This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode We’d Like to Teach The World to Slurp: The Weird and Wonderful Story of Ramen’s Rise to Glory, first released on September 26, 2023. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
CYNTHIA GRABER: [ATTEMPTED SLURPING] I can’t do it. I can’t slurp. I just made a mess.
NICOLA TWILLEY: [SLURPING] Mmm. Mm! I think my slurp was like C minus, but the flavor is A plus.
TWILLEY: My apologies to those of you who are sensitive to such sounds. I was certainly not brought up to slurp my food.
GRABER: I wasn’t either, but that is apparently the appropriate way to enjoy a steaming hot bowl of ramen.
TWILLEY: Which is exactly what we’re diving into this episode. You’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, I’m Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber. And when we’re not attempting to slurp ramen without making a total mess, this episode we’re also trying to figure out a central mystery: how is a meaty broth filled with Chinese style noodles seen as an authentic Japanese dish, I mean aren’t Japanese traditionally a kind of pescatarian and light brothy people?
TWILLEY: Plus yet more mystery: how did this meaty noodle soup become a dried rectangle with a seasoning packet that sustains college students and prisoners alike?
GRABER: What’s so special about ramen? Like why do people these days line up for hours to get a taste of what some hot ramen chef is whipping up?
TWILLEY: All that and more coming right up in the weird and wonderful story of ramen. Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network in partnership with Eater.
BARAK KUSHNER: This is a heavy animal based, I mean, there are plant based now, but fundamentally animal based soup, meaty broth of a type in which these delicious, spongy, you know, kind of al dente noodles swim, that’s slurped up. That really doesn’t reflect any fundamental element of Japanese traditional cuisine. And yet it is indelibly linked with Japanese culture.
GRABER: Barak Kushner is a professor of East Asian history at the University of Cambridge and he’s also the author of a book called Slurp, a social and culinary history of ramen, Japan’s favorite noodle soup.
KUSHNER: And the fascinating thing I think about ramen or why ramen intrigued me as a topic many years ago, when I first went to Japan, is that it kind of completely cuts against the grain of both what you would think of as traditional Japanese foods. but also when you dig into the history, it cuts against the lack of variety and perhaps richness of Japanese traditional dining.
TWILLEY: So wait a minute because this is bananas: Barak is saying that ramen is the example that goes against the fact that Japanese food is traditionally poor and lacking in variety? But really? Are you kidding me? Did you not actually eat anything when you were in Japan?
GRABER: But then we remembered that Barak is a history professor, and he’s talking about the past.
KUSHNER: So Japan historically was very poor. And very geographically isolated. It wasn’t a rich, bountiful agricultural country. It’s very mountainous. Rice or cereals, those sorts of products were very difficult to grow in that climate.
GRABER: So to understand ramen, Barak says we have to understand just how food poor Japan was over the course of most of history. It was hard to grow rice and grains, and on top of that, it was also hard to raise livestock there. And this lack of meat ended up becoming kind of enshrined in religion, too.
KUSHNER: Meat eating is seen as antithetical to Buddhist precepts. You should not kill living things. So Japan doesn’t have the grazing area to raise large animals for meat. And there’s wild boar and there’s stork and there’s heron and those sorts of large animals are eaten, but they’re not necessarily consumed or, raised in the way that they are, let’s say for pigs in China, or let’s say cattle in the West.
TWILLEY: So Japanese cuisine ends up historically not being particularly meat-centric. Really, Barak says, it wasn’t a taste-centric cuisine, either.
KUSHNER: Japan, there’s, there’s no discussion of, kind of, the history of taste. Because there just, there isn’t much. It’s, It’s basic. It’s fishy.
GRABER: Basic and fishy doesn’t sound too appetizing.
TWILLEY: Sorry Japan. Harsh burn.
GRABER: And Barak says this basicness was the opposite of its close neighbor China for most of history. In China, there were lots of different regions with lots of different cuisines. But in general the cuisines were rich and varied and people loved to eat and also talk and write about food. Food mattered in China.
KUSHNER: So the interesting thing first about food between China and Japan is that there is a very different ideology, I would say, in China linked toward the act of eating and food. And food as or dining as a metaphor for politics. Organizing a meal, organizing individuals and eating has certain ritual properties that are identified with how an efficient or moral government should run the country. We don’t see that in Japan. The Japanese don’t talk about food as a metaphor for politics or for ideology as it’s spoken about in, in ancient China.
TWILLEY: The same dynamic plays out in literature—in classic Chinese literature of the 1600s and 1700s, there are lavish descriptions of meals and entire plot lines that revolve around food. And Barak says that is really not the case in Japanese literature and culture from the same time.
GRABER: So Japan was poor and the locals were hungry and they didn’t have great food or great conversations about food, and they looked over at their huge neighbor, which was wealthier and better fed, and they saw that the Chinese seemed to be doing a lot right. Historically, the Japanese really admired China.
KUSHNER: So the historical relationship between Japan and the Chinese continent is virtually one of kind of master and student. It might not be the way everyone perhaps would like to have it phrased, but fundamentally that is what’s going on. China is in a sense the greater civilization that looms west. They sort of disdain the Japanese in ancient times. They don’t really think much of them.
TWILLEY: China’s like oh yeah that tiny island chain over there? Cute but whatever. And then Japan was like the little sister that wants to borrow your makeup and your clothes or in this case your entire culture.
