ArticlePDF Available

The Untold History of Ramen: How Political Crisis in Japan Spawned a Global Food Craze, by George Solt (University of California Press, 2014), Slurp! A Social and Culinary History of Ramen – Japan’s Favorite Noodle Soup, by Barak Kushner (Brill, 2012), The Noodle Narratives: The Global Rise of an Industrial Food into the Twenty-First Century, by Frederick Errington, Tatsuro Fujikura and Deborah Gewertz (University of California Press, 2013).

Authors:
Article Title 103
Global Food History, Volume 1, Issue 1, pp. 103–108
Reprints available directly from the Publishers.
Photocopying permitted by licence only.
© 2015 Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.
Reviewed by
Stephanie Assmann Book Reviews
Noodle Soup
The Untold History of Ramen: How Political Crisis in
Japan Spawned a Global Food Craze, by George Solt
(University of California Press, 2014)
Slurp! A Social and Culinary History of Ramen – Japan’s
Favorite Noodle Soup, by Barak Kushner (Brill, 2012)
E-Print
© BLOOMSBURY PLC
104 Book Reviews
The Noodle Narratives: The Global Rise of an Industrial Food
into the Twenty-First Century, by Frederick Errington, Tatsuro
Fujikura and Deborah Gewertz (University of California Press,
2013)
It is hard to imagine how a simple noodle soup can be the focus of three recently
published books. Yet, it is possible; and the three volumes discussed in this review
approach and contextualize the noodle soup in very different ways. Ramen in
Japan is more than just a food. Chinese by origin, the noodle soup was brought to
Japan by migrants in the 1880s and quickly became an integral part of Japanese
food life. At the end of World War II and in the postwar years, ramen became a
life-saving, high-caloric food that was sold on the black market. Later, ramen was
a cheap snack for blue-collar workers and considered a male food. The invention
and launch of instant ramen in 1958 by Momofuku Ando, the founder of food
giant Nissin Foods, marked a new phase of the food’s history. Two museums, the
Shin Yokohama Ramen Museum, which opened in 1994, and the Momofuku
Ando Instant Ramen Museum in Osaka, which opened in 1999, cherish the noo-
dle soup and its younger relative, the instant noodle soup. Ramen transformed
into a fashionable icon of youth culture and became a vibrantly discussed object
among ramen aficionados. Ramen was exported as a form of culinary soft power.
Today, the dish is eaten at cheap stalls, in more refined eateries and in a range of
regional variations throughout Japan. This noodle soup has become a symbol for
affordable outside dining for middle-class employees; it also represents the rise of
consumerism and is ultimately a symbol of “cool Japan” as depicted in Japanese
manga and anime.
These very different aspects of ramen have made the dish one of the most pop-
ular in contemporary Japan; they are discussed from different angles in the fol-
lowing three books. In The Untold History of Ramen, historian George Solt takes
readers through a journey from postwar Japan to contemporary times through
the close inspection of the Chinese noodle soup. In five chapters, Solt illuminates
the rise of ramen in Japan from the onset of the Meiji period (1868–1912) to
the twenty-first century. The first chapter examines the emergence of ramen as
a result of the arrival of Chinese food practices brought to Japan in the 1880s.
The second chapter describes the bleakest war years and immediate postwar
years (1944–7), dominated by hunger and malnutrition, when ramen was sold
on the black market along with other filling dishes such as dumplings. In the
third chapter, the author investigates ramen in the context of the period of high
economic growth (1955–73). Because of large-scale imports of wheat from the
United States, bread and ramen became widely available in Japan and changed
the culinary habits of an entire generation. Nissin Foods’ 1958 reinvention of
ramen into an instant product, symbolic of youth culture, made it the subject
of animated discussion among its devotees. The last chapter depicts instant ra-
men as an internationalized food that is popular and affordable worldwide, even
among American prison inmates (p. 121).
