A textual tour of the cheap noodles that "cook in three minutes."
By Adrienne Martini
AUGUST 17, 1998: Ah, the heady retail rituals of going back to college: shopping for new clothes and notebooks, scouting out the best possible dorm accouterments (like matching bedspreads or a cheap neon beer sign), and driving to the local discount wholesaler to buy a big ol' case of Ramen Noodles. Maruchan, Nissin's Top Ramen, Campbell's, or a generic store brandthe label is unimportant in the ramen game, all that counts is cheap. Those magic plastic-wrapped packets can be bags of joy. If you have ramen, you can rest assured that you have enough food to carry you through any drought of ready cash, that you won't be reliant upon the whims of the cafeteria, and that you can make a whole meal with nothing but hot water, a bowl, and your utensil of choice.
Thousands, perhaps millions, of college students survive on this tasty noodle soup. Local groceries offer these ramen kits, which contain a brick of compressed flour noodles and a small foil packet of seasoning powder, for less than the average cost of a can of beans or box of macaroni and cheese, two other popular collegiate food options. Most of the time, you can get a package of ramen, which can last for two meals if you ration properly, for about 20 cents. But, occasionally, the stars align and the heavens sing, and your local market will have a sale. One dizzying day, back when I was in school, the local BiLo had ramen at 12 for a dollar. And flocks of students wandered to the dry soup aisle and worshipped this unexpected boon.
In honor of the back-to-school issue, we helpful folk at Metro Pulse decided that any college student (or any hungry person looking for a quick, cheap meal) could use a guide to all that is ramen. While this is not the final word on the topic, nor an exhaustive and conclusive survey, it is a compendium of little known ramen facts, a few recipes, and some personal stories of ramen experiences past. We have been there. Heck, some of us still are there.
So read on, whether you are currently living on this pre-packaged treat, contemplating a glorious ramen-filled future, or looking to get nostalgic about your noodle-slurping days.
Ramen has a rich history, for which we can thank the Japanese. Mito Komon, a 17th-century samurai, is allegedly the first person to ever eat a bowl of ramen. Of course, his did not come from a package plucked from the shelves of the local quickie-mart. The name ramen is the Japanese translation of the Chinese word lo-mein, which is the noodle dish that you can still get at any decent Chinese restaurant. Komon's dish was a combination of noodles and broth, with vegetables.
The modern ramen age did not bloom until after World War II. Momofuku Ando, inventor and founder of Nissin Food Products of Japan, realized that his countrymen and women needed an inexpensive, convenient food that would help feed the people while they worked to rebuild. With that thought, packaged ramen was born.
"Chicken Ramen" was Ando's first offering, made in 1958. The suits scoffed at his idea and claimed that it would fail, because Ando's ramen cost six times as much as the soup served in Japan's ramen housesand those noodles were fresh, to boot.
As with any great success story, the corporate honchos were wrong. Manufactured ramen took off in Japan, and by the end of 1958, ten more companies were pushing their products onto the shelves. Nowadays, the average Japanese consumer eats 45 servings of ramen per year.
Ramen didn't make it to the U.S. until 1972, when Nissin Foods set up shop in California, which is a reason why ramen seems to be a generational foodthose who came of age before or during the '70s lived on other cheap staples, like cans of deviled ham or boxed Kraft dinners. The ramen cup, a Styrofoam bowl filled with dehydrated noodles, powdered broth, and vegetable pieces, hit the shelves in 1973. By the end of the decade, these noodle products became cheap eats for the masses. Nissin still holds about 40 percent of the American market, and the category itself grows by eight percent per year. And for the statistically-minded, your average American will consume 7 servings annually.
The Japanese are still ramen mad, so much so in fact, that there is a museum in Yokohama that is devoted to this noodleimagine a Hard Rock Café with pictures of soup replacing the music memorabilia. Over 300 bowls, utensils, ramen shop match sticks and chopsticks are on display. But the true glory is reserved for instant ramen. The museum details every painstaking step in its invention and exhibits packages from around the world. There are also ramen video games, 25 years worth of television commercials, and banks of interactive video panels. Noodle shops are on the lower two floors, and their cuisine is available both fresh and dried. In case you find yourself in Yokohama, admission is 300 yen, 100 yen for children. Their ramen hotline, which is in Japanese, can be reached at 81-045-471-0943.
On our own shores, the Internet is currently housing some electronic ramen shrines, probably because college students and electronic media go hand-in-hand. Like anything else on-line, some of these sites are amazingly good, some aren't worth the electricity used to house them. The best of the lot, in my opinion:
Folks in cyberspace also seem compelled to share their own ramen stories. Bianca's Ramen RomperRoom (bianca.com/shack/kitchen/ramen/) is a clearinghouse of noodle confessions, interspersed with recipes and poetry. My personal favorite is a haiku by Fern: Chicken Mushroom hot; Dollop of fat free sour cream, Instant stroganoff. You have to admit that this has a sort of simple grace. Mister Herman on his recipe page (www2.netdoor.com/~juice/recipes/ramen.html) shares an amusing personal anecdote about making ramen in his coffee maker, along with the instructions for doing such.
Originally, I had planned to put this utilitarian food to the test, sampling one each of the chicken, beef, Oriental, mushroom, shrimp, and pork flavors. I would compose a lovely little description of each one, ranking its flavor and texture in order to discover the definitive noodle experience or, at least, one that could be had for under a quarter.
And I couldn't do it.
I went to my convenient grocery store, spent two bucks for a big ol' bag full of ramen, ran home, made the chicken flavor, and took two bites. Then, I sat on the couch for a few hours, lost in an only marginally pleasant reverie, in which I suddenly recalled the period almost 10 years ago when I ate nothing but these damned things, because I could afford little else. A testament, perhaps, to the power of ramen memories. I did manage to finish the bowl, but couldn't convince myself to wade through the rest of the packages.
What I was able to do, however, was convince some of the other members of the Metro Pulse staff to recall their ramen days and/or taste test some of the noodles for me. Everyone, it seems, has some ramen wisdom to share.
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