Today is October 6th, which means it’s International Noodle Day! While every culture has their own classic noodle dishes, Japanese noodles like ramen and instant noodles occupy a special place in our hearts (and diets). To celebrate, we bring you a special Tabesugi podcast episode for Noodle Day.
Ever wondered why Japanese people slurp their noodles? In Tabesugi episode 2, Noodle Fever, Emilie speaks with Frank, a ramen expert who has eaten over 3000 bowls of ramen so far and has turned ramen into a career. They delve into the etiquette of ramen and talk about the future of ramen over a rich bowl of lobster ramen.
Emilie also learns about the history of instant ramen, speaking with Aoki-san, the PR representative for the Nissin Foods Group, about Cup Noodles and its creator, Momofuku Ando. Come along to the Cup Noodles Museum in Yokohama as she customizes her own cup and learns about a groundbreaking new instant noodle product.
Like what you hear? Join Frank on a food tour to learn more. His most popular food experience is his ramen tasting with 6 mini bowls of ramen. He also offers the Tokyo Ramen Tour with Frank, Ramen Shop Kitchen Experience, and Gluten-Free Vegan Ramen Tour.
In case you missed our first episode, you can check out Welcome to Japan, Tabesugi Episode 1.
EMILIE: How many ramen have you eaten?
FRANK: I'm over 3000 bowls now, I guesstimate. And my consumption has gone up more recently because is my job and right now I'm averaging over 300 a year. That being said, you know about one a day, a little bit less than one a day (laugh).
[TABESUGI INTRO: slurping, sound of gas stove igniting, glasses clinking, crunching interspersed with different voices saying “tabesugi.”]
EMILIE: You’re listening to Tabesugi podcast. Tabesugi means “overeating” in Japanese and this is definitely one of our favorite pastimes! We are here to bring you insights into Japanese culture, history and people through the lens of food. I’m your host Emilie Lauer, let’s go on this journey together! This is episode 2, Noodle Fever.
BREAK: Tabesugi is brought to you by byFood.com, the one-stop platform for foodie travelers in Japan, where you can explore food tours, cooking classes, tastings, and dining experiences, along with food guides and videos. Every booking on byFood.com helps children in need around the world through the Food for Happiness Program. Just by enjoying a meal in Japan, you can help children in developing countries get access to necessities like nutritious meals, schools, and housing, so they can grow up happy and healthy.
EMILIE: From the traditional spaghetti, penne, and tortellini in Italy, to the Americans’ favorite mac ’n’ cheese, to the Japanese ramen, noodles are a worldwide favorite, feeding kids at camp, grown ups, frat boys, and bringing family together over a dish that warms up not only your belly but also your heart. Noodles are a thing not a fling, and every year on the 6th of October, the world is dedicated to that delicacy. And of course, Japan is no exception, with many varieties across the country, Japanese noodles are an institution, a traditional heritage.
FRANK: If you look at traditional noodles, I think soba or udon are very well known... beyond soba and udon there is of course, ramen, there is soumen which are very thin wheat flour noodles eaten in the summer, there is also everything from hoto which is only eaten in Yamanashi (south of here) which are very very thick noodles, there is kishimen from western and southern Japan I should say so, there is a great variety of noodles here. And there’s only going to be more and more variety, too, in ramen in terms of shape and size of the noodles. So ramen, well not just ramen, you know Japan is a noodle country for noodle day lot of great noodles to be had here.
EMILIE: And what is better than digging into a bowl of ramen to celebrate noodle day in Japan? Okay, more ramen.
FRANK: I'll probably have one or two more bowls later today if not more. I think today it's going to be a 3 if not 4 ramen day, today.
EMILIE: So it’s naturally, over a bowl of ramen that I’ll meet Frank for the first time. Born and raised in Japan, Frank is THE ramen guy! Over the past few years, he roamed the country in order to try every ramen possible. He also started a ramen blog where he lists and reviews the ramen he has tried all over Japan. In addition, Frank does ramen tours across Tokyo, helping tourists and foodies to discover the different ramen available in the city. His most popular experience is a ramen tasting tour that features 6 mini bowls of ramen at 3 award-winning shops, a unique tour available on byFood.com. With more than 300 bowls of ramen a year, he is passionate about the pot of joy. He knows a lot about ramen and he’s eager to share his knowledge to the world. And when you ask him how did he fall into the ramen pot, the answer is pretty simple, he just loves it!
EMILIE: How did you fall into the pot?
