Now that ramen has taken its place alongside sushi as the world’s favorite Japanese food, it’s easy to forget what the noodle landscape was like just a couple of decades ago. Back in the 1990s, foreigners knew ramen — if they knew it at all — as cheap fuel for all-night study sessions or as a belly-filler for sorry bachelors.
In Japan, too, the dish was best-loved by students and salarymen, and ramen shops tended to be ramshackle affairs. Though enthusiasts were vocal about championing regional specialties — from the rich tonkotsu (pork-bone) soup of Kyushu to the warming miso-based bowls of Hokkaido — ramen had a down-market appeal and a decidedly ordinary reputation.
It was into this noodle-deprived milieu that the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum opened in 1994. The concept was daring: to give visitors a taste of the best ramen from around Japan by gathering a cluster of popular shops in a single setting. As Masahiro Nakano, a PR rep for the “museum,” says, “Our mission has been to spread ramen to the world.”
Mission accomplished. Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, the museum has welcomed more than 20 million visitors and presided over the emergence of ramen as a global culinary sensation, one that commands the attention of the world’s savviest diners and most esteemed chefs.
Nobody is more surprised by this phenomenon than the folks at the museum themselves.
“The international ramen boom has grown much more rapidly than we ever imagined,” Nakano says, adding that 150,000 foreigners visited in 2013 alone.
Before ramen could conquer the world, though, the industry first had to mature in Japan. Its rise to domestic prominence was helped along by the B-kyū gourmet (B-level cuisine) craze, which during the past decade has seen a revival of interest in local fare and low-price cooking. Another factor was the spread of nationwide chains such as Ippudo, Kagetsu and Kohmen, which have transformed the image of ramen shops from redoubts of solitary diners to places where all comers feel welcome.
“Twenty years ago, there was no such thing as a low-priced chain ramen restaurant,” Nakano says. “The majority of customers were men, and shops were centered around counter seating. But now the number of families has increased and table seating is common. The quality of taste has gone up significantly as well.”
Indeed, quality is a hallmark of the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum. The current lineup of shops includes Komurasaki from Kumamoto Prefecture, whose tonkotsu soup best represents the southern Kyushu style; Ryu Shanghai from Yamagata Prefecture, which features extra-thick noodles and a spicy miso base; and specialty tsukemen (dipping-sauce noodles) restaurant Ganja from Saitama Prefecture. As a self-appointed custodian of ramen history, the museum has even re-created the kitchens of Kamome Shokudo, a celebrated eatery from Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, that was destroyed in the 3/11 disaster.
“Different people enjoy different types of ramen,” Nakano says. “So we invite shops that have regional popularity. We also place an emphasis on longevity — just 20 percent of ramen shops last 10 years, and only 3 percent last 20 years — so there’s a kind of unique appeal to places that stand the test of time.”
In a nod to ramen’s newfound overseas cachet — and in acknowledgement of the influences now coming to Japan from abroad — the museum has welcomed its first Europe-based shop. Muku from Frankfurt is run by a Japanese chef whose nontraditional approach includes making flour from durum wheat, deploying a German spice blend known as sieben and boosting umami with local salt-cured ham.
“Visitors come to us with a purpose,” Nakano says. “They were fascinated by the ramen they ate in their hometowns and would like to eat the genuine article here.”
For more information, visit www.raumen.co.jp/english. Muku opens today. Steve Trautlein is a freelance journalist eating his way throughout Japan.
Having a (rice) ball
“Everyday Onigiri” is a new cookbook whose slim profile belies its many pleasures. Written by longtime Japanese food instructor Reiko Yamada (who, it should be noted, also runs a Facebook page called the Onigiri Gaiko Club, with “gaiko” meaning “diplomacy”), the bilingual guide covers everything from basic tips on shaping, filling and wrapping rice balls to 101 step-by-step recipes.
Yamada gives a rundown of the main onigiri varieties (stuffed, mixed, wrapped, grilled, etc.), and her recipes skew to the outre: curried shrimp, edamame with Comte cheese, and tarako (cod roe) with sour cream. An English glossary helps the uninitiated to decipher obscure ingredients, and color photos show how the finished product should look. “Everyday Onigiri” (2014, Pot Publishing Co.) is out now, priced ¥1,300 plus tax.