KUSHNER: They’re looking at China as the go-to civilization. So they’re borrowing the written language. They borrow Buddhism, of course, which originally comes from India, but then it’s been sort of Sinofied. They borrow law. And they pretty much wholesale borrow architecture and just in agriculture and food technology and everything else over the centuries.
GRABER: And this is where we get back to at least the beginning of one of the elements of ramen. China was really big on noodles, though they first of course had to invent them. In some parts of the country, the Chinese grew wheat, and wheat noodles seem to have appeared a few thousand years ago.
KUSHNER: It seems in China, perhaps, that noodles don’t start out as noodles. They started as kind of perhaps large pancakes and then those pancakes get unrolled in water.
GRABER: And then over time, the wheat product stretched out and got thinner and longer and became less pancake-like and more noodle-like.
TWILLEY: Noodles were a huge hit in China from the get go because they’re great. And then because the Japanese were just borrowing everything from their cool and more sophisticated neighbor, they borrowed noodles. Although how and when exactly noodles got to Japan is a little bit of a mystery.
KUSHNER: Yeah, so… [LAUGHS] The quick answer is we don’t know. The, the, the more perhaps satisfying answer would be, it seems to come across starting in kind of, you know, seventh, eighth and ninth century.
GRABER: At that time, Japanese Buddhist monks were traveling throughout China to study, well, Buddhism. But also basically everything else, too.
KUSHNER: They’re studying and they’re bringing back various technologies for kind of creating the, the flour from wheat and the elements that, in a sense, then become soy sauce and whatnot. And noodle technology, generally speaking, starts to kind of be linked to the monks going and then coming back. And one of the interesting reasons for that also is temples in Japan, once they’re set up, they have to make money. And so in some parts, they start to be associated with noodle making,
TWILLEY: And over time the Japanese made noodles their own. Some of these temple noodles were wheat noodles, round dense fat noodle called udon, and some were made from buckwheat, which is an entirely different seed that’s ground into a nutty earthy flour, and those are called soba noodles.
KUSHNER: And so udon and soba are essentially eaten in a very thin broth, or a bland soup.
GRABER: Which people really liked, but it is nothing like ramen. But so then, how does something more like ramen, a rich meaty broth filled with a kind of chewier skinnier wheat noodle, how does that get to Japan?
KUSHNER: There are a couple popular myths. One popular myth is that there’s a Chinese Confucian gentleman that comes over in the mid mid to late 1600s. He’s fleeing the fall of the Ming Dynasty in China. He brings the technology with him. He goes to the Mito domain.
TWILLEY: Quick bit of backstory: The Mito domain is a region just north of Tokyo, and it was run by its own lord, called Mito Komon. And Mito Komon brought over this Chinese scholar to help him, to give his region a little Chinese glow up. The story goes that as well as boosting up literature and landscaping and all that kind of stuff, the Chinese guy also brought ramen.
KUSHNER: He teaches the making of ramen, the noodles, the soup, everything to Mito Komon, who interestingly was a character, a historical character, but then also there’s a very popular TV show about him.
[MITO KOMON THEME SONG]
GRABER: This was the longest running tv show in Japanese history, it ran for more than 40 years, and in it, Mito Komon rescues people from crime and injustice. But apparently he also learned how to make ramen from this Chinese guy.
KUSHNER: That becomes kind of the, one of the myths that it’s, it’s Mito Komon being taught by the Chinese Confucian gentlemen. And that’s how ramen gets made, which is of course, preposterous because a Confucian gentleman wouldn’t have cooked, right?
TWILLEY: Cooking was not an activity for gentlemen and scholars, not like landscaping or literature. And anyway, Barak says, even if this one Chinese scholar had taught Mito Komon how to make ramen, the Japanese wouldn’t have liked it.
KUSHNER: In the mid 1600s, the Japanese were not going to eat this wheat-based, al dente noodle soup in a heavy, rich broth. Because their tastes, their, their, you know, uh, national taste palate preference hadn’t changed yet.
TWILLEY: They’re still into their fish, their light broths, their buckwheat, and above all rice. AKA the opposite of meaty wheaty noodle soup.
GRABER: It looks like the real roots of ramen date back to the 1800s. Before then, Japan had been closed off to foreigners, except for the occasional Chinese scholar, as well as a few Portuguese, Dutch, and Spanish traders. But in the 1800s, due to a wide variety of historical reasons, Japan started to allow foreigners into just a few port cities.
KUSHNER: And what you realize is the largest number of foreigners in Japan in the mid 1800s, as Japan opens, it’s not Westerners. It’s Chinese.
TWILLEY: There were some Westerners, and they found the Chinese folks in those treaty ports extremely useful.
KUSHNER: And so some of them speak a bit of English, some of the—you know, they’ve been cooks for, um, foreign missions and foreigners and whatnot in China. And it’s the Chinese staff that can interact with the Japanese, that understand what’s going on. And it’s that interaction, really, in those port cities that creates the kind of dynamism for new forms, new cuisines to emerge.
GRABER: The Chinese were translating for the westerners, and they were also cooking, and the food they were preparing was for Europeans and for Americans and for themselves. And of course they were using a lot of flavors and techniques from home.
