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The Ramen Evolution: A Historical Look at Everyone’s Favorite Noodles

Photo courtesy of Cody Chan of Unsplash

Lamian. Ramen. Ramyeon. Have you noticed the similarities among these three Asian noodles? All three are connected, with each dish representing a different cultural adaptation. It’s an evolution of sorts — somewhat akin to Pokémon — but with East Asian noodles.  

Still confused? No worries! Here’s an interesting historical rundown for everything you need to know about the ramen evolution:  


Source: Baidu

Lamian (拉面)

Country of Origin: China

Lā means “to pull” while miàn means “noodles.” This makes sense because the term refers to a specific type of Chinese wheat flour noodles that are hand-pulled. Said to have originated among the Muslim Hui people in Lanzhou, a once highly frequented stop along the Silk Road, lamian became popular because of the rapid proliferation of Muslim-owned restaurants in China. 

Though lamian is typically served in a hot bowl of soup and topped with several options of meat, the classic preparations, even now, are to have the noodles paired with beef — a custom that fits perfectly with the halal practices of the dish’s Muslim Hui origins.


Photographer: Geri Yurkon, Pixabay

Ramen (ラーメン)

Country of Origin: Japan

Because of its popularity all over the globe, most people may be shocked to learn that ramen is not Japanese in origin. Derived from the Chinese, lamian, the first indication of ramen’s non-Japanese roots is in the way the word itself is written: ラーメン. The term is generally written using katakana, a Japanese alphabet specifically used for foreign words. 

Initially called chūka soba or shina soba, which can both be translated as “Chinese soba,” ramen’s beginnings have been widely explained using these three origin theories:

1. During the 1660s

The first origin theory sets the birth of ramen during the 17th century, when feudal lord Tokugawa Mitsukuni followed the cooking advice of a Chinese refugee and put together a bowl of udon soup, garlic, green onions, and ginger. The dish was then passed down, eventually evolving into the modern ramen of today.

2. During the late 19th century

Pointing towards an origin caused by the opening of Japan to the outside world, the second origin theory speculates that lamian was brought in by Chinese settlers in port cities such as Yokohama and Kobe. During that time, the Japanese called ramen, “Nankin soba,” after the then capital of China, Nanjing. 

The dish then was very different from contemporary ramen, in that the former had no toppings and was eaten as a post-meal serving as opposed to being the meal itself. However, one particularly plausible detail about this theory is how Yokohama pushcarts have inspired the Tokyo versions that ramen is popularly served in today.

3. In 1910

A fun alternative to the others, this theory attributes the creation of ramen to one person — a Japanese merchant who opened Rai Rai Ken, a historically well-known shop, in the Asakusa district of Tokyo. Ozaki Kenichi, the founder of the business, decided to add soy sauce, chāshū (roasted pork), naruto (fish cake), boiled spinach, and seaweed to the once plain shina soba. This, of course, now resembles the modern ramen that everyone knows and loves today!


Photographer: Kim Jinhyun, Pixabay

Ramyeon (라면)

Country of Origin: South Korea

Momofuku Ando introduced instant ramen in 1958. The flash-fried version of ramen noodles became a staple among the Japanese masses, who were struggling from food shortages in the wake of the Second World War. 

While studying in Japan during the early 1960s, Jeon Jongyeun observed the popularity of Ando’s Nissin instant ramen. He was then reminded of the innovation upon witnessing the economic difficulties encountered by the Korean people. Adopting a similar style to the Japanese flash-fried noodles, Jeon introduced ramyeon to the Korean market under the brand Samyang. 

Now, after several evolutions, these uniquely spicy noodles are inarguably a valuable facet of Korean identity, best eaten alongside a side of kimchi as a hearty snack or stomach-filling meal! 

After centuries of history and intercultural exchanges, noodles have come a long way. Each delicious in its own right, the lamian-ramen-ramyeon trilogy is definitely not only important manifestations of cuisine, culture, and history but also globally recognized dishes for all to enjoy. 


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