Perhaps the one that most often sparks conversation amongst friends and strangers alike (and is thus impulsively dropped into random moments of stalled conversation on my most annoying and devious of whims), is my dislike of ramen.

A Self-Effacing Preface, So You Don’t Completely Hate Me

Those who know me also know of my dumb, but extremely impassioned (sometimes contrarian) opinions: I think that the animation in the original Avatar the Last Airbender has aged to the point of unwatchability. I think that Teslas are insanely stupid cars, and not just because of Elon. I think everyone should try bangs at least once - microbangs, if possible.

Perhaps the one that most often sparks conversation amongst friends and strangers alike (and is thus impulsively dropped into random moments of stalled conversation on my most annoying and devious of whims), is my dislike of ramen.

Don’t get me wrong, a dislike does not mean a refusal to eat. My upbringing by my Chinese grandma would never truly allow me to refuse foods just because I did not enjoy the taste. And I most certainly will never be that asshole who prevents the group from choosing a popular, generally large-party friendly source of dinner for the night, in locations that otherwise only offer Ono Hawaiian or Yoshinoya Beef Bowl (are these unpopular opinions as well? Please let me know).

Photo Credit: Frank from 5 AM Ramen via Unsplash

Instead, you will probably discover this fact about me after we’ve all sat down and ordered. And I won’t order something else on the menu, in some passive-aggressive gesture toward my aversions. I will usually order ramen, like everyone else. But know that in exchange for this compliance, I will spout my unsolicited opinions on ramen.

So for now, imagine that we have just sat down on our sticky pleather cushioned chairs, amidst an impossibly crowded and noisy restaurant, despite it being a Wednesday night at 8pm, in the middle of some giant concrete complex in Monterey Park. Or, that after an hour of waiting outside in the cold and rain, settling into unforgivingly squeaky wooden chairs, we are continuously failing to flag down the start-and-stop wait staff amidst the whirring state of a Sunday afternoon in Arcadia. Or, that we are still outside, the conversation has grown dull against the humid buzz of Eagle Rock on a Saturday night, and my itch to distract from a welling group irritation can only be satiated by an interjection with some contentious debate.

These are the stages for my most impassioned (and polemic) postulations: indulge me, and my needlessly fervent arguments against ramen.*

*In an attempt to preemptively avoid offending anyone, please note that the following accounts my personal experiences with ramen culture in LA, and does not indiscriminately apply to all ramen businesses nor ramen enjoyers. Happy reading!

Photo Credit: Frank from 5 AM Ramen via Unsplash

The Taste of Things, and Why I Hate Them

Ramen is often broken down into three essential components: noodles, soup, and toppings.☨

☨There are other variations of this breakdown, including tare and oil, but I’ll be focusing on these three listed offenders, with “soup” encompassing the other unnamed ingredients.

Photo Credit: Montatip Lilitsanong via Unsplash

Let’s Begin With the Noodles

Originally Chinese, ramen noodles are wheat-based and known for their chewy fullness, despite their thin-cut form. They are markedly yellow in color, owing to a special leavener known as kansui, and can come in fresh and dried forms, which are matched with labels of “instant” (read: inexpensive, convenient, artificial) and “authentic” (slow, laborious, intentional), respectively, as if the two are diametrically opposed.

To me, those “artisanal,” firm style noodles are perhaps the most unappealing version of noodle possible. They are full-bodied almost to the point of inedibility, arriving in golden mounds, almost ostentatious, moored and indelible, announcing themselves even amidst shimmering droplets of fat in an opaque sea of broth.

The noodles are equally as bold as you place them in your mouth, or, if you’re me, while you choke them down in gluey and wholly overwhelming clumps. Through the experience, I can’t help but think of other wheat noodles, such as udon and soba, which have a springiness and toothiness, respectively, that allow for differentiation on your chopsticks and in your mouth. Ramen, on the other hand, requires a sort of voraciousness – the stickiness of each noodle to the next makes slurping an absolute and unending nightmare (catch me aspirating on my soup every time I attempt a minimally enthusiastic slurp). Maybe I am just not up for such a confrontational approach to my food.

In contrast, the popularity of the noodle itself is owing to an unusual history of “soft power.” After Japan was halted in its colonial militaristic endeavors, and the US stepped in as its occupier, rice supplies began to decline; as George Solt poses in his 2014 The Untold History of Ramen, the US introduced wheat as an alternative, in an attempt to avoid the starvation narratives that dictated Soviet transitions into power. As industry in Japan began to pick up once more, fueling the rise of US power in the East, factory workers were in turn fueled by American exports and subsidized crops, pushed onto occupied populations to assuage potential resistance. A simultaneous turn against Japan’s imperialist past followed suit: ramen became a Japanese dish, instead of a Chinese one, as to dampen memories of “imperialism and war,” while its American roots in meats and wheat became a unique turn of Japanese innovation.