KUSHNER: And so then you begin to see that interaction, you begin to see restaurants appear and they’re labeled as Western restaurants. But in the Western restaurant, they’re serving dishes, and one of them is called a nanking soba—or nanking as it’s transliterated then is actually nanjing as we know it today.
TWILLEY: Nanjing is one of the four ancient capitals of China. So this is kind of like calling the dish China’s noodles.
KUSHNER: And it’s—we’re not quite sure what it was, but it looks to be some sort of Chinese-y soba dish. These sorts of hybrid dishes using noodles, so soba, perhaps in one case. In Nagasaki almost at the same time, there’s a new dish called champon. And champon is this kind of, again, noodles with perhaps leftover food on it, kind of mixed up in a stew kind of slurry. And that also proves very popular.
GRABER: These weren’t Japanese-style light fishy bland broths, the stews and soups were rich and meaty.
KUSHNER: And these kind of new noodle dishes that are combining Chinese heavier tastes for different palate begin to slowly appeal to both foreigners in these treaty ports, but also Japanese.
TWILLEY: One thing that’s a little confusing is that even though it was called nanking soba or later shina soba, where shina is the archaic Japanese word for China—it seems like most of the time the noodles themselves weren’t actually soba. Soba, remember, is made of buckwheat.
GRABER: But these noodles were mostly made of wheat wheat. And they had something else special about them: they held up really well in hot liquid. They stayed springy and chewy for a while without getting goopy and overcooked.
TWILLEY: The special ingredient that made the noodles so springy and sturdy—it was an alkali salt, specifically potassium or sodium carbonate. The Chinese had started adding this alkali salt to some of their noodles but like everything to do with ramen, no one knows exactly when and where. Legendary food science guru Harold McGee, who’s been on Gastropod a bunch, his theory is that cooks in the south of China where it can be super hot and humid originally added this alkali salt to their noodle dough as a way to prevent it from starting to ferment.
GRABER: It turns out that alkali salt does a lot of other things to noodle dough, too. First of all, it makes the flour kind of yellowish. There are some compounds in flour that are normally colorless, but they turn yellow when the pH goes over 7. It also changes the flavor to taste a little eggier, even though there aren’t any eggs in traditional ramen noodles.
TWILLEY: But the biggest deal is that it seems to strengthen the bond between the gluten molecules in the noodle. That obviously changes the texture and yes, you guessed it, that is what makes ramen springy and sturdy, like we said.
GRABER: So, basically, by the late 1800s, early 1900s, a totally new thing was being created in Japan that was completely different from traditional Japanese food to that point. It had chewier, bouncier noodles that weren’t like udon or soba, and they were swimming in a rich, meaty stew or broth that was nothing like what the Japanese had been eating before.
TWILLEY: But the Japanese started to get into it.
KUSHNER: It’s really just a very basic go to dish for students, for itinerant laborers, for people who are on the street, for late night revelers. Ramen is not something you consume at home. It’s something you consume outside. And so it’s, it really links also with the shift in Japan from agriculture to urbanization. From rural to urbanization.
TWILLEY: By the early 1900s, Japanese people were starting to move to cities en masse, they often worked long hours and didn’t have big kitchens, so they needed cheap fast street food. Ramen fit the bill. It was sold in stalls and restaurants, but also just from carts on the street.
GRABER: And something else was going on at the time, too. There was a big debate about nutrition in Japan. When the country opened up, they realized that almost everyone else was bigger and stronger than they were—Barak told us most Japanese suffered from malnutrition until basically after the second world war. And this made the country’s leaders nervous.
KUSHNER: The Japanese are terrified from the Meiji era on, of being colonized.
TWILLEY: So various military generals and admirals start arguing that the Japanese people need to change their diet. As a matter of national security, they had to start eating lots more wheat and meat.
GRABER: That’s because at this point in history, the Japanese did love noodles, sure, but they were really a rice-based society. Their ideal cuisine revolved mostly around rice and seafood. And the military men thought that had to change.
KUSHNER: We need to change our national diet to be bigger so that we aren’t swallowed, both literally and figuratively, by the West. And—you know, I think that also plays a role, in part, in urging Japanese toward exploring a different national taste palate. Because that conversation is being had.
GRABER: The changes in Japanese society, moving to the city and so on, and also the nutrition debate, that all helped the Japanese get on board with this new delicious meaty wheaty soup. But it was still called shina soba. How did it become ramen?
TWILLEY: This is another thing where there are some popular stories but Barak doesn’t necessarily buy them.
KUSHNER: One is that lamen. So it’s the, because you have pulled noodles in China, in Lanzhou. And it’s la mien in Chinese, which it means literally pulled noodle. Which is very similar to ramen in Japan, which—pulled noodle. That there’s a story that they come directly from Lanzhou through China to Japan. And that’s how you get ramen.
GRABER: But Barak doesn’t think it’s a straightforward process of noodles from Lanzhou and the name crossing over to Japanese. He says the alkaline noodles and the soup were popping up in different places in Japan from different cooks who were from a variety of regions in China.
KUSHNER: There’s some stories up from Hokkaido that it was called yumen, um, or that it was, it was called damen, uh, either after the way in which one of the Chinese cooks pronounced it in the back room or that it was put on the menu that way. But those, it’s tough to know.
TWILLEY: Honestly, one of these stories could be true. We just don’t know.
