft, and only slightly curled.
Hakata is the main city that represents the Kyushu region. The ramen has a soup made by boiling pork bones for a long time, and uses straight noodles with little water added. Locals are very proud of their ramen’s popularity throughout Japan. After eating the noodles, customers can order kaedama, which is a second serving of noodles that can be added to the remaining broth.
Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum
Text: Yuhi Tanaka (exwrite)
Editing: Skyrocket Corporation