If there's been one recurring theme in my historical food columns in the last year, it is this: War causes food.
So many foods - from Spam to cream-of soups to carbonara - were born of or made popular because of war. However, there are those in the world who see food as a solution, or preventative for war and violence. It's no secret that various revolutions and rebellions were fought because of hunger. Some believe that ending hunger could prevent war, and it makes sense.
After all, criminals steal to prevent going hungry. People who worry about their economic well-being cannot only be swayed to commit crimes, but to support wars against people and countries they believe contribute to their unease. No loss of worldly possessions or property can trigger a more natural or instinctual insecurity as hunger.
One man thought that instant ramen could be a solution to that insecurity.
Ramen is a wheat noodle that is originally from China. While it seems like just any noodle would do for ramen, it's traditionally made with glutinous wheat and an alkali mixture called lime water, which gives the noodles a yellowish cast and an important, springy-chewy texture.
China invented ramen, but Japan invented instant ramen. Two wars weighed heavily in our current view of ramen. Japan had known of ramen, then called "shina soba" (Chinese soba noodles), since 1910, when a customs agent from Yokohama opened a restaurant in Tokyo.
Its popularity only exploded with the 1937 Japanese invasion and occupation of Tianjin in China. Even then it was popular for its affordability among the working class.
World War II nearly ended the ramen craze in Japan. Not only was wheat flour rationed strictly, but profitable restaurants and food carts were prohibited until 1949. Selling ramen was basically illegal. You literally had to buy it from the black market. According to New York university history professor George Solt (via firstwefeast.com), people were actually jailed for selling ramen during the war.
Ramen restaurants did return after the war, in part as a cheap alternative to western food flooding the nation. Like cream-of soups, ramen was versatile, nostalgic, affordable and readily available. It was the ultimate comfort food for a broken nation.
In case you can't tell, this was not really the ramen we have today. This was a higher quality with fresher noodle suitable for restaurant fare. Packaged instant ramen didn't appear until 1958.
Momofuku Ando, founder of the Nissin Food Products Co., created instant ramen. According to Gizmodo.com, instant ramen was selected as the greatest Japanese innovation of the 20th century in the year 2000. It had long been an important food with great aspirations behind it and it had been an important contribution to the Japanese ever since they started rebuilding following WWII.
Ando's decision to get into the ramen business was inspired by a ramen stand he saw while walking in the ruined city of Osaka the day after Japan surrendered to the allied forces in WWII. Even with spirits, cities and bodies broken, Ando saw his fellow countrymen lining up in the midst of rubble to get bowls of ramen for lunch.
During the war, approximately 1 million Japanese died from starvation alone because of the United States' military “Operation Starvation." Ramen was important.
Ando saw ramen as an option to help end hunger globally and by extension, to end war completely. It was one of his proudest achievements, even over owning a large bank. Thus, Nissin instant ramen was born.
What to add to ramen
- Douban jiang or chili paste.
- Green peppers.
- Green onion.
- Peanut butter (for a Thai influence).
- Sesame seeds (as a garnish).
- spam or hot dogs, cut up.
- Eggs, cracked into boiling water or scrambled and then added.
- Canned chicken and vegetables.
- Teriyaki or hoisin sauce.
- Dried seaweed.
- Hot sauce.
- Pickled ginger.
- Side pork, sliced, fried and basted with hoisin or teriyaki.
For sauces, cooked ingredients and seasonings, mix in during the cooking process. For fresh ingredients, add them to the top of your noodles in little, separate piles for picture perfect display.
- 1 boiled egg (hard or soft depending on what you like), peeled
- ½ cup soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- ½ cup mirin (if you can find it)
In a sealable container, combine all ingredients and allow the eggs to marinate at least 2 hours and up to 24 hours. A longer marinating time will result in stronger flavors, but also a possibly tougher texture.
Remove and slice eggs. Fan them out on top of a finished bowl of ramen before serving.
Homemade Ramen Noodles
- ½ cup baking soda
- ½ cup warm water
- 2 cups bread flour
In a 125-degree oven, bake your baking soda on a foil-lined baking sheet for 1 hour. This will make the baking soda alkaline (handle it only with gloves and store leftovers for later in a sealed container).
Dissolve 1 ½ teaspoons of baked baking soda in warm water and then mix with flour in a bowl. Once it comes together, turn it onto a floured surface and knead 10 minutes. Do not add more water. It should be a very firm, dry dough. Wrap this in cling wrap and rest 1 hour at room temperature.
Divide the dough into four portions and keep unused portions wrapped.
Flatten with a rolling pin and either cut into noodles with a knife, or use a pasta machine to flatten more and then slice into noodles. These can be dried on a drying rack or dusted with flour and dried in nest-like piles for later use. Alternatively, boil 60-90 seconds and then rinse off excess flour before making ramen soup.