Where Steaming Fried Noodles Spell Relief
By KIM SEVERSON
Ramen is usually just steps away from hungry diners in most parts of Japan. Often, it’s in the form of flash-fried, pre-seasoned noodles packed into cellophane bags and foam cups. Now instant ramen is being sent by the truckload to the survivors of the Japanese earthquake.
Of course, instant ramen was born of hardship. In the aftermath of World War II, a Taiwanese businessman named Momofuku Ando was inspired by two things: long lines of starving people waiting for fresh ramen in Osaka and a government edict encouraging people to eat bread made with wheat flour donated by the United States. They pushed bread because noodle companies were too small to handle the demand.
But the entrepreneur had a better idea: mass-produced noodles. In 1958, after several years of experimenting, he began selling chicken-flavored instant ramen to appeal to export markets averse to pork or beef. It was the precursor to Top Ramen. His company, Nissin Foods, would later strike gold in America with Cup Noodles and its varieties of flavors.
From its beginnings in Japan, and despite misgivings about its nutritional merits, instant ramen has found devotees worldwide among the poor and those too tired or ill-equipped to cook. It is the belly-filling standby of travelers and cabdrivers and office workers too busy to leave their desks. In American dorm rooms, ramen sustains the starving student.
I once wrote an article about women in prison who so longed to cook that they figured out ways to approximate the creativity of the kitchen while incarcerated. A favorite recipe was instant ramen noodles dressed up with items from the prison commissary: sliced Slim Jims and crushed Cheetos.
Instant ramen is now entrenched in popular culture. An emo-pop record label, started on a shoestring, is named Fueled by Ramen. There are books like “Chicken-Flavored Ramen for the Soul” and thousands of recipes dedicated to dressing it up. One company sells a little silicone figurine that holds down the lid of a ramen cup, changing color when the ramen is done.
But instant ramen’s essential appeal, beyond cost, convenience and kitsch, is that noodle soup is soulful and soothing.
“At the very basic level, however it was produced, you are getting hot soup and noodles, and that is one of the most basic comfort foods the world has ever known,” said the chef David Chang, who led a ramen revolution of sorts in Manhattan with his steaming bowls of fresh ramen at ’Momofuku Noodle Bar in the East Village. (And who, for the record, says his restaurant is not named after the founder of instant noodles, but rather because momo in Japanese means peach and fuku means lucky.)
Nutritionists and the diet-conscious have made instant ramen a noodle non grata. One packet contains about half the maximum amount of sodium anyone should eat in a day. And most versions are fried, sometimes with particularly unhealthy trans fat.
But attacking instant ramen donated to feed Japanese earthquake victims would be just wrong, said Mr. Chang. It’s still very cold in the north, and there was a recent snow. Although potable water is at a premium, those who can find a source of fuel might melt snow or ice to turn dried noodles into sustenance.
“You are not going to tell a starving person they can’t eat that,” he said. “Now is not the time. For the dire situation they’re in, I can’t imagine a better food.”