OPEN END-O: The Psychology of Ramen


Ellen Endo headshot2By ELLEN ENDO

“There is no sincerer love than the love of food.” –George Bernard Shaw, Nobel Prize-winning playwright

My love-hate relationship with that ubiquitous staple known as “ramen” began when I was around 10 years old. Dad was a big fan of fresh noodles. That left two choices: Make them at home yourself or buy them.

We didn’t own a noodle-making machine, so it was off to the Hong Kong Noodle Company about five blocks away.

As I approached the front counter, a man in an apron reached for a box of dried noodles and put it in front of me. Most people preferred the dried variety because of the longer shelf life. But my dad had taught me well. “Fresh ones, please,” I’d say in an assertive, albeit tiny, voice.

The noodle man stifled a smile as if to say, “Ah, this kid knows her noodles.” I handed him the money and went on my way.

At home, a culinary masterwork was emerging. Ground beef, tomatoes, oregano, olive oil, garlic, and other ingredients known only to my mother had been coalescing into Old World sauce since the day before. After nearly a full day of anticipation, the time had finally arrived. It was spaghetti night at the Endos!

The obvious paradox was simply ignored: Sauce that takes several hours to prepare versus noodles ready in about 150 seconds. I had always felt that traditional, store-bought pasta (average cooking time: 8 minutes) would result in more authentic-tasting pasta and, frankly, wouldn’t take that much longer to cook.

By then, however, Mom had bought into every new American convenience. Frozen dinners, instant coffee, the TV remote control, and fitted sheets — what a great country! Life in America was full of modern conveniences, and she loved every one of them.

Our family’s Japanese-Italian fusion had its roots in 1944 in Italy when Dad was serving with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Italy. Mom and Dad fell in love, got married, and had me. It’s a romantic story worthy of its own Disney movie. Very sweet, I know. But never mind that. Back to ramen.

Since it was introduced to the United States, ramen has helped sustain three maybe four generations of students, newlyweds, single moms, underpaid office workers, young adults trying to make it on their own for the first time, and countless other economically challenged consumers.

Based on the popularity of ramen restaurants and Nissin’s over $3.2 billion in annual sales, the bond that’s created with ramen endures long after a person’s financial circumstances change. The once-starving students have grown into discriminating foodies with steady jobs. They are willing to pay $5 for Frappuccinos, chase down gourmet food trucks for the perfect taco, and wait in long lines to eat a bowl of nostalgia.

Today, when I see indomitable customers lined up outside of ramen restaurants in Little Tokyo, Sawtelle, Gardena, Torrance, and the San Gabriel Valley, I know they aren’t just jonzing for a bowl of hot soup. They are throwing back to the carefree days when their mothers were still doing their laundry.

• According to the Huffington Post, China’s global demand for instant noodles is the highest. In 2013, China consumed more than 46 billion packets of ramen. Tong-Yi Instant Noodles, a popular Chinese brand, is sold almost everywhere, from Walmart to street stalls.

• Since the 1970s, three companies have entered the instant ramen market in the United States: Maruchan, Nissin, and Sanyo (Sapporo Ichiban). Ramen is now produced in Gardena, Yorba Linda, and Irvine in California, Richmond (Virginia), San Antonio (Texas), and Lancaster (Pennsylvania).

• Although the original dish, lo mein, is from China, instant ramen was invented in Japan in 1958 by Momofuku Ando, founder of Nissin Foods.

• There is a CupNoodle Museum in Yokohama.

• If laid out in one long strand, the noodle from one package of ramen would be 51 meters long.

• In 2005, astronaut Soichi Noguchi became the first person to eat ramen in space. The vacuum-sealed meal was also invented by Ando.

• In Japan, ramen is often called gakusei ryori, or “student cuisine.”

Maruchan became the official soup of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

• There are over 35,000 ramen restaurants in Japan, each with its own ramen recipe and combinations.

• Maruchan, just one of the two major ramen manufacturers, produces 3.6 billion packages of ramen noodle soup a year.

It turns out that my mother’s marathon spaghetti sauce was not too far off the gastronomical mark. Like her sauce, a hardy broth for today’s restaurant-quality ramen must simmer for several hours to reach its peak flavor.

And, Dad had it right, too. If the broth is the heart of a perfect bowl of ramen, then the noodle is the soul. Generally, fresh is better no matter whether we’re talking about vegetables, meat, or bread. But we already knew that, didn’t we?


As I return to writing a regular column for The Rafu, I can’t help but wonder what George “Horse” Yoshinaga would have had to say on the subject of ramen. I know for certain that he would have had an opinion and, if we were lucky, reminiscences of his own.

Like many of you, I miss that irascible, strong-minded, fearless curmudgeon. While his opinions didn’t represent all Nisei, he was unique to a generation that didn’t always speak up for itself.

So here’s to Horse. Rest in peace, my friend.

Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of The Rafu Shimpo or its management. Comments and/or inquiries should be directed to [email protected]












1 Comment

Leave A Reply