You are a 9 to 5 worker in Japan. It’s Friday Night. Work is over, you have clocked out, given your farewells to your co-workers for the weekend, and stepped out into the cool night. What are the top two things on your agenda? To drink alcohol, and to eat ramen.
I couldn’t add ramen to the list of famous Japanese inventions, because they didn’t strictly invent it. Ramen’s history, while hazy and debated to this day, is nonetheless agreed upon that it hailed from China. But just like America took the burger and made it popular around the world, Japan adopted ramen and really made it their own.
And yet, even though most people around the first world will nod in earnest when asked if they know what ramen is, very few have actually tried real ramen. Oh, sure, we have all had insant noodles that require as much effort as sneezing, but that has about as much relation to true ramen as those fizzy cola chews have to actual cola.
So what is real ramen? There are endless varieties and local specialties, but the classic ramen Is long wheat noodles in a meaty broth, topped with vegetables like bean sprouts, seaweed and corn, and some thick slices of pork (known as ‘chashu’ チャシュ). Throw on some ginger and crushed garlic to taste, and you have yourself an honest, hearty bowl of ramen.
Japan loves ramen. I cannot think of the nearest equivalent: not even the stereotypical image of burger-loving USA quite matches it, nor do fish and chip shops in the UK, though it does have the same air of that earthy, cheap, no-frills dish. But in terms of popularity, how can I describe it? Well, put it this way: look at all the coffee shops and places that sell coffee that you know. Now imagine all those places selling ramen too. Now you’re getting there. Think I’m exaggerating? Japanese people have voted ramen the greatest invention of the 20th century. THE GREATEST. And this is from a country of inventors voting ramen above radio, PCs, the Internet and even Ghostbusters. That’s a nation of ramen lovers right there. And does Ghostbusters have its own museum? Because ramen does. And it has manga about it too.
But as I alluded to earlier, one of my personal appeals to ramen is that it is a food of the people. Unlike the traditional Japanese dishes that require immaculate, time-honored presentation, ramen is unabashedly multi-faced, and can change depending on locality and budget. And unlike those pretentious dishes that offer mere morsels that are pecked over for their delicate flavors, in ramen you have big portions, broad flavors and no nonsense all in a bowl. It is Japan’s comfort food, and I can think of no better.