Even though I always stay just below Central Park at The London when I go to New York, whenever I’m in town I have to make the trip down to the East Village to visit Momofuku for a bowl of Chef David Chang’s ramen. In my more recent walks downtown, which take me down Broadway, through Gramercy Park, Union Square and past the Flatiron district, I’ve been tempted along the way by the small shops full of different styles of ramen that seem to be popping up on every corner. A New York Eater article from last year counted some 50-odd ramen spots between the Battery and Central Park South – so I know I’m not imagining things!
Like Wagamama here in the UK, which first opened in 1992, Momofuku has played a key role in the rollout of ramen as a hip food over the past few decades in the US. Around a year after David opened his first restaurant, the Momofuku Noodle Bar, in 2004 in New York’s East Village, he discovered that rather than using a fixed menu for lunch and dinner, more success was to be found from making what he and his cook Joaquin Baca felt like, leading to stranger and more adventurous dishes with better ingredients.
In the 13 years since then, Momofuku – also the name of the man who became an unsung legend to university students by inventing packaged ramen noodles, and is the subject of a museum in Osaka, Japan – has become a stalwart in the New York dining scene. Following the Noodle Bar’s success, David went on to open a collection of concept restaurants in the city, ranging from a kitchen-oriented tasting menu restaurant to a dessert-ony restaurant, and will soon start a delivery-only concept.
But even with restaurants now in Washington DC, Las Vegas, Sydney and Toronto, it is the original Noodle Bar in New York that The New York Times credits with being “imitated so many times … that it’s easy to forget how many of those features were borrowed from Japanese ramen-yas” – the tiny ramen houses tucked into corners throughout Japan, numbering up to 40,000 and JPY700bn (£5bn) in annual revenues, two of which have Michelin stars. And here in the UK, we’ve seen Wagamama balloon from a single location in Bloomsbury 25 years ago to a global chain with 170 locations and expanding rapidly, with a series of new restaurants sprouting up in New York, Spain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Since then, Wagamama and David Chang’s empire have paved the way for ramen to become one of Japan’s core culinary exports, following three decades dominated by sushi. Chains such as Hideto, Ippudo, Hide-Chan, Ramen Zundo-Ya and Ichiran that started in Japan have opened in cities across the globe, including Hong Kong, Los Angeles, London and Taiwan. With even the most expensive bowls coming in at less than US$20, ramen is a more accessible entry into Japanese food than sushi, and its simple, high-quality ingredients make it prime for the foodie market.
Aside from its addictive umami flavours, one of the main reasons that ramen has become such a success is due to how neatly it fits into one of the quickest-growing categories of the leisure industry: fast-casual dining. Although it features broth that has been slowly brewed for days, the preparation itself of the ramen is quick, with virtually no on-the-spot cooking involved. The rich broths simmer away slowly before being loaded with noodles, meat, hard-boiled eggs and seasoning, making it particularly social media-friendly – leading one amant of ramen to create a social media network for the food!
Moreover, the authenticity of many ramen establishments creates an ‘experience’, making it perfect to cater to youngest generation. Ichiran, which originated in Japan in the 1960s and has since launched in New York, has customers order from a machine when they come in, which prints a ticket. Customers can then customise their order even further – spicier, softer noodles, richer broth, you name it – and then they move to sit down in “flavour concentration booths” with dividers in between customers to minimise interactions – both with other customers and with the servers.
Even if eating ramen in silence and solace isn’t for everyone (other than the slurping sounds, of course), there are plenty of other options available – including a ramen-themed amusement park in Japan! – and the market is heating up. In mid-February, Japanese restaurant group Toridoll Holdings Corporation acquire a 40% stake in Shoryu Ramen for £7m, with plans to back an aggressive expansion plan for the nine-strong group. And stateside, MCA predicts the “bowl food” movement to continue its upward trajectory – meaning that ramen only stands to grow stronger.
However, the market remains highly fragmented. Both outside of and within Japan, the ramen industry remains dominated by small, independent operators – although some chains, such as Wagamama and Tenkaippin have in the area of 200 locations. The excitement of ramen that separates it from traditional Japanese food is its embrace of innovation and experimentation rather than age-old rules, allowing chefs to show their own identity through the use of different ingredients. Such flexibility and creativity will lead not only to a new generation of Japanese food – but could also allow ramen to lead the way through a period of global instability.