The History of Ramen (A Worldbuilding Exercise) (To Write & Have Written)

How did a war for natural resources in Korea lead to a ubiquitous American college food? Let’s talk about how in real life everything is connected, and how we can use that to make our fictional worlds more robust, cohesive, and fascinating.

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So welcome. As I said before, when absolutely nobody could hear me happy Tuesday evening if you are with me and if not if you are in somewhere else, then happy time zone to you and may the sound waves bless you and and all of these things. I have no idea what was going on. But tonight we are talking about the history of ramen and this is partly just because it’s fun and interesting. But also I want to think about it as a world building exercise.

So often we think about things that are, you know, as isolated incidents. And what I really am trying to convey here is everything is connected. What you may have heard a couple of times on the show and history is art is sociology, is geology is — all of these things are blended. You really can’t pull them apart. So we’re going to look at something like food and find out where it came from. So that sounds really large and overbearing.

But we’re also just going to have fun to talk about food.

So let’s jump over here and really hope that with whatever was going on, my my slide deck is still here. Hey, look, pictures of food.

That’s a great start. OK, so. Oh yeah.

Yep. Bridger you slipped in just in. Perfect timing, just as the microphone finally decided to talk to the interweb. Yeah. So yes, it is noodles. Grace says, “Everything is connected. There’s only one noodle in a bowl of ramen.” That’s the spoiler. Don’t give away the twist ending. OK, yeah. All right.

OK, so we are going to try to get through this and and yeah.

And yeah, for whatever reason, the things are laid out very oddly. My notes are going to be far over here.

I’m not touching anything given what just happened. So. Yes, yes. Oh hey, WorkAppropriateGoth, welcome back. Tonight is all about noodles. Let’s do this.

So on the screen you will see some photos. Lucky, lucky me. I get to take both of these photos on the same day in the same outing and yeah, I ate so much freakin food in Japan, but Japan has a lot of really, really good food. On the left here, you’ll see their famous white strawberries.

They’re amazing. If you get a chance to try them, please do. Oh no, Grace is hungry. Yes. Sorry, this is going to be a bad presentation for you. And then there’s the taiyaki on the right, which are the traditional fish shaped pastries typically filled with traditionally filled with azuki, the red bean paste, which is awesome. And I love that too, but can be filled with other things. But as wonderful as these things are, what is actually better known over here in the West is ramen.

And I still encounter people, you know, on the other day I mentioned, oh man, I’m really craving some ramen and somebody, “Oh, ramen??” OK.

If you’ve only ever encountered ramen as the little cups of Styrofoam and plastic and they have some sort of salty thing inside and that’s. Yeah that’s nice. We are going to talk about that too. That’s not what we’re here to talk about. That’s not real ramen. Please, please don’t short yourself, but ramen comes in a lot of different regional variations that have all made their way over here in some form. And and so that’s what we’re going to talk about tonight.

So there we go. So what is ramen?

Because actually, for as ubiquitous as it is, it’s a relatively recent development in the grand scheme of things.

So first of all, in Japanese, this is actually a much longer word than we say it.

In English, we think of it as ramen, two syllables. Ra A Me N. And you’ll notice it’s always in katakana because it is a foreign word.

We think it comes from the Chinese word lamien. And by the way, my Chinese, anything, any form of a Chinese language for me, I’m really, really bad. So I just apologize in advance. Allegedly, the Takuya Shokudo, which was a ramen shop up in the north that was a relatively famous shop, used a blend of Chinese and Japanese to to announce when their noodles were ready. And so that is one theory of the etymology of the word.

There’s a lot of things that you’ll read around on the Internet.

Basically, the short version is it’s probably related to the Chinese word for soft noodles. And if anybody tells you, they know for certain. Beyond that, I’m just, you know, can I get a good guess on that?

So but if you start looking around and reading about ramen, you’re going to encounter this this story of that was kind of developed to legitimize ramen, which is which is a little bit funny for reasons we’ll cover in just a moment. But you will read that Tokugawa Mitsukuni was the first person to eat ramen back in the 17th century and a visiting Chinese scholar who had been exiled, you know, came over and they made noodle dishes together and with these ingredients that were recorded.

And this was the first ramen, except this probably isn’t true. What’s funny is that as again, as I said, the story usually gets passed around to give ramen some sort of an older heritage because it is a relatively recent development.

