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The Strange History of Ramen Noodles

The fascinating history behind one of the most popular foods on the planet.

Ramen is racist.

OK, not the noodles themselves. Not the stretchy, slurpy stuff that -- instant and otherwise, topped with everything from prawns to potato chips -- comforts millions around the world, around the clock. It's not racist in substance but in context -- if you go back far enough.

Ramen -- although it wasn't called that, then -- first appeared in Japan in 1910, when Chinese cooks at Tokyo's Rairaiken restaurant created a signature dish comprising broth and Chinese noodles, which were yellower and more elastic than Japanese noodles because -- then as now -- their dough was kneaded with kansui, a sodium-carbonate-infused alkaline mineral water.

This wildly popular dish was not called ramen but rather shina soba: Shina is a phonetic rendering of the word "China." Soba are buckwheat noodles, although the Chinese noodles used in shina soba were wheat-based. Over the next few years, restaurants all over Japan started serving regional versions of shina soba, using local ingredients.

As Japan's most popular Chinese dish, shina soba symbolized the expanding Japanese empire, according to Katarzyna Joanna Cwiertka, author of Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power, and National Identity. By the early 20th century, this empire included Korea, Taiwan, Manchuria, eastern Siberia, parts of China, and many South Pacific islands. Giddy totalitarianism spawned "a China boom" in Japan, Cwiertka asserts:

Chinese-style decorations, costumes, and products were eagerly consumed by the Japanese public as they translated colonialism into a concrete experience. By physically interacting with China through the ingestion of Chinese food and drink, the Japanese masses were brought closer to the idea of empire.

In other words, to eat shina soba in those years was to symbolically gobble up China itself. As China represented the empire's biggest prize, a bowl of shina soba represented nothing less than world domination.

After Japan lost its empire in World War II, the word shina came under fire. Deplored by many as a symbol of imperialist aggression and Japanese wartime atrocities in China and beyond, shina was now seen as a horrific ethnic slur, embodying imperialist xenophobia: in other words, racist. Shina soba was briefly renamed chuka soba; chuka is a less politically incorrect Japanese term for "Chinese-style." But in 1958, Nissin Foods introduced the first-ever packaged instant version of the dish. As its broth was chicken-flavored, the product was called Chikin Ramen.

Game over.

The Japanese word ramen is derived from the Chinese words for "pull" ( la) and "noodle" ( mian) because Chinese noodles are traditionally "pulled" by hand, according to Crazy for Kanji author Eve Kushner. (That selfsame mian informs our Englishizations "chow mein" and "lo mein.")

Nissin brought Top Ramen to the USA in 1970. These days, Nissin nets over $3 billion a year. But ramen isn't just instant. It's everywhere.

And although its nomenclature issues really are so last century, it's all the more comforting now that its name is politically correct.

Ramen is one of those concoctions I call compound comfort foods, comprising more than just one comfort element. Put soft (comfort element #1) starchy (2) noodles (3) in salty (4) broth, which more or less amounts to chicken soup (5), served piping-hot (6) in the world's most reassuring type of dish: a bowl (7). Now that's a superpower. No wonder the Seattle Weekly ran a list last week of "24 Hours of Ramen Recipes," suggesting Top Ramen baked into pudding, chopped into trail mix, dipped into salsa, and stuffed into tortillas. No wonder Yokohama has a ramen museum outfitted with replicas of regional ramen shops. No wonder there are so many ways to love this stuff.

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