March 18, 2018 | ° F

From authentic to instant: A look at ramen’s popularity

Photo by Matt Mikolay |

Food reviewer Matt Mikolay created his own dish of instant ramen and vegetables.

Few foods are worthy of being called a staple of the college population. Sure, pizza might deserve the title. Maybe coffee warrants the honor due to its invaluable assistance during those late night cramming sessions. Here at Rutgers, the Fat Sandwich is certainly a vital part of the student diet.

Nevertheless, only one food has taken American colleges by storm, assuming its position as the cornerstone of university cuisine — instant ramen.

According to Japan Today, ramen of the non-instant variety first appeared in 1910 in the Akasaka district of Tokyo, and the first restaurant to serve ramen was called Rairaiken. At that time, the noodle soup was called “shina soba,” or “Chinese noodles,” most likely due to its roots in Chinese cooking.

From Akasaka, the dish spread across Japan, evolving slowly over time into the sensational soup that the modern culinary world has come to know and love. However, ramen would not achieve worldwide appreciation until the invention of the instant noodle.

Photo: Matt Mikolay

Food reviewer Matt Mikolay created his own dish of instant ramen and vegetables.

Momofuku Ando, founder of Nissin Foods, created the instant noodle. According to BBC News, Ando started the company shortly after World War II to supply the Japanese people with a means of purchasing inexpensive food.

In 1958, Nissin released “Chicken Ramen,” the first instant noodle on the market. The World Instant Noodles Association (and yes, there is such a thing) states Ando pioneered the method that became the “basis for all instant noodle production” by flash-frying noodles in oil to dry them out.

In 1971, Nissin again revolutionized the industry with the introduction of “Cup Noodles,” combining the packaging, cooking pot and serving bowl for instant ramen into one convenient unit.

Since then, the instant noodle industry has exploded. Earlier this year, Agence France-Presse reported 101.4 billion units of instant noodles were sold in 2012. China, Indonesia and Japan led as the world’s top consumers.

On their website, Maruchan Inc. claims to produce 3.6 billion packages of their Ramen Noodle Soup every year — enough to stretch from Earth to Mars and back.

It’s clear that the instant noodle has global appeal, transcending borders to gain a universal appreciation. In their book “The Noodle Narratives,” anthropologists Frederick Errington, Tatsuro Fujikura and Deborah Gewertz investigate this worldwide phenomenon.

It is no surprise the more industrial Asian countries have embraced the instant noodle, granting it an overwhelming commercial success. According to the book’s authors, Japanese ramen manufacturers introduce over 600 new flavors to the market every year. There’s even a ramen museum located in Yokohama, Japan.

The vital role of instant noodles in the diets of impoverished people all over the world seems less obvious. Gewertz calls instant noodles a “proletarian hunger killer,” providing the poor and destitute with an inexpensive means of acquiring sustenance that is convenient, affordable, and quick way to fill their stomachs.

Thus, the convenient, affordable and quick instant noodle has become a staple food for many populations — dangerous, considering the instant noodle’s subpar nutritional value. A quick glance at the back of instant noodle packages in the local grocer will reveal frighteningly high levels of sodium, often exceeding 50 percent of the recommended daily value.

Be conscious of salt intake when purchasing instant ramen, and search for brands with the lowest sodium levels. Certain manufacturers, including Maruchan, market special lines of instant noodles containing reduced levels of sodium.

To lower the amount of salt found in instant noodles, try using only half of the included seasoning packet. Though the resulting flavor might not seem as concentrated, the noodles will still be sufficiently tasty.

High sodium levels might not be the only reason to fear ramen noodles. Some individuals believe the processed nature of instant ramen can potentially harm the human body.

Last year, ABC Action News reported on Dr. Braden Kuo of Massachusetts General Hospital, whose research started to gain attention around the Internet. In the study, Kuo used a vitamin-sized camera swallowed by test participants to look inside the gastrointestinal tract.

After having volunteers consume both instant and freshly made ramen noodles, Kuo was able to compare how the stomach processed each. The results showed that the processed noodles were significantly less digested than the fresh noodles after a period of one to two hours.

Although Kuo admits more tests must be performed before any conclusions can be made, the study raises the question of exactly how harmful processed foods such as instant ramen can be to the human body.

Though instant ramen might not be the healthiest food in the world, the recurring criticism hasn’t hindered the widespread usage of ramen in the kitchen. Instant ramen is no longer just a soup, having transformed into a remarkably versatile ingredient for use in the preparation of other dishes.

A quick Google search will yield countless recipes for how to make ramen stir fries, ramen salad, ramen tacos, ramen macaroni and cheese, and even ramen pizza.

In August, Keizo Shimamoto introduced the world to the “ramen burger,” an unconventional hamburger consisting of a beef patty resting between two buns molded from cooked ramen noodles. According to ABCNews, more than 250 hungry patrons waited in line for over three hours to experience the ramen burger’s unveiling at the Brooklyn flea market “Smorgasburg.”

The resulting ramen burger craze has gained considerable press coverage. Although numerous chefs have tried their best to imitate the burger, customers are still lining up to experience Shimamoto’s original.

With ramen being subject to such culinary creativity, it’s the perfect time to experiment with modifying instant noodles. In fact, it’s relatively easy to enhance ramen even with the limited kitchen equipment of a college residence hall.

To add a flavor kick, Serious Eats proposes adding in pastes, spices or oils to cooked instant ramen. Among other ingredients, they recommend miso paste, Thai curry paste, Sichuan pepper, chili flakes and sesame oil.

The addition of a fried or hard-boiled egg can provide a bit of protein to offset the exorbitant levels of sodium. Men’s Health suggests adding furikake, pickled ginger or even a spoonful of peanut butter to the cooked ramen.

The packet of dried vegetables commonly included with instant ramen provides little flavor and relatively minimal nutritional value. Instead, try adding vegetables — certain vegetables, such as frozen peas and leafy greens, can actually cook themselves in the hot broth. Fully cooked meats can also bring the instant ramen a little closer to the real deal.

Finally, the seasoning packet can be discarded altogether in favor of a homemade sauce. The following recipe combines a soy-based sauce with cooked ramen noodles drained of all water. The sauce should be added to preference. Consider enhancing the recipe with the addition of freshly cooked vegetables.

Instant ramen has certainly come a long way, progressing from a simple instant snack into a global culinary icon. Despite its lack of nutritional value, the hungry people of the world have embraced the instant noodle due to its versatility and simplicity.

Over 50 years old, instant ramen has effectively transformed our diets and warmed our hearts. It will surely continue to do so far into the future.

By Matt Mikolay

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