Peer into any slapdash street stall that sprouts on the Tenjin sidewalks after 5 o’clock and you’ll see that folks in Fukuoka are mad about ramen. Despite the city’s plethora of fine restaurants and food shops, pinstriped bankers and chic OLs squeeze onto splintered benches to sit cheek-to-cheek with laborers, students, and shoppers to slurp down a bowl of hot noodles before heading home. Rare is the native who will not endure a long line to sample the fare at an eatery hailed by the gourmet grapevine, drop into an eye-catching shop on impulse, or savor a bowl of tonkotsu (rich pork broth) ramen after a night of drinking. No understanding of Fukuoka is complete without a taste of its unique ramen culture. Bon appetit!
From La Mian to Ramen
Ramen is Japanese food created in the Chinese style, consisting of Chinese noodles made from wheat flour, seasoned broth, and such condiments as chashu (roast pork), bean sprouts, or bamboo shoots. Yet few realize that it took 1,400 years for ramen to appear in Japan after Chinese noodle-making techniques were introduced here.
By the sixth century, the Chinese developed a technique for making long, thin noodles from wheat dough. This spread to the West, resulting in the creation of Italian pasta, and also crossed the East China Sea to Japan, where it became instrumental in creating udon, soba, somen, and, in the 20th century, ramen. The Chinese refined the technique in the 15th century by adding salt to flour and stretching the dough by hand. These noodles were called la mian–“stretched noodles”. A few centuries later, they added a natural soda to the dough before stretching it. This soda became the main ingredient of kansui, an alkaline solution of potassium and sodium carbonates for enhancing noodle texture and color. Nowadays, most shops use commercial kansui made from chemical compounds, but some use natural ingredients from Mongolia. Though the Japanese avidly adopted this process, they wouldn’t eat the Chinese noodle dishes generously laden with pork, even after the 1,200 year ban on meat eating was lifted in the Meiji period. The Japanese shunned pork until the Taisho period vogue for Chinese food.
Chinese merchants ate noodle dishes in stalls in the Chinatown sections of Nagasaki, Kobe, and Yokohama after Japan’s national isolation ended. Japanese gradually discovered these stalls, and the trickle became a flood when they began serving noodle dishes flavored with soy sauce called nankin or shina soba.
Japan’s 1931 invasion of China cut short the shina soba boom, and their defeat in the ensuing war resulted in unprecedented food shortages. American wheat was easier to come by than rice. Then, in Fukuoka, a dish called Chuka soba appeared at a stall near Hakata Station. Hakatakko enthusiastically took to the new food that recreated the taste of northern Chinese dishes, as it was cheap, nutritious, and hearty.
Instant and International
When Nisshin Foods’ founder Momofuku Ando created instant chicken ramen in 1958, ramen became known throughout the country and spurred others to create their own recipes. Ando followed up with the Cup Noodle product in 1971, which became a global sensation. Ramen had suddenly become an international food.
What some consider a quickly-scarfed snack food in fact resulted from the long development of noodle cuisine in Japan.
Confessions of a Ramen Freak: Scott Newby
“I would crawl over my dead mother’s body to eat a bowl of tonkotsu ramen.”
Australian, Scott is passionate about his love for tonkotsu ramen. One rainy afternoon, a Fukuoka Now staff member accompanied Scott and his English students to chow down at one of his favorite shops, Hakata Daruma (092-761-1958).
Scott’s Ramen Rap Sheet
– Ramen for breakfast? Fine with him.
– Drank too much? Recover with tonkotsu ramen.
– Have to stand in line for an hour? No problem.
– How often? Four or five times a week.
– Where has he gone for ramen? As far as Kurume, Oita, and Kagoshima.
FN: Why do you love ramen so much?
S: Tonkotsu ramen has everything I like in food. I love salty and oily food. Itﾕs fast, cheap, easyﾉIﾕm lazy. Itﾕs just perfect for me.
FN: How do you find a good ramen shop?
S: The standard Japanese tip is “if itﾕs busy itﾕs probably good.” Usually the worse the smell, the better it is. There’s no real way to tell. If the shop smells really, really bad like old tennis shoes, the ramen is usually good. Some shops are super dirty but the taste is insane, and some shops are nice and the ramen’s horrible.
FN: Do you have any tips for foreigners who havenﾕt been to that many ramen shops?
S: Ignore the smell, first up. Donﾕt let the smell deter you from going into a shop. Ah, thatﾕs the hardest obstacle to overcome. Usually if I ask foreigners why they donﾕt eat ramen, their answer is “because it smells so bad”.
Second, you should try different shops. I’ve got a ramen guidebook I always keep in my backpack. I know dozens of shops that are just as good as most popular shops. Then if I have the time, I go looking for a good shop.
Just as we heard–the man’s crazy about ramen. The love of ramen has no borders.
Well, you can eat ramen whenever and however you please, but according to the Japanese Ramen Society, there is only one proper way. Nathan Wawruck, a Vancouver native and recently converted ramen freak, demonstrates how.
