Oodles of History: The Significance and Cultural Impact of Spicy Ramen

Spicy ramen is one of the staple foods in Japanese households and their popularity has extended across the world. Thousands upon thousands of broke college students across the world can attest to the culinary genius of the Japanese. However, they are most probably aren’t talking about jewels of Japanese food like sashimi or takoyaki. In all likelihood, they are talking about spicy ramen and other instant noodles that came out of packets.

Ramen is featured heavily in many Japanese media such as anime and their delicious broth-filled goodness are also shown in media depicting Japanese culture. But ramen and variants such as spicy ramen are actually more recent additions to Japanese cuisine.

Learn about the history of ramen, its sparse but exquisite components and why these oodles of noodles matter.

What is the History of Spicy Ramen?

Spicy ramen, beef ramen and seafood ramen all have the same point of origin. Photo by Cats Coming from Pexels

Although it may seem that something like ramen stems from hundreds of years of Japanese food, the truth of the matter is that ramen only came to Japan between the late 19th century and the earlier decades of the 20th century. The term “ramen” stems from transcribing the Chinese word “lamian” into Japanese. There are varying accounts on how ramen and its variants like spicy ramen came to Japan’s shores.

The first account claims that Zhu Shunsui, a Chinese scholar, brought the recipe for ramen to Japan after fleeing China. His exodus to Japan and bringing ramen to those shores were said to have occurred in the 1660s. However, this account seems to fanciful to be true. This was likely added as an embellishment to make the providence spicy ramen more culturally relevant and patriotic. Most historians agree that the true origins of ramen are more humble.

According to Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum, a leading authority on all things ramen, the delicacy was brought over by Chinese immigrants in the late 1850s to the early 1860s. During this period, Japan was moving away from its isolationist policies and opening its ports to the world. Chinese immigrants poured into their seaside towns, including Yokohama. It is there that ramen and spicy ramen first came into being.

Ramen would have remained an interesting footnote in Japanese food if it weren’t for the horrific food shortages in post-war Japan. Much of the country and their workforce were devastated by the conflict and in the winter of 1945, Japan had its worst rice harvest in over 40 years. The United States used this shortage to inundate Japan with flour, hoping to open a new market. Much of the wheat was processed into ramen noodles to feed the populace. Because of this surge in consumption, ramen became a staple in Japan and its popularity endures to the present day.

What are the Components of Ramen?

Spicy ramen recipes and other types of ramen dishes all boil down to three components. Photo by Ponyo Sakana from Pexels

Ramen and variants such as seafood ramen and spicy ramen may seem like simple dishes. But Japanese cuisine excels at infusing a depth of flavor into seemingly simple fare. A standard regular or spicy ramen recipe has but three main components. It is a testament to the ingenuity and mastery of Japanese culinary arts that it only takes these three to make ramen so delicious.

  • Dashi

Dashi, not the noodles, is the foundation of great spicy ramen recipes. Dashi is broth stock, made from different ingredients to highlight the umami flavor of food. Dashi usually contains kelp, dried fish and certain vegetables. Variations of dashi help widen the flavor profile of ramen dishes.

  • Noodles

The second most important aspect of great ramen are the noodles. Although most people are familiar with the desiccated, instant noodle variety found in groceries across the world, true Japanese ramen is often fresh. This means that they have shorter cook times and able to soak up the flavor of the dashi exceptionally well.

  • Proteins and Garnishes

Finally, the toppings of ramen recipes help distinguish them from each other, although that job is taken by the dashi. The first ramen bowls featured slices of Chinese-style fried pork. Today, ramen can feature cuts of beef, deep-friend prawns, crab cakes and even whole mussels.

What is the Significance of Ramen?

eating ramen
A bowl of spicy ramen represents Japanese heritage, ingenuity and aesthetics. Photo by Katerina Holmes from Pexels

So why is ramen such an important aspect of Japanese food?

Ramen fundamentally represents Japan’s entrance into the world stage and reflects the cultural experience the country has gone through. The dish came into being when Japan finally opened its doors to the world after decades of isolation. Their nuanced take on the Chinese classic highlight the simplicity and ingenuity of their cuisine, achieving immense flavor with great subtlety, features that the Japanese take pride in even today.

Also, ramen is a refutation and detestation of American imperialism. American companies hoped to dethrone rice as the staple food of Japan during the post-war period, expecting to pump the market with wheat and make a fortune. Instead, the Japanese turned the wheat into a dish that cannot be more Japanese. The ramen and even the spicy ramen packets you find in every grocery store is shining beacon of Japanese culture, exemplifying their artistry, ingenuity and simplicity in every bowl.