Photo Credit: Inna Safa via Unsplash

This Brings Me to the Soup

Typically made from a combination of meat, aromatics, and dashi, combined with the flavorings of tare and oil, ramen broth is almost unanimously described as “rich” and “complex,” owing to its high fat content and umami-rich ingredients. Unsurprisingly, this is also what makes it so difficult for me to eat.

While I might thoughtlessly slurp down bundles of somen on a hot summer’s day, with its water-diluted broth and cold temperature, the hot, oily thickness of ramen broth has the opposite effect on me. I often struggle to drink the soup, even ladled underneath a small packet of noodles, for its overwhelming flavor. To me, its lack of balance is akin to Takis (another unpopular opinion among Angelenos, I’m sure), which often cause me to sweat from the saltiness alone. Ramen broth, similarly, is all-encompassing in its flavor, though opposite in effect to Takis, coating and dulling my mouth with a baseline saltiness and an overall fattiness that makes me want to collapse onto a cool stone floor for a long and hellishly deep nap.

In contrast to my hedonistic admonitions against the soup, ramen broth preparation is often recounted in almost ritualistic zeal. As the most prominent aspect of the dish as a whole, ramen reviews divine its essence through descriptors such as, “unfathomable,” “impossible.” A trip to eat ramen is “a pilgrimage.”

Photo Credit: Masaaki Komori via Unsplash

As an extremely snarky aside, there is a strangely religious tone prevalent throughout the world of ramen. The first few minutes of Ramen Heads, a 2017 documentary ($10 if you can guess its subject… please don’t bill me), depicts a gathering of employees around their revered chef, aligned to greet him one by one, their freshly shaved heads and identical indigo and white uniforms begging comparisons to monks, welcoming the return of a spiritual leader. Meanwhile, the “story” page of a certain well-known ramen establishment in LA’s Arts District attributes its decision to open its first US location in Portland, to the city’s “higher” water, identical to those from a “sacred” mountain in Tanazawa. While reading this testimonial, I couldn’t help but wonder what drew them to the waters of Downtown LA.

Thus, if ramen is sacred, then its broth is akin to a divine nectar, ambrosiac and metaphysical. You can find the mystical ramen master steeped in the dense clouds of steam emanating from roiling pots of rendered bone liquid, emerging only to grab a ladle, break its velvet surface for a purifying taste of soma – er, I mean, soup.

The most famous iteration in the US is tonkotsu, a wholly opaque soup made up of pork and its marrow, perhaps because it so perfectly fits this vision of time-consuming, laborious, and meditatively perfective preparation. To me, the success of this particular version of ramen in the US is no surprise. For Americans, who regularly indulge in heavily fatty foods high in salt and carbs (I am including myself here… I mean, who just mentioned Takis?), ramen is “umami,” savoriness, distilled down into a thick slurry, made edible by serving over globs of wheat noodle vehicles.

Photo Credit: Văn Đặng via Pixabay

Ramen, especially when compared to other Japanese noodle dishes, is unique for its strong focus on meat. If the soup is the main essence of ramen, then its meat base is its star. When I look at ramen, I see an American, meat-centric plate of food, rendered down so that one can even abandon the fork and knife dance usually required to dig in. Whereas Japanese meals typically center around rice, with a wide accompaniment of pickled vegetables, fish, and soy-based protein, ramen rests on its meaty laurels as an all-in-one meal, contained within one convenient serving dish.

To once again pull from George Solt, this all-encompassing bowl of soup arose in the context of a rapidly changing mid-20th century Japan. Industrialization led to the mechanized production of noodles, while cheap access to meat and all its waste meant hearty and filling ramen meals for workers, its convenience and speediness matched the pace of labor, an industriousness that would carry on to the boom of the 1980’s, when ramen would finally debut itself as the food of Japan. I think here is where I might trace the ties to ramen’s unusual cultish devotion; that same meticulous image of the ramen master is a reflection of the West’s perception of the Japanese workforce as a whole: meticulous and relentless, yet automatic in precision, and rendered exotic through reverence. Picture here, Tampopo, the eponymous protagonist of the 1985 “ramen Western” film, centering a hard working single mother, and sole owner, operator, and cook for a small ramen shop, which grows successful due to its emphasis on efficiency and quality for its salaryman consumers.

