The Ramen Evolution: From Street Food to Global Phenomenon!

The Ramen Evolution: From Street Food to Global Phenomenon!

There's nothing more comforting than sitting down with your k-drama and a bowl of ramyun (라면), Korean ramen. But there's more to these noodles than you might think. Let's dive into the ramen evolution, from street food to global phenomenon!

Where Did Ramen Come From?

When you think of Japanese food, you think of ramen (らーめん), right? Well, what if we told you that this dish has its roots in Chinese cuisine? The word "ramen" comes from the Mandarin Chinese for "pulled noodles" (lāmiàn, 拉麵), but the recipe was inspired by tangmian dishes from Shanghai and Guangzhou.

A ramen vendor

Image Credits: Courtesy of Good Morning Aomori

Some stories claim that ramen was first served to Tokugawa Mitsukuni by scholar Shu Shunsui in the 17th century. However, there's no evidence Shunsui even existed. It's more likely that the dish entered in Japan through Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century.

Rairaiken ramen shop

Image Credits: @Press via The Smart Local Japan

Chinese ramen was already available in stores and through portable food stalls (yaitai, 屋台) in Yokohama's Chinatown. However, the first official ramen store, Rairaiken, opened in 1910 in Tokyo's Asakusa neighborhood. It hired Cantonese chefs that made Chinese-Japanese dishes. It was very popular, with 3000 customers on very busy days!

Illegal ramen vendor caught

Image Credits: Courtesy of Good Morning Aomori

After World War II, there were food shortages and bans under the American occupation. People were forced to sell ramen on the black market, though some of them were caught (above). Once the restrictions were lifted, the number of ramen vendors increased, especially as Japanese soldiers returned from China, where they'd eaten the ramen's parent dish.

Momofuku Ando

Image Credits: Courtesy of Dieline

Nissin Foods founder Momofuku Ando invented and introduced the first instant ramen in 1958. The popularity of this simple dish inspired other companies to make and export instant noodles. According to a 2000 poll, Nissin's instant ramen was Japan's best invention of the 20th century.

Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum

Image Credits: Johnny Armaos via Flickr

Ramen continues to be a popular dish outside and inside Japan. It appears in anime such as "Naruto" and "Jujutsu Kaisen." Tourists can visit the Shin-Yokohama Rāmen Museum and CupNoodles Museum in Osaka Ikeda or Yokohama, or enrol in ramen cooking classes. According to one survey, there were 35,330 ramen shops in Japan.

What Kinds of Ramen Are There?

Ramen has five elements: sauce (tare, 垂れ); broth (dashi, 出汁); hand-cut noodles; toppings; and aroma oil. Popular toppings include pork belly (chāshū, チャーシュー), green onions, boiled eggs, seaweed sheets (nori, 海苔), and fish cakes including the striking narutomaki (鳴門巻き).

Shina soba ramen

Image Credits: Courtesy of Ramen Guide Japan

The earliest ramen was made with buckwheat (soba, 蕎麦) noodles and pork broth. It was called Shina soba or Chūka soba (支那そば/中華そば), meaning "Chinese soba." Shina soba was the common name for ramen until the 1950s. 

Shoyu ramen

Image Credits: 情事針寸II via Flickr

There are four categories of ramen based on broth: miso (味噌), made with fermented soybean paste; shoyu (醤油, above), with soy sauce; kare (カレー), with curry soup; and the oldest, shio (塩), made with lots of salt. 


  Image Credits: City Foodsters via Flickr

Regional ramen include Kyushu's tonkotsu (豚骨) ramen, made with pork bones and served with chāshū; Sapporo's miso ramen, sometimes topped with local seafood; and Tokyo's tsukemen (つけ麺, above), where the noodles are dipped into a separate bowl of broth.

Ramen ice cream
 Image Credits: Torisoba Ginza via Twitter

It doesn't stop there. Japan has taken its obsession with ramen to the next level by introducing new spins on the dish. Fancy a ramen burger or ramen ice cream? 

How Did Ramen Come to Korea?