KUSHNER: But what we do know is basically then by the start of kind of the post war, and some slight protestation from the Chinese nationalist government as well, that shina was derogatory and Japan shouldn’t use that term anymore, it becomes ramen. And so you don’t, after really kind of 1946, you don’t really see shina soba.
GRABER: Basically, we don’t know how the dish was renamed, but we do know that after world war II, ramen became ramen. But actually at that point, there wasn’t much of it around.
TWILLEY: In 1945, when they surrendered, Japan was starving. The official ration from the Japanese government was just 775 calories per person, per day.
KUSHNER: And within the American occupation, there is initially no plan to assist Japan with its food programs. And there was no program to let Japan rebuild economically. They’ll just let Japan go its own way. By the time you get kind of, the fear of the rise of communism in East Asia, the Americans take what’s called the reverse policy, the reverse approach, and they want to bolster Japan because they don’t want it to fall communist.
GRABER: America had had some great wheat harvests and they had more wheat than they needed. So they decided to dump it in Japan as aid to help the country get back on its feet and stop it turning Communist. We talked about this approach in our episode on food aid.
KUSHNER: And they begin to import it into Japan and try to get the Japanese to use it, strangely to make bread. Which was a singular failure, because the Japanese don’t cook bread at home.
TWILLEY: In fact they mostly don’t have ovens at home. But although the bread and cake program didn’t pan out, some of the wheat made it onto the black market, in the form of ramen noodles, and people loved those—here was this warm, nourishing, and by then quite familiar soup that was comforting and reviving and delicious.
GRABER: And cheap. But not as cheap as instant ramen. The story of the invention of the noodles that took over the world, coming up after the break.
KUSHNER: Ando Momofuku, he is the original father of instant ramen. So we do have one person for instant ramen story.
TWILLEY: Finally, an origin story for something to do with ramen that is actually true! But now we’re talking about instant ramen, which is a very different beast. Depending on where you’re from, you might know it as Cup O’ Noodles, Top Ramen, Maruchan—in England we call it Pot Noodle.
GRABER: Basically it’s a block of fried ramen noodles that rehydrate in boiling water, and you add some flavor powder to it—choose the flavor you want—and hey presto, instant meal. In the year 2000, the Japanese people chose Instant Ramen as the greatest invention of the entire 20th century.
TWILLEY: So who *is* this Ando Momofuku guy who invented the century’s greatest invention?
KUSHNER: So Ando Momofuku is a, is kind of an entrepreneur businessman, failed several times. He’s Japanese, but he had grown up in Taiwan. So in a sense, he’s kind of part of the imperial periphery. And then he comes back after the war and he’s penniless. He’s actually, I believe at that point arrested for tax evasion. But he is an inventor and he… wants to create a caloric food stuff for post war Japan that can be easily consumed, really just by adding hot water. He has some contacts with the Bureau of Nutrition people and they’re kind of floundering around for what to do with this wheat with the Americans. And so he begins to fiddle around with instant ramen.
TWILLEY: Momofuku’s inspiration came from the long lines he’d seen for black market ramen in the ruins of his home town of Osaka, in 1945. Obviously ramen was popular and nourishing, but he didn’t think it was perfect. He wanted to improve it by making it non perishable and ready in fewer than three minutes. That was the goal.
KUSHNER: He couldn’t get it right. He kept adding the water and then the noodles will just melt. And so he finally hits upon the idea after years of experimentation, that if you fry the noodles, then they will reconstitute in the hot water. And then he kind of makes the flavor packs, um, as well. And it is just miraculous.
GRABER: To be fair, even this origin story doesn’t tell the whole truth, because while Momofuku did invent and popularize instant ramen, he wasn’t the first person to invent it. It had also been invented a few years earlier by another guy, but that guy didn’t patent it, and he didn’t have all the same government contacts that Momofuku had. Momofuku was just in the right place at the right time and he was a better businessman.
TWILLEY: Momofuku marketed the living crap out of his instant noodles. He got government permission to label instant ramen as a special health food, thanks to the B vitamins he added to the noodle dough. He advertised it on all the brand new TV and radio sets in Japan, complete with a special song, “The Chikin Rāmen Song.”
[CHIKIN RAMEN SONG]
TWILLEY: It was seen as the perfect fast healthy cheap food for men and women working all hours in the new Japan.
KUSHNER: But it’s that kind of push with instant ramen that then becomes an emblem of a reasserting Japa, Japanese working hard late at night, cheap food once again.
TWILLEY: Instant ramen was the fuel to help rebuild Japan.
GRABER: Instant ramen hit the US market in the 70s, here some versions were sold in a styrofoam cup and called cup o noodles, which is how I became acquainted with it in suburban Maryland.
MAN: Mmm, that looks good, Cory. How many noodles do you think are in that bowl of Top Ramen Noodle Soup?
LITTLE KID: I want to tell you something. You count the noodles, okay? And I’ll eat.
GRABER: We have that story and groovy photos from the 70s for our supporters in our special supporters newsletter—if you’d like to be on that list, go to gastropod.com/support.
TWILLEY: And when we say instant ramen hit the US market, we mean exploded! Instant ramen was huge, here, there, and basically everywhere. These days there are billions of packages sold a year, some estimates are that there’s enough instant ramen sold every year for every single human being to eat fourteen bowls of it.
