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Japanese ramen’s surprising Chinese origins

Japanese ramen

The steaming noodle soup actually originated in 19th-century China

The steaming noodle soup actually originated in 19th-century China

Amalia Illgner | October/November 2017

A piping hot bowl of ramen noodles must take no longer than 15 seconds to make its way from kitchen to table. Any longer and that first taste of pork broth, simmered for 12 hours to give it a cappuccino-like foam, will lose its umami zap. This is according to Tony Lam, co-founder of Kanada-Ya, one of London’s best ramen restaurants.

Ramen is Japan’s soul food. One in every four meals eaten outside the home is a bowl of the steaming noodle soup. The Japanese even consider instant ramen noodles to be their best invention of the 20th century – beating anything dreamed up by Sony. It is also an Instagram hit.

Yet many who are hashtagging #ramen might be surprised to learn that ramen originated in 19th-century China, when Chinese migrants brought chuka soba (Chinese noodles) to Japanese ports such as Yokohama and Nagasaki and sold them to local workers. When post-war rationing meant fresh noodles were harder to come by, Momofuku Ando, a food entrepreneur, developed an instant variety, made with American wheat flour and initially given as aid to a nation recovering from war.

There are four building blocks to ramen: a tare or seasoning base made with either shoyu (soy sauce), miso, tonkotsu (pork bones) or shio (salt); the all-important broth, pork or chicken, their bones simmered to a meaty richness; wheat noodles; toppings, which range from finely chopped green onion and pickled bamboo shoots to black sesame and garlic paste. In almost all cases there will be a gooey-yolked egg and sliced pork, which has been basted until the meat melts off the bone. To construct ramen, take a deep bowl, add a tablespoon of tare, ladle in steaming hot broth and boiled noodles, then crown it with neatly arranged toppings.

The only way to tackle it is to slurp, introducing a little cool air into each mouthful, following the advice given in the film, “Tampopo”: “Savour the aromas,” says the master to a student, “caress the surface with the chopstick tips, then poke the pork...and gently pick it up. What’s important here is to apologise to the pork by saying ‘see you soon’.”

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