1. Cast an admiring glance at the ramen served to you–just for a few seconds.
2. Pick up the chopsticks and smooth everything out.
3. Rearrange the condiments to suit you, and then slurp up a mouthful of noodles and broth.
4. Take a break from the noodles to enjoy the condiments and the broth. Then, alternate among the three.
5. Dig out the remaining noodles from the bottom of the bowl and take your time with the last mouthful…”Gochisosama!”
Where do noodles come from?
The noodles are the indispensable part of the meal. Of course, they are made primarily of flour. But only 9% of the 6.22 million tons of wheat consumed annually in Japan is grown here. Japan’s imported wheat comes from: USA (53.7%), Canada (26.8%), and Australia (19.4%), according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, 2002. Some ramen chefs insist on noodles made only from Japanese wheat, but most use the high quality wheat grown especially in Australia for consumption as noodles in Japan. It’s likely that the thin chewy noodles Scott raves about were made with wheat grown in his homeland.
Ramen as a Global Food
Even in China, birthplace of noodle cuisine, the word ramen is synonymous with the instant variety. Throughout the USA, products such as Sapporo Ichiban’s shrimp and chicken flavored instant ramen are to be found on the shelves of supermarket and convenience stores. What`s more, Asian grocery stores in the US have a stunning variety of imported instant ramen products. There are 54.7 billion ramen meals consumed annually throughout the world. While you thought “Made In Japan” meant compact discs, automobile technology, or Akira Kurosawa films, that honor also goes to instant ramen.
Convenience is just one reason instant ramen was accepted overseas. Another key to success was exporting the production technology and letting local companies create flavors to suit local palates. Some of you may have noticed that instant ramen soups in your home country have quite different tastes compared to the ones in Japan where there are over 800 instant ramen brands.
Top 10 Worldwide Instant Ramen Consumers
1. China: 19.1 billion
2. Indonesia: 10.9 billion
3. Japan: 5.27 billion
4. Korea: 3.65 billion
5. USA: 3.3 billion
6. Philippines: 2 billion
7. Thailand: 1.7 billion
7. Vietnam: 1.7 billion
8. Russia: 1.5 billion
9. Brazil: 1.19 billion
10. Taiwan: 940 million
Data: International Ramen Manufacturers Association (2003)
Tips on Selecting A Ramen Shop
1. A shop with a huge pot for boiling the noodles
2. Staff use a special mesh tool to scoop the boiled noodles
3. Smallish bowls, (good things come in small packages)
4. Intense ramen competition in the neighborhood
5. Smaller shops that seat about 15
6. A short and simple menu
7. A picky proprietor constantly trying to refine his distinctive flavor
8. Chefs choosy about their chashu (roast pork)
9. A shop that closes after they’re sold out of the day’s batch
10. A family operation, or one with a few part-time workers
Ramen Q & A
What! You still have questions about ramen?
Q: Do most people usually visit ramen shops alone?
A: In a recent survey, only 20% of the 20,000 respondents answered that they go alone. The average time for eating a bowl of ramen was eight minutes for women and five minutes for men. If the broth cools and the noodles get limp, forget it. Real ramen eaters don’t engage in chit chat until their bowls are empty.
Q: Ramen was originally called Nankin soba, shina soba, or chuka soba. Why was the term soba (buckwheat) used, though the noodles contained no buckwheat flour?
A: The most commonly accepted theory is that adding eggs and kansui results in noodles of a different texture than udon, and resembles soba.
Q: Why does tonkotsu ramen taste so good after a few drinks?
A: The inosinic acid in the pork luckily neutralizes the alcohol in the body.
Q: Why are Nagahama ramen noodles so thin?
A: The Hakata fish market moved to Nagahama in 1955, where Nagahama ramen was created. It was made to satisfy the needs of the busy brokers working without breaks. The thinness allowed the noodles to be boiled quickly. The market also developed the now-common practice of offering a second helping of noodles called ﾒkaedamaﾓ.
Q: Is ramen fast food?
A: Granted, a customer can walk into a shop, be served a bowl of ramen, consume it, and leave in 15 minutes. Yet many shops take a full day to prepare their broth, so the term fast food is not really appropriate.
Q: In Hakata, who was the first to serve chuka soba in tonkotsu soup?
A: Shigeru Tsuda, who was repatriated to Japan from the Asian continent after the war. He tried to recreate the flavor of the 10-sen soba he ate in northern China. This was chuka soba, a tonkotsu soup with cloudy broth.
Q: Who was the first to serve chuka soba with tonkotsu soup at a yatai in Hakata?
A: Shigeru Tsuda, who was repatriated to Japan from the Asian continent after the war. He tried to recreate the flavor of the 10-sen soba he ate in northern China.
Q: What is the “perfect” ramen?
A: There is no standard definition of what ramen is supposed to be, so enthusiastic chefs devote a lot of time and energy to their own flavorful creations. Whether they serve Hakata ramen, Kurume ramen, or another variety, any 100 ramen shops will have 100 different flavors.
1. Okada, Tetsu Ramenno Tanjou. Tokyo: Chikuma Shinsho, 2002.
2. Hakugaku Kodawari Club. Ganso! Ramenbon Tokyo: Kawade Yume Bunko, 1997.