But it’s not necessary because ramen’s actual heritage is much, much older. If we go back and look at the documents from the Shokukuji — Sorry, I ran out of, I was stressing about the things going wrong on the tech and ran out of drink right before I went live. So now my mouth is really dry. I’m sorry.

But anyway, the priests in Inryokan were developing new recipes from Chinese documents back in the 15th century. So even earlier. And this they called keitaimen and they used, one particular priest was experimenting with it and started serving it in 1488. And so this is considered to be the first appearance of Chinese noodles in Japanese cookery. And so I took this photo at the Ramen Museum. Of course I did.

Right. So I just want to pull out this amazing excerpt. Osen, senior of Shokukuji, visited me and stayed overnight in my house. We undressed, lay in our beds and sipped tea while chatting. I prepared keitaimen and suggested that he eat it. We did not drink liquor, only tea. I had Yozo accompany us. We wrote and read a few poems before stopping. And I absolutely love this idea of doing this.

Basically this noodle slumber party like, hey, let’s hang out and drink tea and write poems and oh my gosh, you brought me water. That is awesome. Thank you, Seeker.

So they’re just, they’re just sipping tea and writing poems and hanging out. And I just think that’s hilarious.

Oh my gosh. It’s so much better. OK, awesome.

So fast forward. So we’ve got noodle dishes making their way slowly into Japan, but they’re pretty fringe. And even by the nineteenth century they exist. But they’re not super prevalent. They’re just, you know, they’re showing up and low key local society.

But jump forward to the end of the 19th century when we have this war between China and Japan, mostly over Korea, because Korea had been a client state of China for a long, long time.

Japan kind of liked Korea’s location, very good situation for defense. And Korea had a lot of natural resources that Japan kind of had their eye on and ultimately ended in war. There were other things, too. Russia was involved, you know, all kinds of stuff going on, but there was a war. Now, at this point, if you know anything about Japanese history, Japan is fresh off the Meiji revolution.

So they just had a huge modernization. They’re very much embracing Western cultural advances at this point. So, you know, they’re bringing in lots of, lots more modern guns. They’re bringing in, they’re Westernizing and modernizing their military. You know, all of these sorts of things. China is has not been doing those things. And what’s interesting is if you think back to Perry’s black ships and the forceable opening of Japan, that’s pretty much exactly what Japan did to Korea, like, “hey, we see that you’ve got this closed culture and you’re not interested in outside trade. But we actually would like that. So we’re just going to come in and do the thing.” So it’s just pretty much a flip there.

But China is not equipped for modern warfare in the way that Japan very newly was.

The Chinese Navy is in a sad, sad state because the emperor had not kept it up. There’s a story and actually I learned first that the previous Empress Cixi had spent all the money delegated for the Navy on a new summer palace. And that’s actually what I learned first.

Well, surprise. Turns out that’s probably not true. That’s probably just, let’s drag the dead that empress’s name through the mud to cover up our current mistakes. And they actually have some records where she left orders on how the Navy should be maintained and all of these things of her death.

And yeah, that’s history, man. So anyway, all of that to say that China loses this war and China recognizes, much in the way that Japan had just a couple of decades before, that they’re going to need to modernize. They’re going to need to adapt what they’ve been doing. So one of the things they do is they send more students to Japan to study in this more modernizing society and see how they’ve been doing it. So by 1906, we’ve actually peaked, they’ve sent about twelve thousand students over to study. And just like any college town here in the U.S., those college students are hungry. They want they want cheap, fast food. So Chinese noodle shops just start popping up everywhere to to serve, you know, all of these students and then, you know, any of the Japanese nationals who would also like to be eating this cheap, fast food.

So Rairaiken in Asakusa is generally considered the first ramen shop.

Nobody really knew to be paying attention and stick a pin on it. But that’s it. But two to three thousand customers a day during peak times, which is pretty amazing.

So this is when those Chinese noodle recipes start to develop into what we think of today as ramen. So we’re using pork and chicken bones. We’re using really rich, thick broth and all of these things.

At the same time, Chinese cooking in general was becoming more popular in Japan, which is helping to drive this need, this desire for this new kind of ramen. So there’s tuberculosis and cholera outbreaks that are happening through Japanese society. Tuberculosis at the time was believed to be connected to a lack of animal protein and fat in the diet. So Chinese food had more of those things naturally in it than Japanese traditional diet did. And cholera obviously has a connection to hygiene.

Chinese food is more often cooked. A lot of Japanese food was eaten raw. So there was a trend to adapt more of Chinese cooking anyway going on.

