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Monday, February 21, 2011

Today In My Pantry ...

When I was in college, money was so tight that pulling a $5 bill out of my wallet made an audible squeak. My roommates and I used to grocery shop together and it was cheap all the way. We bought this store-brand white bread that flaked so badly that I swear a third of each slice just filtered away. The off-brand peanut butter we kept on hand always had an oily water on top of it. And the generic macaroni and cheese dinners we purchased by the case … they weren’t even that scary orange color of the namebrand types. Once prepared, they produced a sickly dark yellow colored meal … like poorly cared for teeth. And turkey franks … the thought of them makes my stomach quake.

So when I had a job and was living on my own, I swore I would avoid all the “poor foods” of my past. So why, when I was putting away groceries the other day, did I notice five boxes … 60 packets … of Ramen noodles?

Ramen is a type of hand-pulled buckwheat noodle that originated in Chinese culture. For more than a century, restaurants serving Chinese cuisine have offered simple dishes of ramen in a salty broth flavored with pork bones. Portable food stalls and carts serving ramen to workers and shoppers at lunchtime have been common throughout Asia since the 1950s.

The “ramen” we Americans are familiar with actually comes from Japan. No one really knows when ramen was introduced into the diets of the Japanese, but it had a huge effect. Japanese ramen utilized the same Chinese-style wheat noodle but soaked the noodles in a variety of meat- and fish-based broths. Ramen noodles come in various shapes and lengths … fat, thin, or even ribbon-like, as well as straight or wrinkled.

Additionally, ramen tended to be very region specific … even to the point where various cities or villages were known for a separate ramen “formulation.” Traditional ramen in Japan was seasoned with soy sauce or miso (a savory/sweet condiment made from fermented rice and fungi) and topped with such items as dried seaweed, green onions, sliced pork, kamaboko (cured white fish), sesame seeds, and even corn. In Tokyo, though, ramen is made with thin, curly noodles served with soy-enhanced chicken broth and adorned with such things as spinach, egg, and menma (fermented bamboo shoots). While in the city of Fukuoka, ramen in the Hakata district is famous for its milk pork broth, dense straight noodles, and common garnishes of crushed garlic, pickled mustard greens, and beni shoga (pickled ginger).

Eating ramen gained great popularity in Japan in the first half of the 20th century, although it was still mostly consumed only during special occasions and on holidays. To meet this growing demand, many restaurants dedicated solely to the intricacies of producing ramen sprang up all over continental East Asia.

In 1958, ramen was revolutionized when Momofuku Ando, the Taiwanese-Japanese founder and chairman of Nissan Foods, invented instant noodles. This new creation … dried or pre-cooked noodles fused with oil … allowed anyone to make ramen at home by simply boiling them for between 2 and 5 minutes. The popularity of ramen skyrocketed overnight. Soon ramen was a staple at bars, karaoke establishments, and even amusement parks. At first, flavors and toppings remained traditional, but in the 1970s the manufacturer expanded the flavor profiles to include curry, miso, and shio (salt ramen). In 1971, the company went a step further with its “cup noodles” concept … a waterproof polystyrene cup containing noodles and seasoning. Add boiling water and a ramen meal was born!

In the ‘80s, the new instant ramen products were fine-tuned … flavors were expanded based on market research and a variety of dried toppings (shrimp, pork, egg, etc.) were added. At this time, Nissan Foods and its competitors began to saturate foreign markets with their ramen products. In the U.S., regardless of the brand, the crazy instant noodle called “ramen” became incredibly popular because of its low cost and ease of preparation. While lower income families embraced the product quickly, ramen was universally accepted by harried college students, on-the-go Moms, and busy office workers and executives. Today, ramen is as common as "baseball" and "apple pie." There are entire cookbooks dedicated to utilizing ramen noodles to the fullest. And some schools and break rooms in office buildings even have vending machines that sell cups of ready-to-go ramen. Common flavors in the United States include chicken, pork, beef, mushroom (have never seen it), shrimp, roast beef, roast chicken, chili, chili lime (actually sounds tasty!), vegetable, and "oriental" (soy flavored).

But ramen isn’t just a part of American life. Instant noodles have become a popular food item in many parts of the world, sometimes tweaked to fit local tastes. As of 2008, it was estimated that more than 94 billion servings of instant ramen are consumed annually worldwide. And because of the popularity and generally-inexpensive nature, sales data and consumption rates of ramen noodles are considered by some economists as a secondary economic indicator (SEI).

In places like Australia, Canada, Argentina, Hong Kong … all with substantial Asian population segments … ramen is a mainstay in grocery stores, quick marts, etc. Instant ramen is also gaining popularity in Russia, Ethiopia, the UK and Ireland, the Phillipines, Saudi Arabia, Poland, and many other locations. In Finland, Sweden, and Denmark, ramen is less popular, quite expensive, and only available at specialty food and ethnic-specific markets.

Some nations have REALLY made ramen their own. Germany has developed ramen varieties that favor beef and button mushroom (YUM!) varieties. Malaysia and Singapore have combined a love of ramen with the popularity of curry and seafood to create flavors like chili crab. In Brazil, ramen is commonly a creamier foodstuff, incorporating peppers and stronger spices. Likewise, countries like India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh favor bold flavors like masala, chicken tikka, and coriander-heavy curry. And in Indonesia, strong flavors also rule with popular ramen varieties like chicken curry and beef meatball. In fact, at one time one food company offered 30 varieties of ramen, all reflecting traditional and spicy Indonesian dishes.

In South Africa, a milder variety of ramen is popular among on-the-go individuals, with flavors like beef, chicken, cheese, and prawn. In Peru, ramen combines basic local flavors like chicken with greens and creole-style hen. And in Mexico, ramen is treated more like an inbetween-meal snack, boasting strong flavors like lime chicken and chili shrimp.

One extremely creative ramen development occurred in Thailand. Because of the noodles’ popularity, manufacturers teamed up with the Ministry of Public Health to add iron, iodine, and vitamin A to popular ramen brands in an effort to “fix” some local dietary insufficiencies. Also unusual in Thailand is the fact that ramen is often consumed without further cooking as a snack food … like we eat potato chips!

So … confession time … chicken ramen with red onion, sun-dried tomatoes, and broccoli added to it is awesome. I also throw in a bunch of smoked paprika, three dashes of hot sauce and a bit of wasabi. When I think about it, I have ramen about twice a week. Thus the five big boxes.

POINT OF RANT: I need a vertical-focused storage system for my ramen. Come on, Nissan Foods ... get on that!!

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