GRABER: One of the things that surprised me is that one of the places in America where instant ramen is the most popular—maybe other than a college campus – is in prison.
GOOSE ALVAREZ: It became the go-to whenever you were incarcerated, you know, because it would blow up in your stomach, keep you full, because it was hard sometimes you didn’t eat very well in there.
TWILLEY: This is Gustavo Alvarez, he goes by his nickname, Goose. And Goose has done some time, eaten some ramen, and published a book about it called Prison Ramen.
ALVAREZ: Frankly, I never tasted it on the streets. I never even heard of it. I’m going to be honest with you. You know, I’m, I’m, I’m Mexican descent, so it’s tortillas and beans, you know, growing up. And I did not come across it ‘til, I guess you could say I started going to juvenile hall, which was in my teens 14, 15, and I would see it at the commissary. And I’m like, what’s that? They go, oh, that’s noodles.
GRABER: At first, Goose wasn’t such a fan.
ALVAREZ: But as you did years or or whatever months in prison, you started to notice how they would cook with it. And you started thinking, man, that smells pretty good. Let me taste it. And then once you try it, you’re like, wow, you know, now you start craving it. Now you start making your own recipes.
TWILLEY: This may be too obvious to even say, but the food in prison is terrible. Goose says that it used to be better, but they cut all the funding.
ALVAREZ: They started giving you what’s called packaged foods, spaceman food. They just open it up, pour water in it, chili beans. Open it up, pour water in it, pasta.
TWILLEY: Which is not super tasty. And also, Goose says, there’s never enough.
ALVAREZ: And most of the guys, they just can’t survive. So they start drawing, they start doing penmanship. They’ll wash your clothes. Whatever it is to make an, an extra can of chili beans, a pack of ramen noodles or some tuna. To keep them going. You know, you have to have a hustle.
GRABER: Ramen was just one of the things you can buy at the commissary with the money from your side hustle. But ramen had a special place among all these ingredients. In prison, ramen became a kind of blank canvas to paint any kind of culinary dreams onto.
ALVAREZ: This is, this is more than just a piece of bread, for some people. This is a noodle that the basic hot water can transform it to something edible. But, it depends on the ingredients you put into it that make it what it is, a dish. You can eat it raw with seasoning on top. You can add your cultural ingredients to it and make it a dish from your—you know, ’cause I’ve I’ve seen dishes from as far as Mexico to Vietnam, to Philippines, to Africa. You can do so much with it that it’s just—everybody in prison and, and even if they don’t eat it, they have it. It’s in their locker. They need to have it. You know, it’s used to barter. You could trade. I mean, it’s a necessity in prison. If they were to take Maru Chan or Cup o Noodles out of the system in prison, I think there’d be mayhem.
TWILLEY: Goose says that ramen was sold for 50 cents a packet at the commissary, although ramen hustlers would buy in bulk and resell it for more in times of shortages or lockdowns.
GRABER: Ramen was a necessity. You had to have it. And then for any other ingredients they might want to add, they might find those at the commissary, or maybe they’d just kind of pocket some extra from the dining hall.
TWILLEY: And then you’ve got to cook it. Goose told us about a frankly lethal sounding hot plate setup you can build with a razor blade and a power outlet to cook your ramen, definitely do not ever try this at home. And of course there are no pots and pans in prison. But NBD, there’s a workaround for that too.
ALVAREZ: Every facility, every dorm, every barrack has what they call a porter, a person that cleans. So he has access to gloves, he has access to plastic bags. So he becomes somebody you barter with. Hey man, here’s a case of soups. I’m going to need these bags, I’m going to need a bucket, a clean bucket. So usually you’ll get the bucket and the bag will be put inside the bucket, right? And you would fill that up with the ramen and the hot water, and then you just tie the bag. And just let it cook.
GRABER: And there’s a lot of cooking going on. Goose’s book is filled with ramen recipes, some of them he made up, some of them he heard about from the guys he was serving time with.
ALVAREZ: You know, because they’re kind of passed down, you know. And they’re going to continue being passed down for a long time. There’s this one recipe I have where you cut the brick in half without separating it, and you spread peanut butter and jelly. A couple raisins, maybe some trail mix on top. There you go. That’s a healthy snack. We used to eat it right before our workout. And, and another is making a sandwich out of it. Leave it just the way it is in the packet. Warm it up. A minute. So it’s still kind of crunchy. And you put bologna, a chees. You have a, we call a ramen witch. Not a man witch, but a ramen witch. Popcorn. Crush it in the bag, put the seasoning in there, watch a movie eating ramen as, as a popcorn. These, these guys from Vietnam showed me how to make teriyaki. Yeah, get, get some strawberry jam and soy sauce. Mix it together with a little bit of garlic powder. Oh, teriyaki. And then there’s this other one that we did with… olives. We were able to get a jar of olives, and there was this mixture, this Persian guy taught me, where you crush all the ramens and you get the, the green olives. And you some of the olive juice, which is kind of weird. But he mixed it all together and made like a paste. I, at first I go, this is the grossest thing ever. But when I ate it, I’m like, Hey man, this is pretty good.
TWILLEY: Listening to Goose describe the wonders that can be created with instant ramen, it almost sounds appetizing. But taste is only part of the point of ramen in prison. It’s about more than that.