Laugh, good referencing, well maybe I dived in myself (laugh). You know at a young age, my mom would make ramen at home, you know not necessarily in-house, you know making the noodles, that's quite complicated, but at a very early age, she would often buy supermarket-prepared noodles, toss in some vegetables, the supermarket-bought dashi as well. So she was making ramen already home, so I was introduced at a very young age, ramen let's say. From there I was, Oh I was like “Wow, I really like this dish,” and I’ve been eating it ever since.
EMILIE: Frank and I rendezvoused in the popular area of Center-Gai in Shibuya, on the 3rd floor of a small building to try a miso lobster ramen, a combination that he had not tried yet. So at 11:30 am sharp, in time for the restaurant’s opening, we were there, eager to celebrate Noodle Day.
FRANK: Lobster is usually a premium premium ingredient, it's quite expensive but here what is awesome is that it's relatively affordable for something that is normally expensive. And miso, I think when you have a stronger flavor like miso, lobster can go very well with that, or crab, even. So, it was something I wanted to yeah definitely try.
FRANK: This is like the lobster miso.
EMILIE: Oh nice
FRANK: And this one’s like a richer crab miso. Maybe we’ll get one of each then
EMILIE: Yeah, definitely.
FRANK: Let’s do that.
EMILIE: While waiting for our ramen bowls, I questioned Frank about his passion for ramen.
FRANK: I think, I just love food, you know no matter where I go, I love to eat food, so wherever I am I'd certainly want to sample the local delicacies. And ramen, just having grown up in Japan, it's just such great soul food to me. The ultimate soul food again, hot noodle soup, for me beyond the unique nature of ramen, which is ramen again being so diverse and taking new forms all the time, you know, ramen constantly evolving, beyond that I think for me it's also very nostalgic, you know it's something I grew up with, I sometimes crave that classic ramen. It's just like oh it brings me back to childhood, so it's a very emotional thing for me and that's part of the reason why I love ramen so much.
EMILIE: For the past few years, Frank’s ramen passion moved forward and he dedicated his life and work to trying ramen. One other thing you need to know about Frank is that he is a real ramen enthusiast, he could talk for hours about the dish, explaining the different broths, noodles, the origin and so on, so when our bowls arrived, it was time for my ramen private lesson.
To be honest with you, I didn’t know much about ramen before coming to Japan, I knew it existed but I had never tried it. But when I dug into my first bowl, I knew I had found one of my favorite Japanese foods. I enjoy it and I eat it quite often. Ok, not as often at Frank, but still. I thought I knew how to eat ramen, well I was wrong. Even if compared to other Japanese food, ramen is not that fussy in terms of etiquette, some manners are recommended, and the most important one is to slurp.
FRANK: There are 3 reasons why Japanese will slurp and anyone that’s taken a tour with me, of course, listens to this same speech over and over, but one reason that local slurps and make that vacuum cleaner sound is that you're complimenting the chef, you're saying that you're enjoying the food basically by slurping. Two is that ramen is piping hot if you're slurping you're not going to burn your tongue as much. Three is that slurping actually means your’re sucking in air through your nostrils, so it's kinda like when you're drinking wine you're taking more oxygen and that probably enhances the flavor.
FRANK: Oh look at that. (Slurps) That’s good. That’s really rich. (Laughs) Starting off the day with a rich bowl.
EMILIE: My turn, then. (Slurps) How was my slurp?
FRANK: Here, I’ll demonstrate... It wasn’t bad. So basically, bring the noodles up and-- (Slurps)
SHOPKEEPER: Arigato gozaimasu!
FRANK: So, you don't want to have the noodles, the noodles cling firmly to the chopsticks, or rather you don't want to pick up the noodles to the chopsticks and just have them really pinching the noodles cause then it won't go into your mouth, so just lightly kinda grab them with the chopsticks and from then just slurp and pull them in. (Slurps)
In terms of etiquette, ramen is not that fussy, but what I would recommend is maybe grabbing a sip of soup before you dive into the noodles themselves. Outside of that, maybe when you are done you could put the chopsticks on top of the bowl you know not inside the bowl, that would kind of remind maybe Japanse funerals where they put chopsticks in a bowl of rice. If you are at a countertop place and there is only one person behind the counter, one thing you can do is help them by putting the bowl on top of the counter if there is somewhere to put it on top. Things like that, but outside of that there is not a whole lot of etiquette.
EMILIE: As much as I love ramen, I honestly don’t know how Frank sometimes eats 3 bowls a day. First of all, I’m already pretty full and I had difficulties with finishing that miso lobster ramen (and trust me, it was really really good), and second I would get tired of ramen after some time, but Frank doesn’t.
