For all its mind-blowing technological breakthroughs, the Japanese believe their best invention of the 20th century is not the Walkman, Nintendo, or Pokemon, but instant ramen.
Now consumed worldwide just 40 years after its invention, we can all understand just how culturally significant instant noodles are.
Ramen – instant or not – is one of the best and most popular things to come out of Japan. But I bet there’s a lot you didn’t know about this comforting bowl of noodles.
Whether you’re a Japanophile like me, someone who lived off on instant noodles in college (also me), or just someone who enjoys a slurp of it now and then, these facts about ramen and instant noodles will bowl (pun intended) you over.
Historical facts about ramen
Where did ramen come from? When was ramen invented? From these historical facts about ramen, you’ll learn about the origin of ramen, its evolution, and how it became integrated into the Japanese way of life.
1. Ramen originated from China.
If you’ve read our list of interesting Japanese food facts, you probably already know that ramen isn’t originally from Japan. Like many noodle dishes, it has roots in China.
It is widely believed that ramen was introduced by Chinese immigrants in the late 19th or early 20th century at Yokohoma Chinatown.
Until the 1950s, it was called shina soba or Chinese-style noodle soup. Later, the Japanese started calling it “ramen”, a Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese lamian.
2. The first ramen shop opened in Tokyo in 1910.
In 1910, Japan’s first dedicated ramen shop, Rairaiken, opened at Asukasa, Tokyo. Its Japanese owner employed a dozen Cantonese cooks from Yokohama Chinatown to serve ramen that matched the Japanese palate.
Rairaiken had a colorful past. It specialized in soy sauce broth ramen. At its peak, it was said they served as many as 3,000 customers a day. However, it closed in 1944 during World War II. It reopened in 1954 in Yaesu, then moved to Kanda in 1965, and finally closed its doors in 1976.
In 2020, its original Tokyo shopfront was recreated and opened at the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum.
3. Miso ramen was born in Sapporo, Japan around the mid-1950s.
While Tokyo is the birthplace of soy sauced-based ramen, the popular miso broth ramen hails from the mountainous northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.
Omiya Morito of the restaurant Aji no Sanpei created miso ramen in 1954 in an attempt to create a more nutritious soup for the malnourished Japanese post-World War II. Around 1955, Aji no Sanpei was picked up by magazines and soon, more people came to try and love miso ramen.
This ramen, filled with vegetables, tangy noodles, and rich miso soup, is now synonymous with Sapporo ramen.
4. The instant ramen noodle was invented in 1958.
Love instant ramen? You have Momofuku Ando to thank for.
The founder of Nissin Food spent an entire year researching and perfecting his flash-frying method as a response to the food shortage in post-war Japan. After a series of trials and errors, he eventually came up with the first instant ramen, Chikin Ramen, on August 25, 1958.
5. And it was considered a luxury item at the time!
Sold at 35 yen or around six times the price of traditional udon and soba noodles at the time, Chikin Ramen was considered a luxury item.
However, the cost eventually went down. You can buy instant ramen for a fraction of the cost of the cheapest bowl of noodles in Japanese restaurants. This, and the fact that the shelf life was much longer, made it extremely popular among lower-income families and students.
6. In 1971, Nissin introduced the Cup Noodles.
Ando didn’t stop at creating instant ramen and it was only a matter of time before he created a more convenient version of this meal. In 1971, Cup Noodles (also known as Cup Ramen) was invented and it forever transformed the way instant noodles are consumed throughout the world.
The pre-cooked noodles came in polystyrene or paper cups, packaged with packets of flavoring powder and/or seasoning sauce. It took only 3-5 minutes to cook. Due to the convenience of using only hot water to cook, and its portability, Cup Noodles became popular globally.
In fact, in some countries like Mexico and Guatemala, cup-type noodles are more popular than bag-type instant noodles!
If you feel like learning more about Nissin’s Cup Noodles, you can visit the Cup Noodles Museum in Osaka. You can check out different exhibits, try a variety of ramen flavors, and even make your own Cup Noodles at its model factory!
7. A widely televised hostage crisis gave the Cup Noodles a boost in popularity.
From a luxury item to a convenient meal, Cup Noodles came to be known as an emergency food when it played a vital role in a Nagano hostage crisis in February 1972.