GRABER: Which Goose discovered one day when he got a warning from a friend to get back to his cell, and fast.
ALVAREZ: And he’s like, look man, go back to your cell block and about five o’clock-ish everybody’s going to go off with the blacks. They’re going to fight against the blacks. So by the time I got to my cell block, I noticed everybody grouping, all the blacks on one side, all the Hispanics on the other, and the whites were already in their corner, ready to escape. The cops, before it escalated, literally opened up their windows and ran out. And left us in the cell blocks.
TWILLEY: So this is not good. Goose is a smart guy, he hears fights starting to break out and he knows it’s not going to be pretty. So he tried to get out too. But he didn’t want to leave his photos of his kids on the wall to get trashed.
ALVAREZ: So as I was ripping the pages, I was getting mad. I go, I’m not going to take 80 pictures down in time. So I said, I’m not leaving my kids.
GRABER: At this point, it was clear he wasn’t going to be able to get out of there, and a bunch of other Latino guys said they’d stick around with him. And then the gang outside started hammering at their door. And it opened up just a little bit, just enough to start letting people through.
ALVAREZ: In that instant, in that moment, an older black gang member who we never talked to. He was always grumpy. We never said nothing to him, but we left him alone. He left us alone. He stood up, walked directly to the hundred inmates and said, Hey, you guys are not coming in here.
TWILLEY: And this older guy just starts talking, just holding the other guys off, for nearly an hour.
ALVAREZ: I am watching him calm the storm and he calmed them so much to the point where they, they just stopped. He walks back to his locker, grabs a snicker bar, some chips, and gives it to one guy out of a hundred, says to share the food. And so something, bing, clicked in me. I told the guys, go in all these lockers and get all the food, get all the soups, get all the ramen. They’re like, why? I go, man, just do it. I had a little influence there, so they obeyed me and they went and got all the ramens. And we got buckets and just filled them up. And started making what we called a spread. A potluck. Of noodles and sausage and tuna and mixed with ramen and hot water.
TWILLEY: And Goose and his guys made this huge spread. To share with these other guys who just a few minutes earlier were planning to kill them. They all sat down, they ate, they talked.
ALVAREZ: And so I started conversating with my enemy and I made amends, so to speak. It’s a simple noodle. It was the equalizer to… two hardcore enemies, you know. And it’s been a blessing since.
GRABER: For Goose, the blessing of ramen continued when he got out of prison and was able to write about the role it played for him and the guys he knew. You can find those stories and recipes in Goose’s book, Prison Ramen. But instant ramen is like a completely different food compared to the ramen that’s trendy today: hand-made noodles, broth that takes like 30 ingredients and three days to prepare—and, after instant ramen, this artisanal slow-food ramen was the next ramen phenomenon that took over the world. That story, after the break.
MARK HOSHI: The restaurant that I particularly worked at was a number one ranked ramen shop in all of Japan for seven straight years. So it wasn’t just a normal ramen shop that you could find on the corner of Tokyo or Osaka or anywhere else. It was pretty much always packed. There was a two hour wait.
TWILLEY: This is Mark Hoshi, he’s a food consultant behind the website Ramen Culture and he’s Japanese-American. He was born in Tokyo but he grew up in LA. And a little more than a decade ago, he went back to Japan. He fell in love with ramen, quit his job, and apprenticed himself to noodle soup.
GRABER: At the time, ramen chefs were serious celebrities in Japan. They were rock stars. They were gods. People would travel for hours, even fly from far away, just to get a taste of what they were making.
HOSHI: At the time when I was working, basically people queue up at 6:00 AM. Some people will queue up at like 5:00 AM depending on where they’re coming from. People travel from all over Japan, from all, from all over the world as well.
TWILLEY: Last time we met the non-instant kind of ramen, it was black market soup for the working people in postwar Japan. So how exactly did it become the darling of the global gourmet scene?
GRABER: After the 50s, ramen came out from the black market shadows. And even though instant ramen had become popular for a quick meal at home or at work, ramen shops stayed popular in Japan over the decades. It was hot and inexpensive and comforting. There was even a super popular movie in the 80s called Tampopo that’s also referred to as a ramen western.
TWILLEY: In the 70s and 80s, all that ramen-fueled hard work paid off. Japan was not only rebuilt, it was rich. And like most countries, as people got richer, they ate more meat. These types of meaty rich flavors weren’t so unusual in Japanese cuisine anymore by the 80s.
GRABER: But back then, Barak says ramen still wasn’t artisanal food, it was fast food.
KUSHNER: It’s still kind of a second class citizen in some ways, perhaps until the failure of the bubble, in the 1990s.
GRABER: Before the 1990s, Japan and a lot of the world was kind of riding high. The 1980s were full of excess and easy money and business men and the occasional woman on brick-sized cell phones making boatloads of cash. But then that bubble burst.
KUSHNER: And all of these people who didn’t suddenly have work. And some food historians have said, you know, this is where we get this massive proliferation of ramen. It’s really in the late 1980s and early 1990s. When out of work, entrepreneurs, business people, et cetera, need to find someplace small they can set up and make a business, because the economy is floundering once again.
TWILLEY: So lots of these out of work guys started ramen shops all over the country. And they started making this popular casual fast-food a little more slowly, or at least with a little more craft.
