Ramen is a Japanese noodle dish that consists of a meaty broth, noodles, and shredded vegetables and meats. The popular food is available fresh at noodle stands all over Japan, and also in a dried, packaged form that is widely eaten all over the world. Inexpensive packaged ramen is often associated with poverty, because it provides basic nutrition on a limited budget and can be easily dressed up with the addition of vegetables and meats. In Japan, this dish is eaten widely by all classes, and can be found in incarnations from simple to gourmet.
The tradition of noodles in Japanese cuisine is very old, although wheat noodles in broth probably date back to the 1700s. The addition of meats to the broth was largely a response to interaction with the West, where large amounts of meat products are eaten. The concept of noodles in broth became very popular with street side stands, and continues to be in Japan to this day, where most major cities have a plethora of noodle shops offering ramen in numerous flavors. In 1958, Momofuku Ado, founder of Nissin foods, invented instant noodles that could be dried and packaged with a powdered broth. Consumers could quickly and easily make them at home, and the noodles became an instant hit.
Ramen is found in a variety of regional incarnations all over Japan. The core broth of the soup can be made from miso, fish, meat, or vegetables. The rich stock is supplemented with bonito flakes, shreds of seaweed, beef bones, shiitake mushrooms, or onions. The noodles are usually made from wheat, and cooked separately from the broth. After being drained, the noodles are added to the broth and toppings are selected. Toppings in Japan come in myriad combinations. Pickled vegetables, fresh vegetables, fried eggs, poached eggs, meats, and a variety of fish are all commonly seen on ramen, depending on the region of Japan that the dish is being consumed in.
In the West, packaged ramen is very easy to find. In large urban areas with a big Japanese community, it is also possible to find stands and noodle shops where traditional Japanese ramen can be sampled. Most specialize in regional specialties including cold ramen, noodles that are designed to be dipped in sauces like cold soba, and fried ramen. In Hawaii, ramen integrating traditional Polynesian ingredients is often sold alongside Japanese versions, thanks to the extensive mixture between the two cultures.