If you want some indication of the popularity of ramen, consider the fact that earlier this year, a report conducted by the University of Arizona’s School of Sociology revealed that the soup’s noodles had overtaken tobacco as the most popular commodity in US prisons, for its low cost, taste and energy-giving qualities. “[Ramen] is easy to get and it’s high in calories,” said Mr Michael Gibson-Light, who led the findings. Mr Gustavo “Goose” Alvarez – who spent more than a decade behind bars – wrote a book on the topic: Prison Ramen: Recipes And Stories From Behind Bars. Ramen a hotter commodity than cigarettes? It would appear we have never been more in love with the heavenly broth.
Originally a noodle soup from China, it came to Japan at the turn of the 20th century when migrants sold the dish to Japanese construction workers. It then became the go-to fuel for the country’s post-war recovery. In more recent years, sushi was Japan’s greatest gastronomical export, but restaurants such as Wagamama brought ramen to the Western masses in the mid-1990s. A decade later, pioneers like Mr David Chang and his restaurant Momofuku – the wildly popular noodle bar in New York’s East Village – made the dish desirable and hip.
But what makes a bowl of ramen? First there is tare – the umami base which defines the soup; and broth, which can be made from chicken, pork, fish or mushrooms. It is often cooked for up to eighteen hours with lots of bones. There is often chashu – a tender Chinese-style roasted pork belly or shoulder. You might find negi – thinkly sliced green onion – or pickled bamboo shoots, nori, bean sprouts, and soy-soaked eggs. Kansui is a must in great ramen – the alkaline salts that give noodles their yellow tint. What’s not to like? It’s a dish so universal that you don’t even need manners to eat it. It arrives hot, and is meant to be eaten so. Suck in some cool air as you slurp it down noisily, as is the norm in Japanese ramen shops. And if that isn’t appealing enough, if you’re eating tonkotsu, the milky white pork bone broth variety – which comes from Fukuoka, home to around 2,000 ramen shops – some people say that the collagen from the pork bones will keep you looking young.