There are two strengths to Solt’s book. The first is a thorough examination
of a number of previously unpublished US Occupation documents collected in
E-Print
© BLOOMSBURY PLC
Book Reviews 105
the National Diet Library, which reveals how food aid defined political relations
between the United States and Japan in the postwar period. The US Occupation
documents powerfully illuminate the shift of US policy from the initial demand
that Japan should feed itself toward the provision of food aid, which became
a means to use Japan to contain the spread of communism in the Pacific Rim
(pp. 51–2 and p. 56). Readers of Solt’s book also learn details about Japan and
Korea as countries competing for US food aid and about the limited supply of
German and Japanese food rations (p. 55). Within this context, Solt discusses the
relationship between the United States and Japan. For instance, he shows how the
United States appeared to fill the role of the generous rescuing nation but eventu-
ally demanded payments from Japan for food aid and for the accommodation of
the occupation forces (p. 63).
The second strength of Solt’s book is a critique of consumerism in Japan during
the 1980s that shifts the perspective away from ramen as an acclaimed national
symbol to the relationship between ramen, consumerism and neo-nationalism
(p. 134). In this context, Solt cites Tamamura Toyo’o’s article, “The Frightening
Situation Where Plain Old Ramen Becomes the Basis for ‘Theories of Japanese
Superiority,’” published in the newspaper Shu¯kan Yomiuri, as particularly rel-
evant for the analysis of food nationalism in Japan (p. 134). Solt convincingly
shows how ramen – as an originally Chinese food – became integrated in Japanese
dietary life and was elevated to an icon of Japanese national identity. National
identity was fostered through food products and their consumption.
Whereas Solt remains close to ramen as a means of illustrating the relationship
between Japan and the United States in the postwar period, Barak Kushner exam-
ines the relationship between China and Japan – in both of which countries he is
a specialist – through culinary influences in his book Slurp! A Social and Culinary
History of Ramen – Japan’s Favorite Noodle Soup. In a culinary history spanning
from ancient China to contemporary times in Japan, Kushner shows how the close
relationship between China and Japan contributed not merely to the popularity of
ramen but also to the rise of a hybrid cuisine. Chinese migrants profoundly shaped
cuisine in Japan. For instance, Shippoku cuisine is still eaten in contemporary
Japan. The same is true for champon noodles, which were invented by a Chinese
immigrant in 1887 (p. 115) in Nagasaki and remain a popular food. In addition,
similar Chinese-inspired noodle dishes flourished, such as Nanking soba, which
appeared in the city of Hakodate in Hokkaido in 1884 (p. 116). Kushner compel-
lingly illuminates the significant role of China–Japan relations in the evolution of
a Japanese national cuisine, which is a definite strength of the book.
The second merit of the book is the fact that Kushner alternates historical
accounts with ethnographic and journalistic observations, which makes for very
lively and accessible reading. In the last chapter, Kushner takes an ethnographic
perspective and inspects ramen in popular culture. He lists a variety of examples
such as ramen museums, ramen theme parks and ramen in manga, and he con-
vincingly demonstrates the significance of ramen as a symbol of national identity
and consumerism in popular culture (pp. 237–48). In doing so, he expands the
findings of Satomi Fukutomi, who has written about the increasing number of
ramen connoisseurs or ramen aficionados who share their experiences of visiting
E-Print
© BLOOMSBURY PLC
106 Book Reviews
ramen eateries online.1 The examples of ramen in popular culture are impressive,
but this discussion would have benefited from further analysis. Is the depiction
of ramen in popular culture merely an arbitrary choice and could it be replaced
with other popular foods, such as soba or tempura? Or is the multifaceted
transformation of ramen from a daily snack for blue-collar workers to a cool
instant food the reason for the popularity of the food in Japan’s pop culture?
These questions remain unanswered in Kushner’s account.
There are a few other critical points to be raised. Many details remain unre-
lated to ramen and obscure the main argument, which makes it difficult to grasp
the intention of the author. Is Kushner’s objective to write a broader historical
account of culinary habits or to provide insight about the rise of ramen, the
rise of one particular food? One example of a meticulous account that is not
related to ramen is Kushner’s discussion of the rise of meat eating during the
Meiji period. Frequently banned for religious reasons, meat eating did occur in
Japan but remained a clandestine activity practiced under certain euphemisms,
often for medicinal purposes. Supported by Meiji intellectuals such as Fukuzawa
Yukichi (1834–1901), Japan’s encounter with Western culinary customs led to
the inclusion of meat in Western-style banquet culture and later spread among
the population in the form of dishes like beef stew. Meat eating as a symbol of
progress and civilization has been previously discussed in detail.2 It is only at the
end of this section (pp. 110–11) that Kushner takes this discussion one step fur-
ther and relates the increase of meat eating to the rise of ramen, but he does so by
offering a single, limited comment: “The fact that meat and an expanded range of
ingredients were slowly gaining entry into Japanese cuisine created steady social
pressure for the types of dishes that would lead to the development of ramen.”
