White paper chronicles rise of ramen worldwide

by Steve Trautlein

Special To The Japan Times

Ramen’s rise to global prominence has taken many forms: Japanese noodle shops debuting to great acclaim overseas, from Sydney to Honolulu to London; the proliferation of English-language ramen blogs; international chefs incorporating elements of the dish into their cuisine.

Now, the worldwide interest in ramen has been captured in an official study. Yahoo Japan, in collaboration with the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum and The Japan Times, has conducted a survey of fans known as The World Ramen White Paper Project.

Featuring responses from 676 ramen fans in 44 countries, the white paper represents the first systematic attempt to gauge the global love affair with Japanese noodles. Responses arrived from such far-flung places as Singapore and Brazil, Indonesia and Italy. Although many of the participants live in Japan, the vast majority reside abroad.

Bolivians, Poles, Taiwanese and Malaysians all answered the survey, which was conducted between Oct. 3 and Nov. 16 on the website of The Japan Times. The results can be viewed on the project’s official site in English, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.

The paper suggests enjoyment of ramen goes hand in hand with an appreciation of Japanese culture: 83 percent of the respondents say they’ve visited Japan at some point in their lives, and 85 percent of that group have eaten ramen here.

No matter where they live, though, ramen fans around the world share certain affinities. Most prefer chewy, al dente noodles over softer varieties. A majority enjoy the dipping-style ramen known as “tsuke-men.” And when it comes to soup, “tonkotsu” broth, made from pork bones, is more popular than miso, soy or curry. The favorite toppings are egg, “chashu” (roasted pork) and leeks.

The survey reveals that ramen fans also have stark differences — many of which fall along cultural lines. It seems that people in Asia prefer spicier soup, while those in the rest of the world want their broth to be mild. On the other hand, diners outside Asia say ramen is a dish worth waiting for — an astonishing 18 percent of Americans are willing to stand in line for over an hour to enjoy their favorite bowl.

In contrast to ramen’s reputation as testosterone-driven food, the white paper suggests that women consume noodles just as avidly as men — in fact, the largest demographic group represented in the survey is females in their 20s. Nor do women have qualms about eating noodles the way they’re meant to be eaten: 60 percent say they slurp when they dine, and a greater proportion of women than men believe slurping to be an acceptable part of the ramen experience.

The white paper is also interesting for revealing what fans don’t appreciate about ramen. The least favorite topping turns out to be “menma” (bamboo shoots), and about half of respondents say they don’t care for the noodle dish known as “abura-soba,” in which the broth is replaced with an oil-based sauce. Among the aspects of the ramen experience that fans can do without are “having to wait in line,” “not being able to reserve a table” and “having to rush to eat.”

None of these gripes, however, diminishes the enthusiasm of the respondents. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the survey is the gusto with which ramen fans enjoy their noodles. Most prefer ramen even above such well-loved Japanese dishes as sushi and tempura, and a large majority slurp down a bowl at least once a month. All of which leads the survey makers to ask: “Is ramen becom(ing) the quintessential Japanese food for the next generation?”

The World Ramen White Paper Project is part of Yahoo Japan’s ramen ambassador promotion.

For more information, visit ramen.yahoo.co.jp/oversea/index02.html, or the Love Ramen Facebook page at www.facebook.com/ramenambassador.