FRANK: What's great about ramen is that ramen is a different experience at every ramen shop, even if two ramen shops are doing the same style of ramen there are going to be little tweaks and little things that separates them so, for me, if it was soba as much as I love soba, if you are eating 300+ bowl of soba, it's going to be pretty boring maybe you’re going to get tired of it, not the case with ramen. Ramen is so dynamic, and there are so many different styles of ramen.
EMILIE: Indeed, ramen is not a one-recipe dish, many styles of ramen exist, divided into four big categories: shoyu ramen, which is soy sauce based; shio or salt based; miso fermented soybean; and also tonkotsu ramen made from pork bone; and each of these ramen comes from the corners of Japan. Shoyu is a Tokyo style ramen, tonkotsu is from the south in Kyushu, miso ramen was invented in Hokkaido's Sapporo City in the aftermath of the war, and shio (the salt ramen) comes from Hakodate in Hokkaido. The size and type of noodles also differs from one ramen to another, creating a different dish each time. And while some people have their preferences when it comes to ramen, Frank does not discriminate against any of them. Rather, he eats according to the season, having lighter ramen in summer and richer ramen such as miso in the cooler months. Ramen is then a dish with infinite combinations and possibilities, playing on texture, toppings, and broth and sometimes the result is very surprising.
EMILIE: What was the weirdest ramen that you tried?
FRANK: It will have to be coffee ramen (laugh). It's a, it was really bizarre but it was so cute because it was this old couple that's running this coffee shop, right. And this gentleman there, he just decided to do coffee ramen on top of that. Now I'll describe to you what coffee ramen includes (laugh). It was no joke a coffee and soy sauce broth. Even though the coffee they used was not quite as bitter as you know normal coffee let's say, it was that bitterness from the coffee alongside soy sauce in the broth, they were also coffee noodles, so I’m saying ramen noodles infused with coffee, and on top of that it almost looked like a face, because they were two eggs for eyes, coffee beans, individual coffee beans on the top of the eyes, also kiwi, ice cream, and ham and other ingredients, very very bizarre. But they were trying to go for bizarre, it was their goal. That was by far the most unusual ramen (laugh) I'd never had.
EMILIE: Ok, so despite ramen’s endless possibilities, it doesn’t mean that ramen chefs or enthusiasts should really try EVERYTHING they can think of. Some possibilities are better off unrealized. But that’s not to say I’m dissuading you from trying something creative with your noodles. For you adventurous home cooks, Frank has some tips.
FRANK: You've gotta have good broth, good toppings and good noodles, all three of those need to be in sync working together harmoniously to make a great bowl of ramen. If you have a thick, let's say miso ramen, thick wavy noodles maybe helps you pick up that broth right. You know the noodles have to match the broth, as the toppings have to match the noodles and the broth. In terms of texture, is there too much crunch with the toppings, is there not enough crunch? There are all these factors you have to think about. Also, how does the ramen look aesthetically, so when you're making this even though you're building broth, noodles, and toppings separately, all three of them need to come together harmoniously.
EMILIE: Back in the day, another noodle enthusiast made the perfect ramen, bringing the dish forward onto the international scene: Momofuku Ando. If his name isn’t familiar, I’m sure you’ve already had one of his noodle dishes. They’re here when you don’t have the time to cook, a favorite of many people, from salarymen to university students, and they’re obviously present in American pop culture. Did you guess it? Momofuku Ando is the genius behind instant noodles, that little noodle cup full of flavor, ready in not even 3 minutes. And with more than 100 billion servings consumed per year, Ando’s noodles are a pantry staple worldwide. And how can we celebrate Noodle Day without talking about instant noodles?
In Japan, Momofuku Ando, founder of Nissin Foods, is the king of instant noodles. Indeed, Japanese people have voted instant noodles as the best invention of the 20th century. But the pride for the noodle inventor doesn’t stop there. Nissin owns two museums, one in Yokohama and another one in Osaka, bringing together local and international noodle enthusiasts.
But who was Momofuku Ando and how did he become Japan’s noodle king? To get more answers I met with Aoki-san, the Cup Noodles Museum PR.
AOKI-SAN: After World War II, there was a shortage of food in Japan. People waited in long lines just to get a single bowl of ramen. In 1957, Momofuku Ando’s business failed and he lost everything. Recalling the lines of people at black market stalls, lines of ramen, and how much Japanese like ramen, Momofuku determined that he would climb his way out of poverty by making a ramen that could be quickly prepared at home with just hot water. When Momofuku set out to invent instant ramen, he set five goals, five principles. Instant ramen should have a delicious taste that doesn’t get boring; two, keep for a long time; three, be easy to prepare; four, have a very reasonable price; and five, be safe and sanitary.