GRABER: Different regions had different crops and flavors that were already more common in those regions, and so ramen itself differed from region to region in Japan. And these new small ramen shops usually specialized in one particular style of ramen. And they became tourist attractions.
KUSHNER: So as the Shinkansen, the bullet train in Japan expands, it’s possible to travel more easily around Japan and national campaigns of tourism begin. And one of the ways to get people in from the big urban areas out to your hinterland area in Japan is to sell a popular food item.
TWILLEY: And all of this combined made artisanal ramen and the chefs making these distinctive regional styles—it made them really cool. In Japan, in the 1990s and early 2000s, ramen was a thing.
GRABER: And then, unsurprisingly, ramen, just like instant ramen before it, it started to catch on overseas. This trend really picked up over the past decade.
TWILLEY: Part of this is because for a while everything Japanese was super cool. Japanese denim, Japanese manga, Japanese reality TV, and of course Japanese food.
GRABER: Plus Mark says there was a ready audience just waiting for a grown-up version of one of their favorite childhood foods.
HOSHI: Just like we grew up in McDonald’s, but we wanted more. We have Shake Shack, we have gourmet burgers. So I think us, that generation growing up with Cup of Noodles, helped increase the popularity of craft ramen these days.
TWILLEY: In the late 90s early 2000s, for most people in America, ramen meant instant noodles. Most Americans had no idea there was a better, richer, freshly prepared version of this noodle soup.
GRABER: The beginning of the change is usually credited to David Chang, you might have heard of him, he went to Japan to teach English in the 90s. Like Mark, he fell in love with ramen, and he came back and opened a really popular, really famous restaurant in New York City in 2004 called…Momofuku. And he served fantastic ramen.
TWILLEY: Over the past couple decades, this is a story that has repeated itself over and over. Americans go to Japan, they fall in love with ramen, they come back, they open a restaurant. And then Japanese chefs saw that there was a market here, so they opened restaurants. And today, every major US city worth its salt has at least one craft ramen shop, somewhere that is taking ramen seriously.
GRABER: Seriously, but not always as seriously as Mark would like.
HOSHI: A lot of it is still pre-made. Pre-made soup, pre-made sauce, and it’s very rare for me to see something that’s still made from scratch. So if a, for example, if you see a ramen shop that boasts that they make their own house-made noodles, they are going to be unique.
TWILLEY: Alright, let’s see some noodles!
RAYNEIL DE GUZMAN: Yeah, let’s do it, guys.
GRABER: So of course, we had to go to one of those places that makes everything from scratch. Rayniel De Guzman is one of the owners of The Ramen Shop in Oakland, California, and we watched him dip small metal mesh colanders into boiling water, each one had a single serving of freshly made ramen noodles, and then every so often he lifted the cylinder out of the water and snapped the basket up and down.
[SNAPPING, SHAKING, TAPPING]
DE GUZMAN: This, because it’s so important that the noodles kind of not stick, and that they stay kind of… boiling, and so that they cook as evenly as possible.
TWILLEY: The Ramen Shop in Oakland has been around since 2013, which was in the early days of when ramen was really starting to get super super trendy in the US. It was founded by three friends who met when they were working at Chez Panisse, which is Alice Waters’ restaurant in Berkeley where everything is local and sustainable and delicious.
GRABER: But for Sam White, he’s one of the other owners, he had the David Chang experience, because “craft” was not his first experience of ramen.
SAM WHITE: Yeah, I mean, for me, Cup O’ Noodles. Definitely that was one of the staples growing up and I totally loved it, and then didn’t really think much about it beyond that. And I then got invited to go to Japan, ended up having kind of a revelatory moment at a ramen shop. Where I’m just tasting something that I just never really tasted before. And realizing that it was just missing from my whole diet.
TWILLEY: Sam started talking to his kitchen friends Rayniel and also Jerry, he goes by JJ, and it turned out they too had had similar ramen revelations. And so the three of them tried finding ramen to eat locally in the Bay Area, but there just wasn’t a lot around, and especially nowhere doing the kind of artisanal, sustainable, locavore type cooking that they loved.
GRABER: They were interested in opening their own ramen shop, but they had a learning curve. JJ went to Japan and followed around a ramen chef, Rayniel taught Sam the trick of making alkaline ramen noodles. They messed around with recipes, figured out what was missing, tweaked and tweaked and tweaked.
WHITE: You know, before it felt like it was impossible to make a bowl of ramen. There’s some magical… science happening that you just don’t know about and, you know, we’ll never know. But then suddenly it felt like, oh, we, we can make it. And then we made a couple bowls. We did a, we did a pop up at a friend’s house and they kind of went, oh, you know, I would buy this if this, if this was available.
TWILLEY: So then Sam and Rayniel and JJ opened a restaurant. And it did really well.
WHITE: For the first—for the first couple of years it was a four hour wait. So it, it was, yeah, it was, it was crazy. It was crazy for a while, and we, we didn’t really know how to keep up with demand. And we were running out of noodles every night, because we were making everything fresh.
GRABER: They’re since expanded the restaurant, and the lines aren’t quite as long anymore. But they’re still serving up tons of amazing ramen every day.
TWILLEY: It’s some of the best ramen you’ll ever eat, in my humble opinion. So we went there to get familiar with what goes into a bowl of noodle soup, to turn something that is basically noodles and broth into the kind of thing that people will queue for for hours.
