Twenty years ago, many Americans only knew ramen as those hard blocks of instant noodles they used to stick in the microwave during college all-nighters. That seems like ancient history now, thanks to the explosion of noodle shops serving authentic bowls of Japanese ramen, or cheffed-up riffs on the classic, in cities across the country. Those bowls are typically filled with a deliciously rich, usually meat-based broth that's studded with thick hand-cut noodles, seasoned with a flavoring like soy sauce or miso or sea salt, and piled with fresh and fragrant toppings ranging from pork belly to egg to seafood and beyond. Here, 10 things you may not have known about the ultimate comfort food.
1. There's a right way to eat ramen.
"To truly enjoy ramen, one must know how to slurp the hot ramen properly," says Yuji Matsumoto, a chef and ramen specialist who works on research and development for the Kaizen Dining Group, which owns Tengoku Ramen Bar in Arcadia, California. Indeed, most ramen pros insist that to eat it the right way, diners should lean toward the bowl and audibly slurp in the noodles, sucking in broth for flavor some air at the same time to cool it down.
2. Ramen and pizza have something in common.
You know how Chicago is famous for its deep-dish pizza, and New York for its thin crust? "Tonkotsu (pork broth) is popular in southern Japan because they tend to like richer flavors. People in the northern part of Japan prefer chicken base miso ramen," says Matsumoto. But the differences in popularity, which impact the broth as well as the seasoning preferences and other variables, have little or nothing to do with which ingredients are more accessible where. "It's just what people in the region prefer."
3. Prisoners have a signature instant-ramen hack.
According to the New York Post, instant ramen is one of the best-selling items at the Rikers Island commissary, where packages can cost less than 50 cents a pop. According to a prison spokesperson, many inmates didn't even eat the noodles and instead used the flavor packets to give other jailhouse food a boost.
4. Those instant noodles eased Americans into the real deal.
Though the packaged kind, introduced in this country in the 1970s, doesn't even come close to comparing to the ramen you get at a real ramen shop, instant noodles contributed to the eventual influx of ramen restaurants in the U.S. "It's kind of like the California Roll with sushi," according to Matsumoto. "Now, people are enjoying not only rolls but also nigiri sushi."
5. Packaged ramen was once considered luxurious in Japan.
When instant ramen creator Momofuku Ando introduced the product to Japanese markets in the 1958, consumers saw it as a brand-new luxury product, according to Lucky Peach. Unbelieveably, the instant stuff also cost more than a fresh bowl at a local noodle shop.
6. One classic topping remains the most beloved worldwide.
Despite a big difference in the way ramen has evolved in Japan versus the U.S., Matsumoto says he sees a similarity in what customers in both countries want in their bowls. "Pork belly is the most popular topping throughout," he says.
7. Ramen can take a looooong time to cook.
Many ramen shops tout that they simmer their broths for six, eight, even 12 hours. Impressive for sure, but L.A.'s beloved Tsujita famously cooks its pork bone broth for a whopping 60 hours. That's dedication.
8. There's a reason why vegetarian ramen is hard to find.
"Vegetarian versions are not so popular at ramen joints," he says. "It's like asking for a veggie burger at a burger shop."
9. You can visit an actual ramen museum.
At the Shinyokohama Ramen Museum in Japan, visitors can learn about the soup's history, see variations of noodles and bowls, see noodle-making demos, stroll through a replica of a late '50s Tokyo neighborhood, and, of course, slurp up some of the stuff at one of nine on-site ramen restaurants.
10. One ramen company holds two (odd) world records.
In 2015, employees of Nissin Foods, the Japanese company that makes Cup Noodles and Top Ramen, landed the Guinness world record for "largest packaged food pyramid" when they created one out of 57,155 Cup Noodles. They landed a second record by stacking a 20-cup pyramid in under 7 seconds. Whether anyone cared is a different story....
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