The book would have benefited from less meticulous historical accounts and a
more connected discussion of the impacts of the Chinese–Japanese relationship
on the evolution of ramen. This would have brought Kushner’s objective – to
show the impact of China on the evolution of a hybrid Japanese cuisine – closer
to being realized in this work.
Contrary to the first two books discussed here, the third book The Noodle
Narratives: The Global Rise of an Industrial Food into the Twenty-First Century,
is not a historical account. It is a comparative study written by a team of three
cultural anthropologists. The book investigates the rise of instant ramen in three
countries – in Japan, the place of origin of instant ramen, the United States of
America and Papua New Guinea. The book offers a socioeconomic analysis of
ramen consumers. In Japan, ramen is a symbol for middle-class affluence, the
rise of consumerism and, ultimately, the emergence of “cool Japan,” which ex-
ports symbols of culinary soft power. In the United States, where Nissin entered
the market in 1970 with instant noodle packages and with its Cup Noodle in
1973 (p. 65), three socioeconomic categories of instant ramen consumers have
emerged. The first group of consumers is composed of college students, who eat
instant noodles but are expected to eventually grow out of this habit (p. 67).
The second group is prison inmates, who thrive on instant noodles as a taste of
transitory freedom in the midst of restraint and restriction (p. 75). Contrary to
the first group of instant noodles lovers – who are predominantly white and have
E-Print
© BLOOMSBURY PLC
Book Reviews 107
a middle-class background prison inmate instant noodle consumers are pre-
dominantly male and come from diverse ethnic backgrounds. In 2009, only 34
percent of all prison inmates were white, 39 percent were black, and 21 percent
were Hispanic (p. 74). The third group of instant noodle consumers are heavy
users and mainly have a minority background, such as Hispanics of Mexican her-
itage, who prefer the brand Maruchan, which controls 85 percent of the Mexican
market (p. 79). Heavy users of instant noodle soup do not view the consumption
of this industrial food as a transient phase in their lives but depend on the dish on
a daily basis. The final example of this comparative study is Papua New Guinea,
where the food giant Nestlé entered the market in the early 1980s with its Maggi
instant noodle products (p. 88). In Papua New Guinea, the makers of instant
noodle soup target the bottom of the pyramid, the poorest socioeconomic group
to which 85 percent of the population belongs. For them the instant noodle soup
is affordable and accessible in food stalls and for purchase in cheap, small pack
sizes. It is not only the mere consumption of the instant noodle soup in itself but
also the act of purchasing it that contributes to the formation of their identities
as consumers (p. 83).
The second part of this book discusses the global big food industry. The per-
spective shifts from the consumers to the producers of processed foods (p. 103).
The world population is expected to reach nine billion people by the year 2050
and will be divided into people who are malnourished and people who are chron-
ically overfed. Food industry giants argue that their products are life-saving and
necessary. But the authors question how scientists develop and market their prod-
ucts, and, more importantly, how they evaluate and justify their accomplishments
(p. 103). In contrast to the capitalist food giants, opponents of the food industry
such as Michael Pollan advocate the development of regional food systems that
make fresh and locally produced food more available to consumers (pp. 119–25).
But (how) can these principles be put into practice? Food technology experts
such as Christine Bruhn contend that it is essential to find a balance between the
demand of a radical self-sustainability and the responsibility of the food industry
(p. 122). The food industry could develop new forms of farming, such as preci-
sion agriculture, and seek to improve storage facilities and market access in order
to avoid food waste (p. 133).
