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Could ramen, Japan’s answer to the greasy spoon, go gourmet? It started out simple — this dish of Chinese-style noodles in soup was conjured up by cooks in Yokohama’s Chinatown in the 1920s. Its present association with drab 24-hour diners and poor nutrition gives it a low rank in the food hierarchy: as the underdog’s dietary staple.

But in these days of protracted recession, cheap is chic. Ramen, perhaps the best under-1,000 yen restaurant deal, is being served in new variations. MSG-free, spicy or veggie-laden — take your pick. Leading the trendy trail is Ippudo, Fukuoka’s leading nouveau-ramen joint, which is as much an aberration in Kyushu’s conservative ramen world as it is a pioneer of today’s “chic” ramen eateries.

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