And so you see that by the 1920s we’ve got ramen recipes showing up in cookbooks and in newspaper columns and all of these places.

So it’s becoming much more mainstream. And then the Great Kanto earthquake hits. I do not even know how to summarize this in a in a quick way and still get across the enormous impact. This is an incredible natural disaster. This is September 1st, 1923. We know over 100,000 people died. If we count how many people disappeared and we never found bodies for, that number goes up to over 140,000 people.

One hundred and forty thousand people.

This was a huge disaster. Yokohama is a city of a half million people. It’s a port city. It is basically wiped out.

What you’re looking at here on the screen is a photograph of Yokohama. And if you notice, it’s flat all the way across. That’s a half million person port city just absolutely leveled. This does lead to the rebuilding of basically modern Tokyo, but it was enormously devastating. And I did find this picture of, taken at Sensou-ji. You’ve definitely seen photos of Sensou-ji. It’s the oldest, it’s a huge shrine in Tokyo. It’s the oldest shrine in Tokyo. And you can just that’s what it looks like today. And that’s what it looked like immediately following the earthquake.

Because of the way the winds were at the time, so the earthquake hits, a tsunami rushes in after the earthquake. Everything that went down with the earthquake and then the flood that tore apart water mains and it tore apart gas. And of course, you’ve got a lot of natural lighting happening going on.

And the fires catch, as they always do after earthquakes. The winds really, really fueled the fires. People are fleeing the fires, they’re rushing onto the bridges. The bridges are collapsing because there’s thousands of people on them. It is absolutely horrific.

And then near there’s an area near the Sumida River where forty, forty five thousand people gathered trying to escape the fires.

And just because of the winds and the other things, a fire tornado develops and kills those 45000 people just in that one lot pressed together.

It was absolutely horrific. This went on for a couple of days. The fires were out of control. All kinds of things. Lots of ugly stuff happened at this time that is related to the natural disaster, but was not part of the natural disaster. So, as always, you’ve got a natural disaster, rumors start being passed on. The Koreans setting fires. They’re cutting off the water. They’re setting fires. They’re doing all these things.

So some people, vigilantes were setting up roadblocks to stop, you know, people trying to escape. And if they found a Korean person, they would kill them. We have estimates that, I don’t think I wrote it down, how many thousands of Koreans were killed at this time by these vigilantes.

This actually gave a massive shot in the arm to the nationalism, which is going to show up in 15 years in another war that you might be familiar with.

Huge, huge disaster. So Tokyo’s, you know, pretty much leveled and people move out of the city to try to recover elsewhere while the city is being rebuilt.

And so now you have basically this large exodus of this concentrated culture. And this is where the different ramen gets carried out into other parts of the country. And those regional variations begin to start. And you can trace that back to to this. So this is where you’re starting to get all these regional ramens that we see today.

So after this huge disaster — I’m going to check on the chat real quick.

Yeah, OK. Yeah, sorry. Scary and holy moly.

Yeah. There’s, it’s an amazing, there’s some there’s some really good articles about that earthquake that you can find. I think the Smithsonian has some that you can read free online on their website. There’s just, it’s a horrific event.

So OK, so all this happened, you know, people are trying to rebuild and there’s a one of the books that comes out to kind of assist people who are, you know, destitute after this event and it suggests set up a noodle street stall because you can get started for so cheap and you can make money doing this.

And it actually says, you know, you can get 20 to 30 yen of profit every day because your supplies are cheaper and then you can turn this around to people who need to buy something at a street stall. And it’s really, really hard to get an adjustment for 1920s yen to modern.

I can get reliable numbers back to the 50s and then it becomes guesswork. But my best guess when I was looking at this is that you’re looking to clear about fourteen dollars a day in profit. So that’ll tell you the the state of things there.

In 1937 we have another war. So resources are really strained. The government’s really promoting being very cautious about, you know, food and, you know, making sure you prevent waste and don’t overindulge. And so they’re suggesting like have rice and pickled plum and that’s a complete lunch.

So there is a lot of a lot of constraint, a lot of limitation going on. So, again, we’re looking for food that is available and cheap.

  1. And of course, we’re starting to get into World War two and we’re starting rationing, including rice rationing, so noodles not made from rice becoming a little more attractive because we don’t have those staples, so.

But when World War Two ends, all of those soldiers come back, of course, you’ve got a huge hit from from losing the war, economic and morale and all of this morale. And then the rice harvest fails in 45. So everything is awful.

