Although ramen is now an iconic Japanese dish, it’s actually an immigrant, and the names originally used for it made that perfectly clear. Chūka soba and Shina soba both basically mean “Chinese noodles” but have very different connotations. Chūka soba became the most-used term after World War II and is having something of a revival. It replaced shina soba as the political connotations of “shina” became controversial, since it was the word used for China when Japan was an imperialist power in Asia. But there’s no dish in China that closely resembles today’s Japanese ramen, so the story is much more complicated than a simple borrowing.
Solt presents three main origin myths about ramen, and what he calls “The first and most imaginative” comes from a book published in 1987. It credits a legendary feudal lord, Tokugawa Mitsukuni, as the first to eat ramen in the 1660s. This is based on a historical record of a Chinese refugee giving him advice on what to add to his udon soup to make it tastier, including garlic, green onions, and ginger.
The second and more plausible story associates ramen with the opening of Japan to the outside world in the late nineteenth century. Port cities like Yokohama and Kobe attracted Chinese as well as westerners, who brought with them a noodle soup called laa-mien, handmade noodles in a light chicken broth. Japanese called the dish Nankin soba (Nanjing noodles) after the capitol of China. This soup didn’t have toppings and was eaten at the end of the meal instead of being a meal in itself, so again, it’s hardly identical to the ramen of today. But it does seem to have a far more legit claim to being a predecessor: the Yokohama version inspired Tokyo pushcart peddlers who started selling noodle soup in the old Ueno and Asakusa neighborhoods of Tokyo in the early twentieth century.
The third tale is similar to the second, but attributes the invention to a single person, which always makes a more satisfying story. In 1910, a shop called Rai-Rai Ken opened in the Asakusa district of Tokyo. The owner, Ozaki Kenichi, had been a customs agent in Yokohama, but the soup he served wasn’t the unadorned nineteenth century version: it sounds like it would be familiar to anyone who’s eaten ramen lately:
- Rai-Rai Ken incorporated a soy sauce–based seasoning sauce and served its noodle soup, referred to as Shina soba, with chāshū (roasted pork), naruto (fish-meal cake), boiled spinach, and nori (seaweed)—ingredients that together would form the model for authentic Tokyo-style ramen.