You're probably wondering: where does Korea fit in? Well, South Korea was in an economic depression after the Korean War. Food was scarce and expensive, so companies had to produce something that was cheap and easy to make. Enter ramyun!

Ad for Samyang ramyun

Image Credits: Courtesy of Creatrip

The Samyang Food Company produced the first instant ramyun in 1963, available for just 10 won. It became especially popular with office workers and college students. Soon, more companies were producing ramyun, and it could be found at every convenience and grocery store.

Shin ramyun

Image Credits: rZx ¿ 摄影师 via Flickr 

A 2022 report by the Korea Agro-Fisheries & Food Trade Corp. found that the average Korean eats ramyun 1.7 times a week. The most popular brands are: Nongshim Shin Ramyun (above); Samyang's Buldak noodles; Nongshim's Neoguri, Paldo Co.'s Kkokkomyeon (꼬꼬면), and Ottogi Jin Ramen.


 Image Credits: Sue via My Korean Kitchen

Korea has its own special takes on ramen: kimchi ramyun made with fermented cabbage (kimchi, 김치); rabokki (라볶이, above), a combination of ramyun and spicy rice cakes (tteokbokki, 떡볶이); and jjapaghetti (짜파게티), instant noodles that mimic black bean noodles (jjajangmyeon, 자장면).

A woman eating black bean noodles

Image Credits: MBC via Dramabeans 

And we can't forget about Korea's famous noodle dishes, including stir-fried glass noodles with veggies, or japchae (잡채); jjajangmyeon (above), which is popular on Black Day; cold buckwheat noodle soup (naengmyeon, 냉면); and knife-cut noodles (kalguksu, 칼국수).

Where Can You Find Ramen/Ramyun?

Now that we've whetted your appetite, it's time to look at where to go for a bowl of delicious ramen - or instant noodles if you're on a tight budget.

Sign for Butanchu Ramen

Image Credits: Courtesy of 8 Shots of Soju

You can still find traditional ramen shops in South Korea today, easily visible thanks to their bright neon signs. Some popular spots include Butanchu (above) and Sangsu-dong RamenTruck/Ramen Truck Lab. For a fancy night out, visit the Michelin Bib Gourmand store Oreno Ramen.

Kandasoba Ramen Bar

Image Credits: Courtesy of Roaming Sonaa

If you're looking for something more upscale, then head on over to a ramen bar. Sit right at the counter and choose what toppings go on your ramen. It's a little more casual but still offers the comforting flavors of home-style cooking. Korean options include the Kandasoba chain (above) and Saga Ramen.

Ramen unstaffed store

Image Credits: HiSunday via Creatrip

But what if you don't have time to stand in line? Don't worry. You can find instant ramyun kiosks and vending machines in many places. And there are  unstaffed convenience stores where you can assemble your own ramen.

A man watching a woman eat ramyun in a pojangmacha

Image Credits: SBS via Soko Glam

We can't forget Korea's version of yatai: pochas (short for pojangmacha; 포장마차). Found on the streets in the evening, pochas serve soju and accompanying foods (anju, 안주), including tteokbokki, stews (jjigae, 찌개), and ramyun. They're a convenient place to go if you're working or partying late at night.

Instant ramen at grocery store

Image Credits: nathan0525 via Flickr

Unlike most Korean food items, you're guaranteed to find one or more brands of ramyun at your grocery store. Now that you know what Shin and Buldak ramyun are, you can go and try them - if you dare!

But there's an easier way to get ramyun: through our Seoulbox. Every month's box comes with instant ramyun or another noodle soup, along with Korean snacks and treats. And this month is pocha-themed! By ordering a box, you save yourself the hassle of shopping in person, and you get authentic Korean products.

Seoulbox Signature March 2023

Image Credits: Image via Seoulbox

So what are you waiting for? Head on over to our website to choose your Seoulbox Signature or V (Vegetarian) box. Once it arrives and you've tasted everything it has to offer, post a review on our social media for a chance to win a free box. Who says "no" to free ramyun?

We know we've made you hungry. Have you tried any of these ramen/ramyun before? What's on your must-eat list? Let us know what your favorite noodles are!

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