Ramen broth fuels the Japanese worker, who fuels the Japanese economy.

Photo Credit: Crystal Jo via Unsplash

Last, and Probably Least, We Arrive at the Toppings

Multivarious, and wide-ranging, the most typical toppings for ramen include:

  • negi (Japanese green onion, which my allium-intolerance allows me to consume only on threat of painful bloating),
  • yakinori (roasted seaweed that simultaneously grows soggy and squeaky in the broth),
  • chashu (a roasted pork somehow not to be confused with the Chinese char siu, although its origins are clear),
  • aji tamago (egg marinated to be the same beige as everything else in the bowl),
  • and menma (bamboo shoots… no sassy comments, I actually enjoy these).

Often sold a la cart, advertised as a way to “level up” your ramen, these ingredients invariably end up doused in oily and salty broth, wedged between processed grains, further overwhelming my palate, rather than providing their intended mild respite.

Notably, the typical condiments for other Japanese noodles, including kamaboko (fish cake) and inari tofu (fried tofu skins), which might represent the fish and soy delegation, are unfitting within ramen, too subtle and easily overwhelmed to stand a chance against the other components. Maybe the veggie constituent has the strongest case, bok choy, bean sprouts, and – the laughably American – corn might add some needed freshness, before they become too soggy and wilted from the sauna of pork steam.

Photo Credit: Frank from 5 AM Ramen via Pixabay

A more interesting amalgamation of toppings, in my opinion, can be found in budae jjigae, or “military base stew,” ramen’s spicer, orange-red cousin, which wears its roots boldly and unapologetically through “Spam, hot dogs, and American cheese,” stewing amidst waves of instant ramen noodles and kimchi. As Nicolyn Woodcock’s “Korean/American Memory and Military Base Stew” describes, budae jjigae’s unusual collection of ingredients is multifaceted in origins, a living and constantly evolving embodiment of Korea’s previous eras of poverty, colonization, and occupation during the Korean War, and its current militaristic, US subordinate reality.

On a taste level, I find the saltiness of this noodle soup to be infinitely more palatable, with spicy sourness cutting through every bite of canned meat, and spongy, curly noodles lifting flavors up toward my nose, and clearing my sinuses, as an added benefit.

Don’t mistake this praise for some sort of fetishization of poverty, or hardship – we would all gladly surrender budae jjigae for the struggles of Korean peoples as we know it (I feel a Taylor Swift “1830’s, but without the racism” line coming on…). But I can’t help but marvel at a food whose toppings so boldly declare survival amidst hard times, which stands in clear acknowledgement of its American roots, while firmly maintaining its Koreanness. It might seem a strange dissonance to Western eyes and palates, who are so used to Asian products battling over authenticity capital, citing thousands of years of perfection and purity, self-exoticizing in a counterintuitive attempt at greater marketability to an orientalist West.

I wish, though, that ramen would sit in that limbic space more often; if Japan today was built off of ramen, I can’t help but feel that we should engage with what built ramen. For those who might cringe at “inauthentic” ramen, consider that ramen itself is a facsimile of a Chinese immigrant survival food, which was then itself evolved to be a Japanese working class survival food based off of the provided imports of an occupying US.

Photo Credit: Markus Winkler via Unsplash

Instant Ramen, or How I Learned to Not Hate the Noodles

I cite Chinese and American influences on ramen not to say that they are reasons in themselves to hate ramen, but because I think that when the dish actively engages with its history and complexity, it does not need to so bombastically announce itself, nor hold so tightly to the restrictions of “authentic Japaneseness.” This is a barrier to entry that precludes even entry to the taste buds, declaring through expensive prices (a bowl of ramen in LA today averages somewhere around $16, which will only rise with inflation) and long wait times, that authenticity is not only highly exclusive and highly valuable, but worth it.

My hope is that confronting these realities will not only result in a better and more balanced dish, but a more accessible and wonderfully multifaceted, multicultural experience that reflects the complexity of Japan in a way that ramen in its current unimpeachable state cannot.

How do I know this? Because – plot twist – ramen and I have quite a lot in common. We are both Southern Chinese in origin, with a mixture of Japanese port city flair, straining against US society’s ethnic homogenization, in order to maintain a multi-ethnic cultural identity, overcompensating sometimes to the point of smug exclusivity. I think the answer can be found in sitting with that uncomfortability, opening up a brightly colored plastic package, and eating some cheap, tasty, Chinese, American, Japanese, inauthenticity.

Photo Credit: マサコ アーント from Pixabay

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