The short version, government food distribution is in an absolute shambles. What I was finding was that distribution was running roughly three weeks behind. So if you’re saying, hey, I need stock, I need to stock my store or hey, I need food for my kids. OK, great. We’ll talk to you in three weeks. And obviously, this is not sustainable. This is going to get in trouble.

So black market becomes a thing and it becomes so much of a thing. But just in Tokyo alone, it’s estimated 45,000 black market stalls set up under bridges in the streets of these things.

So this is a photo. This is a 1946 picture, Shinbashi in Tokyo of the utilities. It says the Shinbashi outside free market. Free market means we’re not going to bother with paperwork about where these goods may have come from. Right? So while this is going on, ramen is a hot, calorie rich, cheap food. So it’s becoming very popular in this scene. And then as they’re cracking down on these stalls, those those ramen chefs — which were for a long, long time up until this point, were primarily Chinese chefs doing this. But now you’re starting to get Japanese chefs making their own ramen as these black markets take off. So your regional variants are becoming more and more distinct. As you know, people are separating and and dealing with this.

And I like this. Yeah. ShyRedFox will like this: By 1945, 90 percent of these black market stalls are under yakuza “protection” because, again, it is such a huge industry. The rice is failing. The Americans are bringing in wheat and in postwar. And so you have some some of these wheat shipments are being diverted.

You know, just all kinds of things going on. But the advantage for ramen here, it’s super, super cheap. You can make ramen from things that are being chucked out by other industries. So the bones, the scraps of vegetables, anything, you can throw that into that broth and it becomes something that you can use during these really lean periods.

And then by the end of this, now it’s legal to have these street stalls where we’re going to just set up some rules for having them. And you can rent yatai, which are vendor carts. So a company would rent you a cart that would include the cart, the noodles, the bowls, the chopsticks. Like everything you need, you’d go out, sell ramen and have profit at the end of the day because they’re giving you basically a kit to go be a ramen vendor for a day.

So. All right. So then I’m going to jump forward to help over and check the chat real fast. Yeah. Protection. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Kate, grab that pork bone, make some ramen. OK, so jump forward, in 1958 on Ando Momofuko remembered seeing people standing in line for black market ramen. So he was looking at like how can we make cheaper, more accessible food.

And so he invents instant ramen in his garden shed, which is awesome.

And he borrowed his wife’s technique for tempura, flash frying the noodles. And so he wanted to make something that was inexpensive and accessible. But because of the way it got started and it was you know, it’s a limited item, it’s actually a luxury item when it first hits the market. Which I think is hilarious because we don’t think of, like, you know, freeze dried ramen noodles today as being a luxury item, but when they first hit the market, they were quite pricey.

And then four years later on, he also developed cup noodles, which is what probably a lot of people are more familiar with today. And so these are, they’re in the market. And then in 1972, we have the Asama Sanso incident.

This is another fairly dramatic story. So you’ve got pockets of far left student groups in Japan and they’re not terribly popular. They’re not terribly influential, but they do exist. And they’re having some internal strife for a number of reasons.

And one of them known as the United Red Army was — the chair and the vice chair decided to do do some self-evaluation.

And then we’re going to purge everyone who doesn’t meet criteria and purge means exactly what you think it means.

They beat eight of their members to death. They tie six to trees to freeze in the winter in the mountains. The police are moving, you know, there’s there’s conflict with the police. Some of the members are captured. Five of them flee into the mountains and take refuge at a mountain resort. And this is a standoff.

It’s a hostage situation. They take the wife of the caretaker.

All the guests are out ice skating when they come in and take over the lodge. So they’ve got her. And it’s a hostage situation for a week. And it’s a huge news event. Everybody’s following this. The final day of the standoff when the police actually go in. It is a 11 hour news marathon. It’s a huge, like nonstop live coverage, which is a big, big deal in the 70s. That’s not, you know, what we had today with constant news networks.

And so that that while the police are there in the winter in the mountains, you know, trying to keep watch on this situation, it’s too cold to bring in bento or your normal boxed lunches.

They’re going to be freezing in this environment. But you know what you can do? You can pour boiling water into cup noodles. And so everybody on TV watched the police eating cup noodles during this super dramatic event. And it was a massive boost for cup noodles. It’s generally credited for bringing cup noodles into prominence. So it’s one of those things like the the random, nobody would have predicted that this hostage situation would be advertising for instant ramen. But here we are.

