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Ramen: King of Noodles

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Nissin top ramen Casita
Some might say that ramen-consciousness peaked with the publication of NPR commentator Andy Raskin’s The Ramen King and I: How the Inventor of Instant Noodles Fixed My Love Life, a self-described “Japanese-fast-food memoir and quasi-spiritual autobiography” that found its author seeking mentorship from Nissan Food Products chairman Momofuku Ando, the 90-something inventor of instant ramen. Raskin could hardly exhaust the cultural range and reach of this beloved staple of college dorms, which has not only been hailed in Japanese polls as the country’s greatest invention of the 20th century but boasts its own museum in Yokohama and was recently celebrated in a weeklong tradeshow in Tokyo last November.

Though its provenance is actually Chinese, the thin, wheat-based noodle had been appropriated by Japanese cuisine in the 19th century and perhaps reached its apotheosis with Ando’s advent of the instant variety, which hit the market in 1958 and has remained popular since. Ramen came to the US in 1971 and was initially marketed as “Oodles of Noodles,” which soon gave way to the pre-packaged instant soup kit, Cup Noodles (colloquially known as “Cup O’ Noodles), the following year. Since then, ramen has secured a unique place in American cuisine if not its culture-at-large as the king of cheap eats. From indie record companies (Fueled by Ramen, a New York City-based label) to Hollywood rom-coms (slain actress Brittany Murphy’s The Ramen Girl was to be the culinary equivalent of the Karate Kid) have leaned on the noodle for inspiration. And why not? As Ando himself famously intoned, “Mankind is Noodlekind.”

Instant ramen is usually accompanied with a seasoned broth packet (chicken and beef being the most popular) and variety of dehydrated vegetables, which become activated with hot water. The top brands include Nissan Top Ramen, Maruchan Ramen, Sapporo Ichiban and Thailand-based Mama brand, though there are dozens more in the running –most industrialized nations boast their own producer. Of course, the ramen experience is well represented on the blogosphere, though its acolytes tend to skew toward higher-end permutations of the dish with GoRamen.com and RamenRamenRamen.net leading an elite pack of ramen-bloggers.

Though Ando died in 2007, a year shy of his invention’s 50th anniversary, his life’s work lives with his son Koki Ando, who announced to the World Instant Noodles Summit in April that he will oversee the launch of a more health-conscious and eco-friendly version of instant ramen.

"Evolution is very important," said the younger Ando – one of many hot, polystyrene cups of wisdom sure to come from the scion of the ramen dynasty.

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