YOKOHAMA, Japan – Japanese chefs have recreated a bowl of ramen according to the original recipe from more than a century ago, which catapulted this humble broth of noodles with Chinese roots to stardom in Japanese cuisine before becoming a global phenomenon.
A soup made of chicken, pork, sardines, vegetables and soy sauce accompanied by noodles are the original ingredients of the ramen served in the old Rairaiken restaurant in the Tokyo neighborhood of Asakusa in the early 20th century.
The dish has been reproduced in a gastronomic museum in Yokohama (south of Tokyo) with the help of descendants of the establishment’s founder, which attracted up to 3,500 customers a day and whose success triggered the first “ramen fever” in Japan. The recipe has evolved according to the taste of different times and has produced infinite regional varieties.
The noodle soup, originally from China, became popular in Japanese port cities when Japan opened to foreign trade in the second half of the 19th century, and over time it adapted to indigenous ingredients and palates.
The precursors of ramen were served as “nankinsoba,” “shinasoba” or “chukasoba” – names that allude to how China was known in Japan at a time marked by the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), which saw large numbers of Chinese students and workers emigrate to Japan.
In 1910, a former customs employee opened the Rairaiken restaurant in Tokyo with 13 Chinese chefs, a moment considered by experts as the “origin” of ramen as it is known today, according to the person in charge of the Ramen Museum in Shin- Yokohama, Kouji Kurihara.
The main differences of the dish served at Rairaiken with its Chinese relative were adding soy sauce to the broth made from pork and chicken, and garnishing it with grilled tenderloin slices, bamboo shoots and minced chives. These ingredients added a delicate touch and more familiar Japanese taste, according to Kurihara.
The recipe became popular and was imitated in countless restaurants and street food stalls throughout Japan for decades, although the ramen “boom” was interrupted due to food rationing by Japan’s involvement in World War II, which also caused the temporary closure of Rairaiken.
A century after the restaurant was opened, the Yokohama museum – which also has several ramen establishments and a recreation of the Japanese streets of the mid-20th century – has decided to offer a dish as close as possible to the original Rairaiken, which closed in 1976.
Museum officials investigated press reviews and other historical documents, recruited the grandson and great-grandson of Kanichi Ozaki, the restaurant’s founder, and gave the culinary duties to Shinasobaya, a renowned classic-style ramen establishment.
“It has been a very difficult process due to the fact that the original recipe is not preserved,” said Shiori Sano, head of Shinasobaya, adding that above all, they tried staying true to the ingredients of the time and “seek the balance between noodles and broth.”
The noodles in the museum are made by hand, following the traditional technique from China, in which a bamboo trunk is used to provide the necessary elasticity to the dough made of local wheat flour, salt and carbonated alkaline water.
High in calories, “umami” flavor and affordable price, ramen has supported successive generations of Japanese workers and students, while the ease of cooking on a large scale favored the proliferation of this type of business.
In Japan there are about 18,000 ramen establishments, according to government data, and in recent years these noodles have also become one of the main ambassadors of Japanese cuisine in the world aside from sushi.
And although it is still considered a modest dish and preferred by the “salaryman” or Japanese office workers, more and more restaurants offer varieties of haute cuisine or with exotic ingredients such as duck, truffle, tomato or cheese.
Ramen has also adapted to new trends such as home delivery and customers looking for healthier dishes or with special dietary requirements, for which there are gluten-free, vegan or “halal” noodles, according to the head of the Shin-Yokohama museum.