In the U.S., ramen noodles once meant desperation. Associated with financially lean times (college, you say?), ramen’s story was the tale of when we tried to convince ourselves that a 45-cent brick of starch and salt was a meal. But today that stigma is disappearing thanks to a boom of ramen shops sprouting up across the nation in cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, as well as in the hip, smaller cities in between. Forget what you remember about a mouthful of monosodium glutamate mush; the world is becoming accustomed to a tastier, heartier and healthier relative of the store-bought stuff.
Ramen, like an open-minded traveler, is a dish that can adapt and thrive in any city it visits, taking a little something from each place while still maintaining its identity. That is the real story of ramen— a dish that can bob and fake, a dish that can reinvent itself to meet changing tastes and cultures.
The Japanese noodle soup dish isn’t the ancient cuisine many associate with Japanese foods. The ramen we recognize has a short history, emerging in the culinary scene only in the 20th century, explained Chef Doug Psaltis, who operates Ramen-San in Chicago. Around this time, “There was a great Chinese influence in Japan, and some of the young cooks had a chance to break free from the traditional stuff,” Psaltis said. Thus began the first ramen movement.
Ramen soon migrated to the United States, but after crossing the ocean, the dish remained stagnant for a long time.
“Most of the ramen that was here by 2010 was the really classic ramen,” explained Chef Ryo Isobe, whose own Tatsu Ramen restaurant in Los Angeles is at the forefront of the ramen trend. “Ramen is always evolving. People try out new tastes all the time. Flavors of ramen (in Japan) had gotten very rich and very good, but the ones that they had here were really classic and had a very plain taste.”
Luckily, chefs like Isobe and Psaltis have been shaking up ramen’s “classic” tastes, experimenting with new flavors in their shops.
For Isobe, opening a ramen shop provided a taste of home he was searching to share with American friends.
“I grew up in Tokyo, until I moved to Hawaii when I was 14,” he said. “At that time, I loved ramen and ate a lot of it in Japan, and most of the ramen there was very good. But when I moved here, the first time I tried the ramen, it didn’t taste the Japan as it had in Japan. After college, I thought, okay, I’m going to open a ramen restaurant that I love, and I’m going to introduce real-deal ramen into the United States.”
Psaltis, on the other hand, loved the freedom, flexibility and fun he and fellow chef Marcelo Han found in creating innovative ramen bowls.
“We were just fooling around,” Psaltis said. “A couple of guys in the kitchen and I made a couple of broths that we liked, then we started working on some noodles, then we worked on pork, and we thought it would be fun to have a little ramen shop.”
Of course, these two aren’t the only ones to jump on the trend. But why are ramen shops so popular at the moment?
“It started in New York – a popular ramen company opened there and it was a hit,” said Isobe. “Then, a lot of other places thought, ‘Oh, we can do it, too!’ A lot of people came over to New York and Los Angeles and started opening up restaurants.”
And of course, ramen shops are fun places for those chefs to explore new recipes.
“[Ramen Shops] are a fun thing to do,” said Psaltis. “There are really no rules. It can get quite exciting.”
Of course, make sure you realize the ramen we’re taking about looks nothing like the stuff you buy in bulk.
“There’s no one style of ramen,” said Isobe. “It doesn’t just come in chicken flavor and original flavor. There are millions of possibilities in the ramen world. It’s a fun soup.”
In fact, you don’t even have to use one specific type of noodle in your ramen bowl.
“There’s tons of different kinds of noodles,” said Psaltis. “It has to do with where ramen started in Japan. The island has a cool northern tip and a warm southern tip, so the pasta they produce changes throughout the regions.”
Ramen, in its truest translation, doesn’t specify much or like to be exclusive.
“’Ramen’ is just a translation or interpretation of ‘Chinese soup.’ It doesn’t really mean much, but it’s interpreted as a noodle soup,” said Psaltis.