Discomfort Food: The Strange and Twisted History of Ramen Noodles

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What comes to mind when you think of Ramen noodles?

Dormitories, students, slurping sounds ... and cannibalism?

Welcome to the dark history of the world’s favorite comfort food. It all begins with two arch-enemy nations, Japan and China. Though their mutual hatred stretches back over the years, when these countries first made contact around 400 A.D., they were friendly. The Chinese were much more advanced, and the Japanese played eager students, learning such skills as how to write and how to make paper. They even borrowed the Chinese calendar and the Buddhist religion. But by the late 19th century, Japan was feeling superior to its former teacher.

In 1895, the small nation dealt China a humiliating defeat in a naval battle. As spoils of war, they annexed the province of Taiwan and wrestled control of Korea away from Chinese influence. Flexing its empire-building muscle further, Japan soon took over more of China, and in the process, assimilated aspects of its culture. Most notably, martial arts, as well as parts of their cuisine.

And that’s where the Ramen enter the story, although by a different name.

In 1910, two Chinese cooks at Tokyo’s Rairaken restaurant introduced a signature dish with salty broth and noodles. They called it Shina Soba.

Shina was for China, of course. Soba was a buckwheat noodle that was a staple of the Japanese diet. These cooks kneaded their dough with kansui, a bubbly mineral water, which made for a new kind of noodle – longer, yellower and more elastic. Shina Soba caught on like gangbusters.

It wasn’t just the flavor and texture that the Japanese were enjoying. It was what the noodles represented. As Katarzyna Joanna Cwiertka wrote in Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity, "By physically interacting with China through the ingestion of Chinese food and drink, the Japanese masses were brought closer to the idea of empire." On a deeper level, the Japanese understood that to eat Shina Soba was to gobble up their enemies. In a sense, it was cannibalism without all the bones and gristle.

Instant Winner

After Japan’s defeat in World War II, the word Shina lost its shine. A leftover token of imperialist aggression and wartime brutality against China (nearly 20 million Chinese were killed), it was seen as an embarrassing ethnic slur. So Shina Soba was renamed Chuka Soba, Chuka being a more acceptable term for Chinese-style. The noodles finally entered the modern age in 1958, when an entrepreneur named Momofuku Ando introduced the first packaged instant version of the dish. Deep-fried and chicken-flavored, dehydrated and pressed into a brick, it was called Chikin Ramen.

The word is derived from the Chinese words la (to pull) and mian (noodle). It quickly evolved to Ramen. After a slow start, Ramen expanded into a worldwide phenomenon, swirling its way into soup bowls from the US to the Ukraine, in endless variations. Curry, shrimp, vegetable, even chili lime. Because of their low cost and easy preparation, the noodles became a staple of students (along with struggling artists and musicians) everywhere.

By 2005, 85.7 billion packs of Ramen were being slurped up every year. Meanwhile, Japan and China buried the hatchet. Sort of. Beneath the peace treaties and official apologies, bad feelings still linger. As Adam Minter reported in Foreign Policy, after Japan’s tragic earthquake in March, the Chinese massive web community was spiked with more than a few variations on this phrase: “Warmly welcome the Japanese earthquake.”

And one final note: Ando lived to the ripe old age of 96, attributing his longevity to two things: playing golf and eating Ramen noodles almost every day.

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July 27, 2011 - 12:00pm
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