Devouring a delicious bowl of ramen is one of life’s great pleasures. Luckily, the number of quality establishments serving good versions has proliferated in the last few years.
Twelve years ago, [Professor George ] Solt, who spent the first decade of his life in Tokyo, before moving to New England, began researching his dissertation at the University of California, San Diego. Entitled “Taking Ramen Seriously: Food, Labor, and Everyday Life in Modern Japan,” it delved into the food production, labor practices, foreign trade, and national identity wrapped up in Japan’s now famous noodle soup. He has published other noodle-related academic writings, including an article in the International Journal of Asia-Pacific Studies, “Shifting Perceptions of Instant Ramen in Japan during the High-Growth Era, 1958-1973.” But his most accessible piece of work on the topic is a book borne of his doctoral dissertation, “The Untold History of Ramen: How Political Crisis in Japan Spawned a Global Food Craze,” which was published in February.
His talk traced ramen from its origins, as a distinctly Chinese soup that arrived in Japan with Chinese tradesmen in the nineteenth century, through the American occupation after the war, to the proliferation of instant ramen in Japan in the seventies; the national frenzy in the eighties and nineties that gave birth to ramen celebrities, ramen museums, and ramen video games; and, finally, America’s embrace of ramen and Japanese culture today, as exhibited by the cultlike craze surrounding the sixteen-dollar bowls of ramen served by the celebrity chef David Chang.
“Ramen is one of the most minutely documented foods in Japan,” Solt writes. A number of geopolitical and economic factors—the reindustrialization of Japan’s workforce during the Cold War, the redefining of national identity during twenty years of economic stagnation—all combined to elevate ramen from working-class sustenance to a dish that is internationally recognized, beloved, and iconic. His research involved reading everything from ramen graphic novels to government documents produced during the U.S. occupation. In what Solt describes as an “Aha!” moment, he discovered that when the U.S. occupied Japan it imported wheat as a way to contain Communism. “The more Japan experienced food shortages, the more people would gravitate towards the Communist Party,” he said. By providing the wheat needed to make ramen noodles, America won the Cold War, sort of.
(click here to continue reading George Solt, Ramen Historian : The New Yorker.)
and of course, you should watch the film, Tampopo, if you haven’t already seen it…
Tampopo (タンポポ , literally “dandelion”) is a 1985 Japanese comedy film by director Juzo Itami, starring Tsutomu Yamazaki, Nobuko Miyamoto, Kōji Yakusho and Ken Watanabe. The publicity for the film calls it the first ramen western, a play on the term Spaghetti Western
and Roger Ebert’s review seems appropriate:
“Tampopo” is one of those utterly original movies that seems to exist in no known category. Like the French comedies of Jacques Tati, it’s a bemused meditation on human nature in which one humorous situation flows into another offhandedly, as if life were a series of smiles.
As it opens, the film looks like some sort of Japanese satire of Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti Westerns. The hero is Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a lone rider with a quizzical smile, who rides a semi instead of a horse. Along with some friends, he stages a search for the perfect noodle restaurant but cannot find it. Then he meets Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto), a sweet young woman who has her heart in the right place, but not her noodles.
The movie then turns into the fairly freestyle story of the efforts by Tampopo and her protector to research the perfect noodle and open the perfect noodle restaurant. Like most movies about single-minded obsessions, this one quickly becomes very funny. It might seem that American audiences would know little and care less about the search for the perfect Japanese noodle, but because the movie is so consumed and detailed, so completely submerged in noodleology, it takes on a kind of weird logic of its own.
Consider, for example, the tour de force of a scene near the beginning of the movie, where a noodle master explains the correct ritual for eating a bowl of noodle soup. He explains every ingredient. How to cut it, how to cook it, how to address it, how to think of it, how to regard it, how to approach it, how to smell it, how to eat it, how to thank it, how to remember it. It’s a kind of gastronomic religion, and director Juzo Itami creates a scene that makes noodles in this movie more interesting than sex and violence in many another.
(click here to continue reading Tampopo Movie Review & Film Summary (1987) | Roger Ebert.)