Week 11: Ramen Tale ラーメン物語

Ramen ラーメン is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters 拉面 lā miàn. It is a bowl of hot broth hand-pulled noodles that originated in Lanzhou. Lanzhou is the capital of Gansu Province in Northwestern China. The meaning of 拉面 lā miàn  comes from the word 拉 , which means to pull and 面 miàn for noodles in Chinese. Despite having different myths of the origins of ramen, its historical significance in my opinion began in the late nineteenth century. In 1853, the arrival of Matthew Perry’s black ships led to an uplift of Tokugawa’s ban on foreign culture in Edo Japan. This move spurred the 1871 Sino-Japanese Treaty of Commerce in 1871, which led to an influx of Chinese immigrants or kakyo into the treaty ports of Yokohama, Kobe, Nagasaki and Hakodate in Japan.

Because of that, the Chinese carried out their trade with Japanese business owners, starting to sell ramen on push-carts to lower-class Japanese workers on the streets.[1] The reason for the great demand of such wage earners owed to the rising industrialisation era in Japan.[2] Thus, these workers were the backbone for the early ramen industry, also known as 支那そば shina soba or 南京そば nankin soba.[3]

In the postwar period after China attained its independence, ramen came to be known as 中華そば chūka soba instead of shina soba, as shina was derogatory term used to describe China. In the mid-1950s, Okumura Ayao, a known food Japanese scholar, argued that ramen became popular due to a transition in Japanese diets from “lean to fat” cuisines.

Given that traditional Japanese soup broths were lighter in taste, Ramen was seen as a more fatty, nutritious dish to combat hunger and poverty in the growing postwar economy.[4] 

A bowl of ramen today typically consists of marinated bamboo shoots, scallions, egg and sliced char siew or Chinese-style roast pork.[5]Ramen noodles used to be pale yellow in colour because of the potassium carbonate or lye water (kan sui) to bring out the chewy texture.[6]

However, you may find both straight white and wavy yellow ramen noodles sold in Japan today as ramen and chūka soba respectively.

However, the original lamian was served in spicy beef broth with sliced beef.[7] This was because lamian originated in Northwestern China, whereby a large majority of Chinese muslim communities such as the Uygur and the Hui people resided there. Given that eating beef was considered a taboo for the Japanese in the past centuries alongside the introduction of western food into Japanese diets in late nineteenth century, they utilised western ingredients such as pork and scallions to make ramen instead.[8] Thus, beef was replaced with sliced pork and pork broth to make Japanese ramen.The techniques and preparation methods have also changed. Lamian focuses on the ability to pull the dough into numerous fine threads without breaking it. On the other hand, ramen specialises in the quality and maintenance of soup flavour and ingredient toppings.[9]

The concoction of ingredients in making the soup broth also vary in different regions of Japan. For example, shio ramen originated from Hakodate in Hokkaido and shoyu ramen came from Yokohama in Kanagawa. Despite both originating from the treaty ports of late 19th century Japan, they too had their distinct recipes and flavours as well.

In essence, the ramen tale goes way back into its Chinese roots. Yet over the past centuries, we saw how it has gradually transformed into a “native” dish, what Japanese and the world term it today as Japan’s national dish.[10] In fact, if you tried googling lamian, majority of the results are of Japanese ramen in its fresh or instant form, reflecting the impact of nationalising the dish and becoming the “authentic” lamian.


[1] George Solt, “Street Life: Chinese Noodles for Japanese Workers,” in The Untold History of Ramen: How Political Crisis in Japan Spawned a Global Food Craze, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), 18.

[2] George Solt, “Street Life: Chinese Noodles for Japanese Workers,” 21.

[3] George Solt, “Street Life: Chinese Noodles for Japanese Workers,” 19.

[4] Han Kyung Koo, “Noodle Odyssey: East Asia and Beyond,” in Re-orienting Cuisine: East Asian Foodways In the Twenty-First Century, edited by Kwang, Ok Kim, (New York, United States: Berghahn Books, 2015), 92.

[5] Michael Ashkenazi, “Major Food and Ingredients,” in Food Culture in Japan, edited by Ashkenazi, Michael and Jeanne Jacob, (London: Greenwood Press, 2003), 38.

[6] Michael Ashkenazi, “Major Food and Ingredients,” 38.

[7] Michael Dillon, “Preface,” in China’s Muslim Hui Community: Migration, Settlement, Sects, (New York: Routledge, 1999), xvi.

[8] George Solt, “Street Life: Chinese Noodles for Japanese Workers,” 17.

[9] Mark Robinson, “Ramen: Soul Food Staple,” in NHK World-Japan Website, retrieved from https://www.nhk.or.jp/dwc/food/articles/51.html.

[10] Tamotsu Aoki, “The Domestication of Chinese Foodways in Contemporary Japan: Ramen and Peking Duck,” in Changing Chinese Foodways in Asia, edited by Wu, David Y. H. and Chee-Beng Tan, (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2001), 224.

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