The incident began when five members of the United Red Army (URA) broke into the Asama Sanso vacation lodge and took the innkeeper’s wife hostage. The standoff between the Japanese police and URA lasted for ten days, during which cops subsisted mainly on cup-type instant noodles.
The hostage crisis was broadly televised for several days. Media coverage showed police officers eating Cup Noodles and this helped popularized instant noodles.
8. Instant noodles are the first type of noodles to be eaten in space.
A couple of years before his death, Momofuku Ando and Nissin made history again by inventing “Space Ram”, a space-viable, vacuum-sealed package of ramen.
The Space Ram had smaller noodles but was based on the recipe of Chickin Ramen. To avoid spilling in zero-gravity, the broth was thicker than usual.
Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi packed and ate this ramen on the second day of his journey aboard the space shuttle Discovery.
Fascinating facts about ramen
From the various types of ramen to its ingredients and nutritional value, these fun facts about ramen will wow you. Read on!
10. Ramen has four main flavors.
Visiting a traditional ramen-ya (ramen shop), you’ll be faced with plenty of options. There’s a great variety from broth to the type of noodles and toppings.
Your broth options will usually fall into four categories according to its base flavor: shio (salt-based ramen), shoyu (soy sauce-based), miso (soybean paste-based), and tonkotsu (pork bone broth ramen).
While these are the four old variations, newer and non-traditional flavors make the categorization less clear-cut now. For example, the popular curry ramen may use either shio or tonkotsu as its base flavor. Tantanmen, another popular ramen, uses sesame broth.
11. And a lot of regional variations.
Not only do you have choices of broth base, but there are also lots of regional ramen variations. So many there’s no definite number for it – some say there are 19 official ramen styles while some claim there are over 30.
Suffice it to say that wherever you find yourself in Japan, there’s likely going to be a local ramen variation there.
Here are some of the most popular region-based versions:
- Tokyo style – slightly thin, curly noodles served in a shoyu-based broth. Chicken stock and dashi are common ingredients here.
- Sapporo style – miso ramen, with thick, robust noodles. It’s commonly topped with stir-fried bean sprouts, cabbage, sweet corn, and ground pork.
- Hakata style – tonkotsu broth usually seasoned with shio, topped with thin slices of chashu, wood-ear mushroom, beni-shoga, and spicy mustard greens
- Kitikata style – thick, flat, curly noodles served in pork and niboshi broth originating from the city of Kitikata
- Yokohama style (Iekei) – thick, straight noodles in a soy-flavored pork broth similar to tonkotsu. Usually topped with spinach.
- Kyoto style – pork and chicken-based broth with roast pork, bamboo, scallions, and nori
12. Kansui gives ramen noodles its yellow color.
Ever wonder why ramen noodles are yellowish and firm? The answer: kansui.
Most ramen noodles are made from wheat flour, salt, water, and kansui. Kansui is a type of alkaline mineral water that usually contains sodium bicarbonate, potassium bicarbonate, and phosphoric acid. This ingredient not only lends the ramen noodles a yellow tinge but also gives them a firm and chewy texture. It also prevents the noodles from absorbing too much stock.
The amount of kansui used in ramen noodles also varies per region. It is said that the farther north and east you go in Japan, the more kansui there is in ramen and the more colorful the noodles are.
While eggs can sometimes be used as a substitute for kansui, this is far more common in China than in Japan.
13. Ramen noodles come in various shapes and lengths.
Thin, thick, wrinkled, straight, wavy, round, and flat – ramen noodles come in different shapes and sizes. And these changes affect the overall flavor.
Thin, straight noodles are typically used for thick, tonkotsu-based broths. Wavy noodles tend to go well with lighter and miso-flavored soups. Many types of noodles go well with shio and shoyu-flavored soups.
14. You can experience 1958 Japan in a ramen museum.
This is the stuff hardcore ramen fans’ dreams are made of. Founded in 1994, the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum is the world’s first food-themed amusement park.
You’ll find no rides and mascots here though. Instead, there’s an old-style bar, snack shops, a souvenir shop, and replicas of Japan’s most famous ramen shops, including Okinawa’s Ryukyu Shinmen Tondou, Kyushu’s Komurasaki, Fukuoka’s Hacchan Ramen, and the first ramen-ya, Rairaiken.
