Archive for Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Ramen renaissance: Instant noodles surging in popularity

An order for a bowl of ramen noodles is filled, right, at Ippudo, a Japanese ramen noodle brasserie in New York.

An order for a bowl of ramen noodles is filled, right, at Ippudo, a Japanese ramen noodle brasserie in New York.

July 2, 2008

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Inside a Japanese ramen noodle brasserie in New York.

Inside a Japanese ramen noodle brasserie in New York.

On the street

How often do you eat instant (ramen) noodles?

Never. There’s too much sodium, it bloats you. And they’re not that filling. I’m just not satisfied after I eat them.

More responses

— Nearly four decades after the first instant ramen noodle factory opened in the U.S., Japan's beloved comfort food finally is making inroads - even achieving cult status - in a nation where burgers and pizza still rule.

Once considered just a bargain meal for cash-starved college students, ramen noodles suddenly are commanding as much as $15 or more a bowl in sleek New York noodle shops.

"We are living in a ramen moment," says Alan Richman, GQ magazine food critic who wrote his first ramen review after dining at Ippudo NY. In March, the restaurant became the first branch outside Japan of a highly regarded noodle shop chain.

"It's been discovered by people like me who were ignorant," Richman says. "It's the food of the moment."

Ippudo NY landed in New York's East Village, where celebrated Korean-American chef David Chang already was drawing hordes of customers to his stylish Momofuku Noodle Bar, which opened in 2004.

Shortly after Chang's debut, Ramen Setagaya, another popular Japanese ramen chain, opened here, winning New York magazine's "best ramen" award this year.

The essence of ramen is a rich broth, often made from pork bones, and thin, slightly chewy noodles, garnished with such toppings as sliced pork, hard-boiled eggs, seaweed, scallions, fish cake, mushrooms, even corn kernels.

The dish originated in China; the very name comes from the Chinese words for hand-pulled wheat flour noodles.

"Like most things, the Japanese imported the idea from another culture and have taken it to the extreme," says Chang, who is known for insisting on only the finest ingredients for his soups, including specially bred Berkshire pork.

But for years, most Americans settled for much less - instant ramen still can be had for as little as six packs for $1.

Last year, 738 million pounds of ramen (or 4 billion individual packets) were devoured in the United States, a 4 percent increase over 2006, according to Nissin Food Products Co. of Japan.

And worldwide, the demand for instant noodles is huge - Nissin sales of more than $3.2 billion annually. China consumes the most, followed by Indonesia and Japan, according to the World Instant Noodles Association.

But it's the ramen restaurants, or ramenya, that are most revered in Japan. It boasts 80,000 of them. There's also a famous ramen museum near Tokyo, as well as a Japanese television program where ramen chiefs compete - Ippudo's founder, Shigemi Kawahara, has won it three times.

Americans may have gotten their first inkling of Japan's obsession with ramen in 1987, when the Japanese film "Tampopo" was released in the U.S. and became a cult hit. The so-called noodle Western tells the story of a truck driver who rides into town and helps a young widowed noodle shop owner perfect the art of making a bowl of ramen.

Ken Sasahara, president of Nissin Foods (USA) Co., which opened its first factory in California in the early 1970s, credits instant noodles with helping spark the wave of ramen bars that have sprung up across the country. The arrival of Ippudo has raised the stakes, he says, and could trigger intense ramen battles similar to ones found in Tokyo.

Rickmond Wong, a Web designer and self-proclaimed ramen expert who writes about his favorite topic on at rameniac.com, has closely monitored the gradual emergence of high-quality, authentic ramen shops in the Los Angeles area.

He believes it's tied to the growing economic clout of Asian nations and American enthusiasm for all things Japanese, including animation, video games, cartoons and food.

"These days people are interested (in Japanese pop culture) in a much more sophisticated manner than in the past, when aspects of a foreign culture were typically exoticized and viewed through a post-colonialist lens - 'Oh, look at what strange things these people eat,"' he says. "It's high time for ramen to take its place in the pantheon of a multicultural American diet."

Wong, who eats about 200 bowls of ramen a year and has sampled noodles at many of the dozens of ramen restaurants in Los Angeles, complains that "the bulk of them" are "fairly mediocre." But he does have his favorites: Santouka, a branch of a Japanese chain, as well as two independent shops, Asa Ramen and Gardena Ramen.

In New York, ramen lovers compare notes on places like Menchanko-Tei, Menkui-Tei, Rai Rai Ken, Ramen Setagaya and Momofuku, many of them clustered in the East Village but some located in prime midtown locations.

While the pricier joints may charge as much as $16 for a bowl of ramen, it's also possible to slurp a bowl, shoulder to shoulder with a mostly Japanese clientele, for well under $10.

Chang, who studied with a great ramen chef in Japan before opening Momofuku, gets credit for introducing ramen to a largely non-Asian clientele.

"He played a big part in making people aware of ramen," says Toshiya Suganuma, the secretary of Ippudo. "He may have opened up a gate. It was good for us."

As "Tampopo" cheerfully demonstrates, making top-notch ramen isn't easy - or cheap.

Ippudo goes through nearly 300 pounds of top-quality pork bones a day, Suganuma says. It took months for the Japanese chefs to perfect their recipes, eventually settling on White Pearl flour (from winter wheat) and filtered New York tap water for the noodles and Berkshire pork for the broth.

Suganuma is such a purist that he won't sell ramen to go at his restaurant - a gesture that may baffle New Yorkers, who practically survive on take-out food.

Why? "Noodles get soggy," he says.

