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Highlights from The Untold History of Ramen

I just finished reading about half of The Untold History of Ramen by George Solt [Amazon]. I skipped most of the middle, where he explains ramen’s evolution in Japan through the 19th and 20th centuries, and focused instead on the bookends, where he talks about how ramen was brought to Japan by Chinese laborers, and how ramen eventually migrated to America and became a global phenomenon.
I love ramen. Anyway.
Below are some highlights from the book. Because author George Solt is foremost an academic and not a chef, the book is about far more than just the noodles and broth. A recipe book it is not. Nor food porn. More like nerd porn: You get a light brush across history, culture, economics, and in particular, international perceptions of Japan, and how Japan itself understands and interprets these perceptions. You can tell from his writing that he’s annoyed by the simplified and often sensational Western portrayals of Japan. Or maybe he’s just tired of it.
Highlights:
The overall transformation of eating into a form of entertainment with fetishistic undertones, known as the gourmet boom
while ramen tours, documentaries, and books all tended to move the still-forming noodle narrative in the direction of a nationalistic tale of improving Chinese foods, Tamamura instead viewed the new reverence for the dish as a sign of “the emptiness of Japanese affluence” in the post-high-growth era.
Third, and most crucial, Nakae contends, was the cramped living conditions of the urban tenement housing in which most Japanese families lived, which made dining at family restaurants “basically an escape from everyday life.”
Satomi claims that for him the value of the dish derives from its very status as a pedestrian, or “B-class,” food in contrast to the more rarified realm of soba noodles.
Like Menya Musashi, most new shops that opened after the late 1990s no longer used the term ramen in their names but had more traditional Japanese names instead.
One of the clearest signals of ramen’s dissociation from China and its rebranding as Japanese was the change in uniform chosen by ramen chefs.
In the late 1990s and 2000s, however, younger ramen chefs, inspired primarily by Kawahara Shigemi, founder of the ramen shop Ippūdō, started to wear Japanese Buddhist work clothing, known as samue. Usually worn by Japanese potters and other practitioners of traditional arts, the samue, usually in purple or black, was worn by craftsmen in eighteenth-century Japan and would not have been considered appropriate for the ramen chef prior to the 1990s rebranding
Another important physical change marking the new wave ramen shop was the use of large displays of poems and life advice composed by the store’s owner to underscore their seriousness about the work of making ramen.
Although American familiarity with instant ramen can be dated to the early 1970s with Nissin Foods’ release of the Top Ramen brand…
Japan slowly shed its reputation as an “economic animal” (an appellation dating back to the 1970s) and gained a new identity as an incubator of fashion and cultural trends on par with Western Europe.
Japan’s passion for ramen began to define Japan itself; the more the Japanese defined ramen in national terms, the more the nation became identified with the noodle soup.
In one of his last postings, in June 2011, Wong noted that for health reasons he was eating much less ramen and had taken to a Mediterranean diet.
he told me I should consider increasing the water content of my noodles by 1 percent. Then he congratulated me on my success, rounded up his crew, and left.
Readers are informed that [David] Chang, like the rameniac Rickmond Wong, worked as an English teacher in Japan while learning to eat ramen but did not actually learn to speak much Japanese in the process (as is typical of many Americans living in the country)
Meehan draws attention to the vending machines dispensing alcoholic beverages, the displays of menus in the form of plastic food in front of restaurants, the clean automatic toilets, the gangsters with missing pinkies, and other well-worn aspects of life in Japan that foreigners unacquainted with the country never tire of writing about.
This was a breakthrough in American cinematic representations of Japan, and it was a dramatic departure from films with characters such as the Japanese widow who falls in love with the American who kills her husband (Last Samurai), the Japanese geisha who falls in love with the American who rescues her from the brutality of Japanese patriarchy (Memoirs of a Geisha), and the Japanese actors who serve as stage props or as jokes in and of themselves (Lost in Translation).
Eighty percent of ramen shops in Japan are independently owned, and small ramen shops remain resilient despite the struggles of most other independent food businesses since the 1990s.
The noren wake system, in which the ramen store owner provides a former worker who has at least a year of experience with his personal supply routes, broth and sauce recipes, and personal coaching, usually without any charge, has allowed for the spread of shops modeled after popular stores without any pyramid-like corporate structure.
Takenaka finds that Japan’s value can be located in the country’s smaller scale of production on average compared with the United States and its relative lack of capital concentration across industries, both of which allow for a culture of variation, eccentricity, and creativity to flourish.
Ramen has been the most prominent and successful global export of the Japanese restaurant industry since the internationalization of sushi in the 1980s, and it has become a global phenomenon in the last two decades.
what started as an exotic food from China famed for its affordability, quickness, and nourishing qualities developed into a staple of Japanese working-class cuisine,
The various categories into which the food is simultaneously placed (Japanese food, comfort food, “Chinese” fast food, nighttime post-drinking food, working-class lunch food, young people’s food, bachelor’s food)

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.

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