GRABER: Of course at its core, there’s still noodles and broth, with some variations on the theme. The team at The Ramen Shop spends a lot of time on all of their different broths and they make their noodles by hand. But Sam and Rayniel told us that even the broth has two components. There’s the basic broth broth, and then there’s a more concentrated flavor element that you add at the end of heating the broth up so the aromatic compounds don’t boil off.
TWILLEY: This concentrate is called tare. And it’s basically a flavor bomb, kind of like adding a bath bomb to your bathtub. At The Ramen Shop, they have a few different varieties of tare, and we tried one. It was made with three different soy sauces, some dried shiitake mushrooms, and a few different types of dried fish.
GRABER: Okay. I imagine it’s going to be a little intense. Ooh.
TWILLEY: Yowza. It’s kind of like… incredibly delicious though. Like, I, like… I like super delicious, intense, like Marmite
GRABER: The soy and the kind of the, like the sea undertones, the fish. It’s salty. It’s totally delicious.
TWILLEY: In more viscous form I would put it on toast. It’s incredible.
GRABER: Sam and Rayniel mixed the tare into the broth and they prepared our bowls—they brought us three different kinds of ramen. One was a spicy miso ramen that also had pork in the base, and came with a cured egg and some beautiful vegetables. Another was a special ramen they don’t always have, it was a rich beef broth with slices of brisket and of course vegetables and an egg, and then a vegetarian meyer lemon shoyu ramen with mushrooms and eggplant and confit tomato. We were basically in heaven.
GRABER: Oh my god.
TWILLEY: Mmm. wild. It’s even better than I remember it.
GRABER: Wow, that’s good. I’m going to taste the beef broth.
TWILLEY: Oh my goodness. Yeah.
GRABER: It’s really rich without being, like, super oily.
TWILLEY: [GIGGLING] It’s incredibly delicious. That’s incredibly delicious.
GRABER: I’m not sure I have a favorite here.
TWILLEY: They’re so good. Wow. You guys.
WHITE: I’m not hearing a lot of slurping.
TWILLEY: We tried.
GRABER: And failed.
TWILLEY: But we really did try, because there are good, scientific reasons to slurp your ramen.
WHITE: [SLURP SOUND] So you’re sucking in air as you’re taking in the, the noodles and you know, in theory, that’s kind of cooling it down, allowing you to eat it a little bit faster. But if you go to a ramen place in Japan, that’s—that’s what everybody’s doing. That’s kind of an understood part of the process.
GRABER: In another scientific theory, all that air also helps you aerate the aromatics in what you’re eating, so you get more of the flavor notes. That’s why wine people often suck in air through their teeth as they’re tasting. I can’t say I do that with wine, and I wasn’t so great at attempting it with ramen.
TWILLEY: Sam tried to coach us. Everyone gathered round, and offered advice to help us nail the slurp, even Sue Chin Chin, who is the pickle and fermentation queen of The Ramen Shop.
SUE CHIN CHIN: Okay. This is a slurp. [RAPID SLURPING]
GRABER: Okay, so, that was perfect. I think it means I need to do fewer noodles.
TWILLEY: We need to be lower to the bowl.
TWILLEY: That’s where I’m going wrong here.
GRABER: I’m going wrong with not living in Oakland and eating this every day.
GRABER: No. No. I haven’t perfected this yet.
GRABER: I may not have been an expert slurper, though I could not stop eating any of the three bowls. But luckily Sam told me not to worry. There’s no one right way to eat ramen.
WHITE: It’s just kind of your own individual style. I’m definitely an egg last person for whatever reason. But I do, I like to do the noodles first and then focus on the broth. Maybe a little broth as I go. And I definitely know plenty of people who will do the broth and then the noodles last, which is kind of a… that seems like an odd approach to me. But I, you know, again, no judgment. You, you live your own ramen life.
TWILLEY: People can get quite serious about ramen but the thing to know is that actually not only can you eat it however you like, it can kind of be whatever you like. There are ramen rules but there are really no ramen rules!
WHITE: Ramen is a new thing on the time scale of food and Japan and our kind of cultural history. So, Oftentimes Americans have this idea of like, oh, you know, what, what is traditional ramen? And there’s not really traditional ramen. And if you look at the leading kind of ramen people in Japan, they’re doing all sorts of crazy things. And putting Parmesan, and all these things that don’t really make you think of ramen, on their ramens. Because it’s meant to be a little bit playful.
TWILLEY: I mean, what’s not to love? No wonder ramen has caught on all round the world. As a trend, it’s still growing, with new shops and new styles, though Barak says it’s maybe peaked in Japan.
GRABER: But while there may be ramen highs and ramen lows, we may someday get to a time when ramen shops don’t have lines around the corner, it’s never going to totally go out of style. It’s fun to eat, and it’s delicious.
KUSHNER: When it’s hot and you slurp it, it’s addicting. I’ve only met one person in my life who dislikes ramen. And. You know, I have my reservations about that individual.
GRABER: Thanks this episode to Barak Kushner, Goose Alvarez, and Mark Hoshi, we have links to their books and sites on our website, gastropod.com. And thanks so much to everyone at The Ramen Shop for hosting us, it was amazing.
TWILLEY: Thanks also to our fabulous producer Claudia Geib. And we’ll be back in just a week with dessert. Time to make the donuts!