Wong, the self-described rameniac, says he plans to visit New York to try Ippudo, testing his theory that real ramen has finally arrived in the United States.

"We are in ramen renaissance," he says.

Ramen Noodle Sushi, served with wasabi dipping sauce, is both fun to make and eat.

Ramen Noodle Sushi, served with wasabi dipping sauce, is both fun to make and eat.

Ramen noodle sushi

3-ounce package instant ramen noodles, seasoning packet discarded

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon seasoned rice vinegar

Wasabi paste or powder, to taste

3 sheets sushi nori seaweed, each cut in half

1 carrot, cut into thin matchsticks

1/2 small cucumber, peeled, seeded and cut into thin strips

2 scallions, ends trimmed, cut into 2-inch lengths

6 cooked shrimp, tails and shells removed

Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. Add the ramen noodles and cook until just tender, about 2 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool for about 10 minutes. Every few minutes, toss with a fork to prevent excessive sticking.

Divide the noodles into six portions.

Meanwhile, to prepare the dipping sauce in a small bowl mix the soy sauce, rice vinegar and wasabi paste. Set aside.

One at a time, carefully roll each half sheet of nori into a cone. Dip a finger in water and rub it along the far edge of the nori and press it against the cone. The wet edge helps seal the cone. You may need to do this several times to get it to stick.

Place one portion of the noodles in the cone, then add strips of carrot, cucumber and scallions. Finish by placing 1 shrimp in each cone, then arrange on a plate. Serve with the wasabi dipping sauce.

Crispy, pan fried noodles make this Ramen Noodle Salad a hit in the dorm or at home.

Crispy, pan fried noodles make this Ramen Noodle Salad a hit in the dorm or at home.

Ramen noodle salad

3 tablespoons toasted sesame or peanut oil

2 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar

2 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons canola oil

Pinch red pepper flakes

3-ounce package instant ramen noodles, seasoning packet discarded, noodles broken into small pieces

2 tablespoons sesame seeds

10-ounce bag baby spinach greens

1 bunch scallions, finely chopped

1 green apple, cored and cut into matchsticks

1/4 cup dried cranberries

To make the dressing, in a small bowl, whisk together the sesame oil, rice vinegar, honey and soy sauce. Set aside.

In a medium skillet over medium heat, combine the canola oil and red pepper flakes. Heat for 30 seconds, then add the noodles and sesame seeds. Cook, stirring constantly, until golden, about 8 minutes.

Transfer the noodle mixture to a bowl and let cool 10 minutes. Add the spinach, scallions and apple slices, then drizzle with dressing and toss to coat. Top with dried cranberries.

- Associated Press recipes

Comments

Ragingbear 6 years, 10 months ago

All shall behold His Noodly Appendage! Ramen!

supernik 6 years, 10 months ago

I LOVE RAMEN NOODLES!!! with prices on everything out of control its the one way i can afford to bring a lunch to work. thank god they have so many flavors. funny thing though - i would never feed it to my kids - wayyy too unhealthy for little bodies

igby 6 years, 10 months ago

Those little packets of seasoning is just working great for melting the ice on the sidewalk in the winter months.

acg 6 years, 10 months ago

I don't even think I could smell ramen noodles these days without hurling. I can't believe I ate those things back in the day. Ramen and mac n cheese was my entire diet for two years. Ugh!

countrygirl 6 years, 10 months ago

I don't mind ramen once in a while but the sodium levels are awful!

CrazyDiamond 6 years, 10 months ago

The 1900mg of sodium per package isn't the only issue. Did you ever notice the calorie count on these bad boys? 380 calories per package (2 servings). And who only cooks one package at a time?

Sean Livingstone 6 years, 10 months ago

Countrygirl,You can get those low-sodium ramen from some oriental markets. Typically, the ones from Korea and some from Taiwan and Hong Kong do have lower sodium level.If not, do what I always do, throw away the sodium pack, cook it in your own broth, and just use the noodles. Make sure you pack it with some fresh vegetables and meat.

Christine Pennewell Davis 6 years, 10 months ago

I'm sorry but 15 bucks for ramen noodle? so much for starving college kids in ny.

Confrontation 6 years, 10 months ago

Anyone else remember the Baked version of Ramen? They had fewer calories and less fat.

Mike Blur 6 years, 10 months ago

The ramen you comment posters talk about is different from the ramen discussed in the article. I've seen fresh ramen in Honolulu grocery stores, package of 10 for $5. Its reasonable, but fresh ramen is chewier and softer than "Kansas ramen" or even Italian pasta. It's sold in freezers, just like frozen pizza! When you first eat it, it feels like eating worms! Definitely an acquired palate sensation.I usually like to dress up "Kansas ramen" my own hybrid way. Throw away the spice packet, wash and rinse the noodles, then prepare a light broth with scallions, limu (squares of seaweed) kamaboko (fish cake; those little pink and white circles you see in some soups) and any off the shelf spices that strike my fancy. Throw in a couple slices of meat (pork, spam or Portuguese sausage) bring to a simmer, then pour into a large bowl and top off with Sriracha sauce! Takes about 20 minutes, aprox. 80c-$1 a bowl, and so much better than the boil-and-packet method.

dweezil222 6 years, 10 months ago

I once had a buddy teach me how to make a meal based on ramen that included all five food groups. Add instant mashed potatoes and sliced carrots for vegetables, bologna for meat, a couple of Kraft singles for dairy, and a little can of mandarin oranges or pineapple for fruit. The whole thing costs like $1.25.

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