Ramen’s Untold History

Guided by Sophie Brickman’s profile in the New Yorker, I picked up George Solt’s The Untold History of Ramen: How Political Crisis in Japan Spawned a Global Food Craze. Solt’s book is a slim but fairly comprehensive history of ramen’s social transformation from a foreign worker’s food into a national symbol and prized export.

Needless to say, what drew me to the story was the Cold War angle. As Solt explains, ramen – wheat noodles made with baking soda-infused water and served in a meat-based broth – was a dish that originated in China and became popular in 1920s Japan as a cheap, protein-rich dish for working men. During the Second World War, both wheat and ramen were scarce. After the war, with rice rationed and the country surviving on US food aid – particularly wheat – ramen made a comeback. Again it was as worker’s food, since ramen’s meat broth, fat, and garlic were supposed to make it a “stamina” food, and it was available, unlike many rice-based foods.

Even after the famine crisis was over, continued food aid was one of the aspects of the US’s military assistance to Japan. When rice production rebounded, ramen consumption stayed strong. The dish also benefited from the desire to strengthen and expand bilateral trade with the US. When Mitsubishi Trading partnered with Nissin Foods, the first maker of instant ramen noodles, they did so to absorb imports of US wheat flour. Soon, Mitsubishi had coined the corporate motto “From ramen to missiles.”

That’s the “Untold History” of ramen: how it was the unplanned beneficiary of American Cold War policy. But there’s far more to the story that Solt has to tell. He also traces ramen’s transformation into a white-collar salaryman’s meal, a nostalgic Japanese tradition with its own museum and regional tourism, and a hip export to North America. It’s a compelling read for those interested in the serendipitous connections of history.

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