A wet and salty treat


"Daddy, what are we having for dinner?" we asked. My mother was in the hospital and my eight-year-old brother, my father, and I were on our own for food. What could three people who did not know how to cook, cook? We’d never made anything more than simple sandwiches.

The answer came in a box from the Korean grocery store.

The rigid square of dried noodle unfurled itself within seconds in boiling water until it became a tangled, soft mess resembling a bad home perm. In went the soup base, turning the broth a caramel colour and scenting the air with a hint of soy sauce and onion. This was the essence of ramen, a savoury delight created out of the contents of a plastic bag.

After the fourth night, we stopped asking our father what we would be eating for dinner; we knew we were going to have ramen. We had had ramen every night for a month. Ramen with egg in it, ramen with scallions, ramen with hot sauce, ramen with rice, ramen with beef slices.

Until our mother came home, ramen was how we would live.

By the last week, we were groaning, "Ramen…again?" Though we were ramen lovers at heart, I was getting a little sick of the same meal.

"What are you talking about?" insisted my father, "I put something different in it every night!"

The only prerequisite for making ramen is the ability to boil water. In dormitories across America, the smell of ramen cooking on hotplates and inside rice cookers pervades the hallways. No bachelor pad is complete without at least one package of instant ramen noodles. Perhaps because of its humble place in the hierarchy of cuisine, ramen has become as global as blue denim jeans.

Who has not eaten instant ramen noodles? Starving artists and college students eat it. At Sapporo Ichiban’s price point of 69 cents for a package of carbohydrates and sodium, you have a whole meal. Pricier ramen can inch up towards US$1.50, but even so, that beats most survival meal prices.

"When I was in college, I would buy them in bulk…and it worked out to about 29 cents a packet. I could eat for less than a dollar a day," says one thirty-something professional, who now dresses in Façonnable tailored shirts and drives to the supermarket in a BMW.

Rose Mark, a professed foodie who now cooks most things from scratch, views ramen with nostalgia: "Ramen was cheap, easy, and fast to make, and comforting. As a struggling paycheque-to-paycheque single mother, there were many nights I used it to stretch my few remaining dollars until payday… My financial circumstances have changed and now when I see large families buying them in bulk from Costco, a wave of nostalgia passes over me and I remember using it as the poor man’s savoury sustenance." Ramen has helped many of us to survive. In my own pantry, I keep a few dusty packets of Sapporo Ichiban and Nong Shim’s Shin ramen just in case.

The theme of instant ramen as a convenience food stems from its beginnings after World War II in Japan. As ramen became popular for being an inexpensive source of calories during intense food shortages, a desire for a non-perishable type of ramen that could be cooked at home culminated in instant ramen noodles. This, of course, was in step with the worldwide growth of instant food (witness "TV dinners" and canned foods such as spam in the US following the war). Ramen and instant ramen were literally survival food. There is just something about ramen that sets it apart from other noodles. Marco Polo may have introduced Chinese noodles to Italy (which incidentally already had pasta in Sicily, just not the hand-pulled Chinese noodle kind), but ramen has taken noodles to new heights.

According to "Instant Ramen’s homepage," 87 million instant ramen meal packets are exported out of Japan to 46 countries in the world, with China, followed by Indonesia and the US topping the list. Reports vary, with Nissin reporting an annual consumption rate of 40 billion ramen meals worldwide, to the Instant Ramen homepage reporting over 85 billion ramen meals consumed worldwide. Ed, from The Ramen Blog at , shared, "Just Maruchan alone produces 81 million miles (130 million km) of noodles per year. That’s almost enough ramen to stretch from the Earth to the Sun!"

Even the military eats ramen. Jeff, a graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point, said that as an officer in the army, he carried a packet with him as a personal provision out in the field. The US Air Force Academy allows instant ramen — in fact, Nate divulged, "Though I never saw ramen in the field in the army, freshmen at the US Air Force Academy lived off ramen because that was an easy way to get out of going to dinner and getting hazed." Now there’s a unique example of ramen being eaten as a survival food!

However, what made instant ramen so attractive to a calorie-seeking, post-war Japan leads many to be wary of the unhealthy food in the US. A serving of instant ramen such as Sapporo Ichiban is packed with 80% of one’s daily sodium allowance, and the noodles are fried in fat. Yet, despite ramen’s reputation as an unhealthy food, it’s a testament to this food, that Whole Foods (a health food store in the US), still carries Westbrae Natural brand ramen.

Some love ramen and elevate it from its status as a convenience food. "It’s really quite amazing. What other food can you use for breakfast, soups, salads, main courses, and desserts? If you look at some of the recipes on my site, you will see that it is not a convenience food in all cases; you can make ramen as simple or as complicated as you want," states Matt Fischer, who runs a popular food blog called, "The Official Ramen Homepage." Fischer started the site 10 years ago during his freshman year of college. The recipes now number over 350. Indeed, some of the recipes are global such as a "Polish ramen salad" containing mayonnaise, yoghurt, tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, and beans. That’s a long way from what Nong Shim or Sapporo Ichiban had in mind, I think, but ramen is a world citizen — denim jeans can be worn with most anything, right?

Ramen is much more than a convenience food. Eric Lutz, a foodie and culinary student in Canada observes: "For me it’s not so much that ramen was a gateway food — more that it was a full circle food. Noodles originated in China, were brought back by Marco Polo, were adopted by the Italians and Germans and Polish and Russians — and finally I’m eating the ramen noodles that could have started the whole thing."



Instant noodles rule the world!
Get to know the father of instant noodles
Momofuku's cup noodles
Noodle politics


First Published: 
September 2006


Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
You are not logged in: