Posted on 10 Oct 2014 17:36
Right now, there are ramen themed restaurants popping up everywhere. Ramen is an emerging food trend. Many, such as your average college student, may be wondering how you could possibly open a restaurant based on dried noodles and flavor packets! The concept of ramen, as a food, was indeed popularized by the ubiquitous and cheap food fare of college students everywhere: instant ramen.
However, long before that, ramen was a Japanese noodle soup based mainly on Chinese wheat noodles, stretched noodles called lamian, which may sound similar to a familiar word from Chinese takeout menus, lo-mein.
Lo-mein, however, means boiled noodles. Ramen is a noodle soup with a rich broth based on meat, fish, vegetables, etc. It can be complex or simple, but it is nothing like the instant ramen most of us know (and love?). In Japan, ramen is almost religion, and ramen houses are plentiful.
Real Ramen can be loosely separated into four categories. There is shio, with a clear chicken broth; tonkatsu, with a cloudy pork broth; shoyu, with soy sauce flavoring; and miso, which is a soybean paste that has been fermented (good for you!) Of course, ramen in Japan will vary depending on the part of Japan you are in and, yes, you can even get it in packets. Pretty much nobody in the U.S. had heard of ramen until the instant package version came along.1
Instant ramen was invented in 1958 by a Taiwanese man named Momofuku Ando, who became a Japanese citizen in 1933. He developed the instant noodles in a shed behind his home by flash-frying noodles in oil. His product was called Chicken Ramen (or Chickin Ramen) and, in fact, it was the first ever instant noodle product.2 Momofuku was inspired to develop his product because of the food-shortages that were still plaguing Japan in the post-war period. Momofuku recounted the story of his inspiration in his writings:
I happened to pass this area and saw a line 20, 30 meters long in front of a dimly lit stall from which clouds of steam were steadily rising. People dressed in shabby clothes shivered in the cold while waiting for their turn. The person who was with me said they were lined up f or a bowl of ramen.3
Although Momofuku had previously been a successful businessman, at this time, he was flat broke. The Japanese government was encouraging people to eat bread made from U.S. wheat, but they were patiently waiting in line for the more familiar noodles. Momofuku went home and, with a second-hand noodle making machine and a big wok, got to work on his idea. His first step was to moisten the noodles with soup and let the dry partially. He then kneaded and loosened them by hand. In this way, the noodles would soak up the soup in their outer layer, according to Momofuku. He then dried them by flash-frying so that they would keep longer. When boiled in water, the soup flavor would release and an instant noodle soup would result.
In 1971 he developed Cup Noodle, which was the worlds first instant noodles in a cup product. He named his company Nissin Foods Co. Ltd of Japan, and actually established it in September of 1948. This means it took him ten years to develop his first product. The U.S. subsidiary, Nissin Foods, was founded in 1970 and sold instant ramen under the now familiar name of Top Ramen.
Before long, there were many Asian competitors to Nissin's dried soup products, and these began selling in the United States as well. Dried soups, in general, were not an unheard of product here, of course. Dried soups had begun appearing on the market as early as 1941. It started with Lipton and its Continental Noodle Soup mix. Today, we know Lipton better for its classic dried French Onion Soup mix, with which we make French onion dip. Lipton was followed by General Mills with a line of Betty Crocker noodle soup mixes; Minute Man vegetable, noodle, and chicken and rice soups from Skinner and Eddy Corporation; and Dainty noodle soup mix from Dainty Food Manufacturers, Inc.5
It took American soup companies a while to get into ramen market, simply because they saw little profit in the category. But ramen and other instant noodle soups became so popular and the market became so large, that they couldn't ignore it any longer. In the late 1980's, Lipton introduced its Lots-a-Noodles instant Oriental soup, a product many of us may remember. At that time, Campbell soups got into the action as well, and tried to sell consumers on an air-dried noodle, which they said was more healthy than the deep-fried noodles currently on the market.4