EMILIE: For one entire year, Ando installed a shed in his backyard and worked on his invention. But making ramen was not his most challenging pursuit, his biggest obstacle was how to preserve them while maintaining the resiliency of the noodles. After looking for a solution, his wife gave him the idea to flash-fry the noodles, in that way, the ramen could be reanimated by the simple addition of hot water.
[Sound of frying, bubbling oil]
AOKI-SAN: Do you know what the sound of it? (Laughs) It’s the sound of tempura, you know tempura? It’s Japanese food. It’s a big key word for Momofuku. To store the ramen for a long time, it has to be dried. Inventing the drying method was the biggest obstacle to the successful invention of instant ramen. Momofuku was thinking, thinking, thinking, and struggled and struggled to come up with a solution, and then one day, he saw his wife, Masako, frying tempura in their kitchen and had a flash of inspiration. When tempura batter is put into hot oil, it starts to bubble as moisture is extracted. This was the moment that Momofuku discovered the fundamental technique for making instant ramen, the hot oil instant dried method.
EMILIE: It was in 1958, about one year after Ando started to work on his invention, that the world’s first instant noodles “Chicken Ramen” was brought into daylight, then in 1971, Ando invented Cup Noodles, the first of its kind, and this invention spread worldwide. But instant noodles did not stop with the Cup Noodles, they also went into space. In 2005 at age 95, Momofuku Ando developed his last invention, the “Space Ramen,” the first noodle dish to leave Earth’s orbit.
AOKI-SAN: It’s a little bit different from the usual one. Air pressure in the International Space Station is much lower than on Earth. Water doesn’t boil at 100 degrees. Space Ramen is a special mixture of wheat flour and starch that gets soft even in water heated to 70-80 degrees. While in the International Space Station, Noguchi-san became the first person to ever eat ramen in space.
EMILIE: To be honest, I was really excited to go to the museum, I love Cup Noodles and while I was still living in France, that dish brought me closer to Japan. Yes, I come from a small town. Sushi shops took ages to pop up, so I had instant noodles instead. The museum itself is so interesting, it doesn’t only tell Ando’s story, it’s also an interactive space where you can not only taste the noodles but also make your own Chicken Ramen by hand and create your own completely original Cup Noodles. Everyone loves it, and the place quickly fills up. That’s where I met Anna. She’s travelling for Canada and the Cup Noodles Museum was a mandatory stop in her Japan trip. Anna is even wearing a Cup Noodles t-shirt.
ANNA: Um, I eat it too often, I think. At least 4 times a week. (Laughs)
EMILIE: Why did you come here to the Cup Noodles Museum today?
ANNA: We’re huge foodies, so we wanted to learn more about the history and also to see everything and make our own Cup Noodle. I made a curry flavor, and my sister, Wendy, here made seafood.
EMILIE: I obviously couldn’t resist and created Tabesugi’s original Cup Noodle, where I combined a soy sauce base, kimchi, green onions, and minced pork, and you know what, it’s a really good combination.
More than 60 years after Momofuku brought instant chicken ramen to the world, people are still enjoying it. Every year, Nissin releases about 350 new products, but only 1% of this number stays permanently on the Japanese market. The company also adapts its products to suit palates in other countries. In addition, Nissin is also looking after its consumers and recently released a game-changing new product called All-in-Noodles, with improved nutritional values.
Whether Cup Noodles or ramen, Japanese noodles have infinite flavor combinations and are taking over the world with a growing demand each day.
FRANK: I think what's going to be interesting in moving forward is how they’re new styles of ramen happening outside of Japan, where they are using local ingredients. You know ramen doesn't have to be just, maybe, Japanese food. I think there’s certain things you should probably maintain, you know if it goes too much in another direction maybe it's no longer ramen, but let's say you are maintaining certain things about ramen from Japan but on top of that you're adding traditional ingredients in another country. It's becoming like a fusion ramen, I think a lot of interesting things would happen outside of Japan that maybe can't happen here. So it's an exciting time to be in the ramen world.
EMILIE: If you want to hear more from Frank, join him and try 6 mini bowls of ramen during his most popular tour, which can be booked on byFood.com.
This show is reported, produced and edited by me, your host, Emilie Lauer. Tabesugi is executive produced by byFood.com, the one-stop platform for foodie travelers in Japan. If you are interested in food experiences like food tours, cooking classes, tastings, and dining experiences, check out byFood.com that’s B-Y-F-O-O-D dot com.