The ramen shops are showcased in a street-scape replication from the year 1958. Yes, the year Nissin’s Chikin Ramen was invented.
15. The shelf life of instant noodles ranges from two to 12 months.
Have you ever asked yourself, do ramen noodles expire?
I have. And I’ve found that the answer is yes. Instant noodles do go bad but they have long shelf lives. Depending on the brand, the shelf life of instant noodles may last from two to 12 months. Cup noodles usually expire six months after production, while bagged instant noodles commonly expire after eight months.
That said, instant ramen that’s months past its expiration may still be edible. It just won’t taste and smell as good.
16. You can eat instant ramen noodles raw.
Instant ramen noodles are actually not raw. They are cooked, either by boiling or steaming, and then dehydrated through either deep-frying or blow-drying. So yes, they are completely safe to eat out of the bag.
Many people in Japan and Korea sprinkle the seasoning powder over the noodles, crushing the block into small chunks, shake the bag, and enjoy it like a snack.
In fact, this is the basis of Asian noodles snacks like Taiwan’s Science Noodles and Little Prince Noodles, Korea’s Ppushu Ppushu, Malaysia’s Mamee Monster, Japan’s Oyatsu Baby Star, and Indonesia’s Enaak.
17. It’s delicious… but not exactly healthy.
The traditional ramen that you’ll find in ramen restaurants use fresh noodles, flavorful broth, lots of fresh veggies, and a variety of meat toppings. As long as you don’t drink all of the broth (which is usually high in sodium), and you don’t subsist on ramen, you’ll be fine.
Instant ramen noodles are a different matter, however. Other than a good amount of iron, instant ramen doesn’t have much nutritional value. Worse, they are calorie-dense, high in saturated fat, and contain well over half of the daily recommended limit of sodium.
Instant ramen also contains tertiary-butylhydroquinone (TBHQ), a food additive commonly used to extend shelf life. It’s been linked to numerous health problems like high blood pressure, vomiting, and stomach ache.
Taken in small amounts, TBHQ will not harm you. So, practice moderation. You can also give your instant noodles a healthy makeover and increase the feeling of fullness by adding vegetables and lean meat to them.
Facts about ramen etiquette and customs
The Japanese take their food seriously and honor the people who prepare these foods by following an unspoken code of conduct. Remember these facts about ramen etiquette and customs the next time you visit a ramen shop.
18. To slurp or not to slurp?
In Japan, slurping is not considered rude. But not for the reasons you might think.
You are expected to slurp your noodles, not as etiquette or as a way to show your appreciation to the chef, but as a matter of eating technique. The Japanese believe the best way to eat ramen without burning your tongue is by slurping the noodles.
This technique is believed to aerate the noodles and broth while also enhancing the aroma.
19. Take your photos quickly
I know, I know, you wanna do it for the ‘gram. And yes, it’s okay to take photos of your food. But you should make it quick unless you want cold broth.
A huge no-no, however, is taking photos of the ramen shop interiors, especially the kitchen. If you’re not sure about this but really want to take photos of the interiors, ask the staff first.
20. Start with the broth.
The broth is the soul of ramen and cooking it takes great care and effort. Whatever the base flavor of the broth is, you can be sure that chefs have done a painstaking job of preparing it.
Show respect to the chef by taking a sip of the broth first before diving into the ramen noodles. Do be careful as the broth is hot.
21. Seasoning up!
In the same vein, try not to diminish the chef’s labor of love by drowning your noodles in various toppings, spices, and sauces before you try the ramen. It may be tempting to grab the condiments on the table, which are there so you can customize your bowl to your preference, but try the broth first.
This blunder unintentionally communicates that the plain broth is not good enough for you, even if you haven’t tried it yet. So, take a sip first.
22. A bowl for every person
Ramen bars are typically small shops where seats are at a premium. The turnover is so high that sharing a bowl is not looked upon favorably.
If you think you can’t finish a bowl, or you’re not super hungry, speak to the chef or the staff and ask for a smaller serving of noodles by saying men sukuname (small size/fewer noodles). And don’t even think about taking your leftovers to go.
23. Don’t camp out.
Ramen is literally fast food and is meant to be eaten quickly while it’s still hot. And because seating is limited (some shops are standing room only), you’re expected to dive in with your spoon and chopsticks, finish your meal quickly, and give up your seat to the next customer.