So that’s how that went down. Yeah. So anyway, so sorry, I’m gonna throw out like cup noodles are not particularly great for you and they’re not particularly great for the environment. So use with, with advisement. But that’s how, that’s how they got their launch.

So just really quickly, like why what makes what makes these even different? Chinese noodles, what makes them Chinese noodles, as opposed to anything else. What makes ramen ramen is that it’s made with lye water and that changes the texture of the noodles. They don’t get mushy, so you get a little different texture to them. If they don’t have, sorry, if you don’t have lye water, it’s actually just probably going to be odon.

And so for people who write historically like me, that used to be done with plant ash before you purchased lye water as its own food product. But now it is all done commercially, of course. And then ramen uses a very custom made specialty broth made specifically just for ramen, whereas most traditional Chinese noodle dishes are using, you know, the same broth you might see in any other dish. And ramen is especially known for its umami. And you’ve probably heard the word umami.

It comes from umai, which is delicious and mi, which is taste. It’s a portmanteau of those two words and it was identified in 1908 first from sea kelp. And what gives it that particular meaty filling taste. But it’s been identified is there’s a number of different food acids that exist in a number of different products that will come together.

And what’s cool about umami is you just need if you use one, you get one. If you use two, you get two. But if you put them together, they actually become, they boost each other. And so you can. What’s great about ramen is, it traditionally uses many sources of umami. So it just gets more and more and more and more, almost exponentially complex, so that is how we get really fantastic, delicious varieties of ramen. And now I actually kind of want to eat some, but there we go.

OK, so. All right. So just catching the chat. “Every cloud has a silver lining, but this one is a really freaking weird silver lining.” Right. Like and this is my point is that we’re developing worlds and we’re developing histories like we need to look at all the things because there is a lot that that is is going on.

We like to think that that everything is straightforward and neatly compartmentalized, but it is not at all straightforward and it is rarely compartmentalized. So just checking through. “Going to find some ramen, BRB.”

I know. Bring some back for me. Field trip to Japan. I wish, I’m so, I’ve got all my digits crossed that I’m going later this year. If 2021 stays on target where it’s supposed to and everything it gets cleared that would be great.

So anyway so yeah that’s my little world building field trip through ramen and how everything is connected. So yeah, if you guys have questions I will be happy to do my best to answer them. And if not, that’s, that’s what I had for tonight. So yeah.

ShyRedFox thank you. I hope I can too. And I’ll cross a couple of extra digits for you. I’ve got plenty of digits we can share. We’ll be good. So. All right. What’s my favorite flavor? I don’t, usually I’m that person who asks for the less salty ramen. I find I’m pretty sensitive to salt in general and it’s real easy for the other flavors to get overwhelmed just because I taste so much salt. So I, I prefer to I just prefer to ask for whatever is the lowest salt broth that they have going.

And then I’m pretty happy after that. But those eggs, the soft boiled eggs, I hate — I don’t hate. That’s too strong a word. I’m not a fan of hard boiled eggs in most cases, like I will eat them, but they’re not awesome on their own. But for whatever reason, you drop an egg in ramen and let it do its thing, and that’s amazing. And you can just stick an extra egg in my ramen and that’s fine.

So, OK, so Bridger asks — and it is not remotely a dumb question because I can’t answer it, so I have to really quickly raise the level of the question — how different are real ramen and… I’m so sorry. I know it’s [pho] not “faux,” but I can’t, I can’t actually recall the correct pronunciation, but anyway, so the answer is I, I’m sitting here kicking myself because I don’t actually remember how to pronounce the other dish. So anyway, you can tell like where my lines are in expertise and fluency. And so I can’t answer that because obviously if I can’t even say the name of the dish, I certainly can’t give you its cultural parameters. But if anybody in the chat has an answer, I will be glad to pass that question to somebody with more knowledge than me. So “hard boiled egg not-fans unite.” See yeah, like that. Just stick it in ramen and I’m all good.

OK, pho, fuh, fuh.

I really need to hear like eight more times. I live in Indiana. I don’t get to hear it said correctly very often. So I have very low confidence in my ability to, to say it correctly. So ok but PhiPhi and Bridger think it’s fuh so I’m going to, I’m going to go with that like phu. Like Fuji. Okay, so, so yes.

Grace says it’s so weird to think of going places again. I actually don’t want to hear that from you Grace, because you’ve been able to leave your house for the last year just because you were in New Zealand where, you know, people got their act together an