Few foods have left the global impact that ramen has. From cheap instant noodles that line the walls of grocery stores world over to chic, five-star restaurants that serve steaming bowls of ramen to hungry customers, ramen is everywhere and for everyone. In 2015, a Michelin star, an award typically reserved for top French chefs and sushi masters, was crowned on Tsuta, a small ramen bar in Tokyo. This humble food made up of three basic elements – noodles, broth, and toppings – has truly come of age and is not only a food staple but now a culinary heavyweight.
So, what is it about ramen that makes it so special? The magic of ramen can be found in its roots in Japanese culture, and they are proud of that fact. The exact origins of ramen are up for debate, with both the Japanese and Chinese claiming fame, at least for the signature noodle part of the dish. The difference between ramen and traditional Japanese noodles like udon and somen comes from the addition of an alkali during the kneading process, a traditional Chinese practice. Some time during the early 20th century, Chinese cooks working in Japan applied their technique to Japanese noodles and the fusion created the signature taste and chewiness that ramen noodles are famous for. Like all great genres of food, it came about from the merging of two cultures in the kitchen.
It wasn’t until 1958 when ramen took the world by the storm. Until then, ramen was served out of tiny restaurants or street-side vendors, and while it was a local favorite in Japan, the rest of the world had yet to catch on. In 1958, Momofuku Ando experimented with flash frying ramen noodles in the shed behind his home, and from those modest moments, he created one of the largest food staples the world has ever known: instant noodles. Since then, instant noodles have been shipped all over the world and devoured by billions. In 2014 alone, the world ate over 100 billion packs of instant noodles. That’s fourteen packs of ramen for every person on the planet.
What’s amazing about ramen is its ability to transcend from being simple, cheap noodles and turn into something beautiful, something worthy of a Michelin star. While ramen served out of a Styrofoam cup is radically different than a hot, beautifully garnished bowl served at Tsuta, they are still made up of all the same elements: noodles, broth, and some form of topping. It’s in that simplicity where the true magic of ramen can be found. There’s a lot to be said for simple, basic foods, and ramen displays that in every delicious bite. Tsuta isn’t alone in serving high-quality, delicious ramen. From Ramen Lab in New York’s Little Italy to Harpa Ramen in San Francisco, beautiful bowls of ramen are being served across the US and the world at large. It’s amazing to think how a simple mixture of flour and water can be so widely celebrated across the world, but the magic of food is its ability to transform the mundane into something beautiful and delicious.