The analysis of ramen consumers is convincing and sheds light on the reasons
for the consumption of fast-food products. However, there are a few critical points
to be raised. There should have been greater critical reflection on the utilization
of an instant food as a tool for socioeconomic analysis. Also, the celebration
of an instant food as key to the formation of consumer identity in Papua New
Guinea seems questionable and slightly disturbing. The second part of the book
raises very significant questions but leaves too little room for their exploration,
which is unfortunate. The most significant question that the authors raise – how
to achieve self-sustainability and how to utilize the food industry to reach this
objective – deserves a more critical and theoretically inspired investigation, which
would have added depth to the book.
The topic of ramen may initially seem trivial but given its international popu-
larity scholarly analysis of the food is timely. All three books offer innovative and
E-Print
© BLOOMSBURY PLC
108 Book Reviews
viable approaches to food studies; a closer look at them reveals that the questions
at stake are essential. Pursuing the history of ramen uncovers little-known ac-
counts of historical and political constellations, as Solt und Kushner show. Bigger
issues in food politics, as discussed in The Noodle Narratives, raise the question
of how we are going to feed a growing world population and what role the food
industry will play in this. Thinking about these questions is significant and makes
these books useful reading for students of food studies, East Asian studies, his-
tory and cultural anthropology.
Stephanie Assmann obtained a Ph.D. in the Sociology of Japan from the Uni-
versity of Hamburg, Germany, and is currently specially appointed professor at
the Research Faculty of Media and Communication at Hokkaido University in
Sapporo, Japan. assmann@imc.hokudai.ac.jp
Notes
1. Satomi Fukutomi, “Ramen Connoisseurs: Class, Gender and the Internet,” in
Japanese Foodways, Past and Present ed. Eric C. Rath and Stephanie Assmann
(Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 257–74.
2. Katarzyna J. Cwiertka, Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National
Identity (London: Reaktion Books, 2006), 24–34; Akira Shimizu, “Meat-
Eating in the Kojimachi District of Edo,” in Japanese Foodways, Past and
Present, ed. Eric C. Rath and Stephanie Assmann. Chicago, IL: University of
Illinois Press, 2010, 92–107.
References
Cwiertka, Katarzyna J. Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National
Identity. London: Reaktion Books, 2006.
Fukutomi, Satomi. “Ramen Connoisseurs: Class, Gender and the Internet.” In
Japanese Foodways, Past and Present, edited by Eric C. Rath and Stephanie
Assmann, 257–74. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2010.
Shimizu, Akira. “Meat-eating in the Kojimachi District of Edo.” In Japanese
Foodways, Past and Present, edited by Eric C. Rath and Stephanie Assmann,
92–107. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2010.
E-Print
© BLOOMSBURY PLC
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Article
Over the past two decades, the popularity of Japanese food in the West has increased immeasurably—a major contribution to the evolution of Western eating habits. But Japanese cuisine itself has changed significantly since pre-modern times, and the food we eat at trendy Japanese restaurants, from tempura to sashimi, is vastly different from earlier Japanese fare. Modern Japanese Cuisine examines the origins of Japanese food from the late nineteenth century to unabashedly adulterated American favorites like today’s California roll. Katarzyna J. Cwiertka demonstrates that key shifts in the Japanese diet were, in many cases, a consequence of modern imperialism. Exploring reforms in military catering and home cooking, wartime food management and the rise of urban gastronomy, Cwiertka shows how Japan’s numerous regional cuisines were eventually replaced by a set of foods and practices with which the majority of Japanese today ardently identify. The result of over a decade of research, Modern Japanese Cuisine is a fascinating look at the historical roots of some of the world’s best cooking and will provide appetizing reading for scholars of Japanese culture and foodies alike.
Ramen Connoisseurs: Class, Gender and the Internet
  • Satomi Fukutomi
Satomi Fukutomi, "Ramen Connoisseurs: Class, Gender and the Internet," in Japanese Foodways, Past and Present ed. Eric C. Rath and Stephanie Assmann (Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 257-74.
Meat-Eating in the Kojimachi District of Edo
  • Akira Shimizu
Akira Shimizu, "Meat-Eating in the Kojimachi District of Edo," in Japanese Foodways, Past and Present, ed. Eric C. Rath and Stephanie Assmann. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2010, 92-107.