24. Don’t talk while eating.
Not that you have time for it anyway.
If you’re thinking of catching up with your friends over a bowl of ramen in Japan, well, think again. Not only are you not encouraged to share a bowl, but it’s also considered respectful to not talk while eating.
The Japanese typically enjoy their ramen in reverential silence, while reflecting on the hard work the chef has done to create such a masterpiece.
Think it’s awkward to eat with someone and not talk? Go solo in an Ichiran cubicle.
Facts about ramen and instant noodles outside Japan
While it is one of the defining dishes of Japanese cuisine, ramen’s popularity is no longer confined in Japan. There are thousands of authentic ramen restaurants all over the world. And thanks to the instant ramen noodles, the whole world can partake in a steaming bowl of umami.
These selected facts about ramen and instant noodles will give you a glimpse of how this Japanese dish has taken its spot in global cuisine.
25. China and Hong Kong eat more instant ramen than any other country.
According to the World Instant Noodles Association, China and Hong Kong consumed a total of 46,350 million servings in 2020. Let that figure sink in.
Pork- and beef-based broths are common in China and the Chinese five-spice powder is usually used for seasoning. The Chinese also prefer large-sized cup noodles known as “tub noodles”.
Hong Kongers, on the other hand, prefer chicken- and seafood-based soups. They usually eat their instant noodles with lots of toppings for breakfast and as snacks.
Indonesia, famous for Mi Goreng, takes the second spot with 12,640 million servings.
26. But Korea eats the most servings per person.
South Korea is only the 8th country in terms of total consumption. But in terms of servings eaten per person per year, it takes the top spot.
On average, South Koreans eat 80 to 90 servings per year, or one serving of instant noodles every three or four days. Not entirely surprising, considering that they have some of the best and most popular instant ramen brands in the market!
27. Ramyeon was sold to combat poverty and food shortage in Korea
Speaking of ramyeon (Korean ramen), its history is a bit similar and closely tied to Japan.
Korea caught on fast with the instant noodle craze created by its neighbor. In 1963, Jung Yun Jeon, founder of the Samyang Food Company, introduced Samyang Ramyeon, Korea’s very first instant ramen.
A pack was sold for about 10 won (~1 penny) as a response to the poverty and food shortage in Korea. While it’s still definitely a cheap and filling meal for many Koreans, it has also evolved into a big part of Korean cuisine. And just like Japanese ramen, it has earned a spot in the global food scene.
28. Ramen is a college staple.
In Japan, instant ramen is known as “Gakusei Ryori” or “student cuisine”. In many parts of the world, instant noodles are a large part of a college student’s diet. I can say from experience that I have eaten instant noodles more than any other dish in my entire college life.
Instant ramen is fast, yummy, and more importantly, cheap. Again, not exactly for the health-conscious but if you’re cash-strapped and hungry, nothing beats the convenience of an MSG-laden bowl/plate.
29. Mexico-style ramen includes lime and hot sauce.
At 1,160 million servings, Mexico is the 15th country in terms of total instant ramen consumption. And these noodles are not exempted from the Mexicans’ love for sour and spicy flavors.
Mexico-style instant noodles come with lots of lime and hot space. Sometimes, salsa sauce may also be added.
In general, instant noodles in Mexico are notoriously cheap. You’ll find a lot of variety, especially different spicy flavors.
30. Filipinos eat instant noodles with bread and/or rice.
We Filipinos love our carbs. We’re a nation of rice/noodle/bread lovers. And no, we don’t have to choose only one of the three because we can eat them all in one meal.
Lucky Me Pancit Canton, a type of instant stir-fried noodles similar inspired by Chow Mein, is the most popular brand of instant noodles in the Philippines. While it can be enjoyed on its own, we make it ten times better by adding more carbs.
A common way of eating it is with a fried or hard-boiled egg and bread (best if you have the local bread known as pandesal). Assemble the noodles and egg between the bread to make a sandwich, and voila! Pinoy comfort food at its finest! Eating instant noodles with rice is also common and as you can imagine, it’s super filling.
There you have it – a slurp-worthy list of 30 fun facts about ramen and instant noodles! Knowing what you know now, I’m sure the next time you visit a ramen shop or make instant ramen at home will be more enjoyable. Happy slurping!
Interested in more things Japanese? Check out these articles!