Sometime last week, Dave Chang of Momofuku fame declared ramen dead (in the States). You can read his diatribe in its entirety over at Lucky Peach, but he makes several ludicrous claims there, including, “Access to instantaneous information from the Internet has killed innovation in ramen,” “Ramen was always a fringe pursuit in Japan” and, most absurd of all, “Ramen is not supposed to be about shared experiences; ramen is food for those who don’t want to be part of the mainstream.”
This is, of course, a whole crock of horse shit.
Chang’s ramen obituary struck me as a whole lot of hipster hand-wringing over how ramen is no longer this exclusive boys club now that the Internet’s leveled out the playing field. It also displays a fundamental lack of understanding as to how innovation and progress works: no matter the field, informational accessibility does not hinder innovation. Quite the contrary. Knowledge works by building on the knowledge of those who came before — instead of having to learn how to make Lego blocks, you can use the blocks to build a Lego mansion! Access to information is great. In the case of ramen: because of all the recipes out there (still not very many in English, honestly) you waste less time (and ingredients, which is important for non-chefs without kitchen-sized ingredient baskets to play with) figuring out how to make decent noodles or a ramen base. Instead, you can spend your time tinkering with the recipe until it tastes like yours. (Or not. It’s all cool.) Whatever it is, innovation is contingent on informational accessibility.
Chang’s condemnation of people having access to information about ramen is breathtakingly hypocritical. While ramen apprentices in Japan have to undergo years of working under another master, he skipped out on that whole process. He had shortcuts to information, and blithely admits as much. Japanese people –not even translators, so presumably he wasn’t paying them for their time and effort — on Craigslist translated recipes for him. He was also lucky enough to visit Japan and see how they made ramen. He was, “Figuring out what it was like to make ramen in America,” using their knowledge, innovating on their recipes.
Does Chang actually think access to information is a bad thing? Surely not. Lucky Peach facilitated that access to information about ramen by making it the subject of their first issue — all that information that took Japan a few decades to build up and consolidate, he summarised and put in a magazine available to the hoi polloi. (That ramen issue is now out of print, and retails on Amazon by third-party sellers for over $100.) He was one of the first to really popularise ramen in the States, but now that the Internet has made the sharing of ramen recipes more democratic, and people don’t have to visit Japan to learn how to make ramen, ramen is suddenly too mainstream. Suddenly, it’s dead.
Chang claims that before the Internet, “Nobody gave a shit about ramen.” Maybe nobody gave a shit because nobody in the States knew much about it. He also has this warped idea that ramen in Japan was “always” akin to this anarcho-punk type fringe culture. The great thing about access to the Internet, incidentally, is being able to read George Solt’s fascinating 250-page dissertation on the cultural trajectory of ramen in modern Japan. A few history notes: eating ramen was fashionable in the 1960s. Instant ramen was a symbol of modernisation and industrialisation. Ramen appeared in films, comics, television shows — Tampopo (1985) being one of the most famous. Chefs started making artisanal ramen in the 1980s, and ramen became a “dish of national nostalgia” and “the favourite of the anti-gourmet working class eaters.” There is even the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum, which is separate from the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum and CupNoodles Museum. Any food important enough to be part of the national cuisine and have its own museum is most empathically not fringe.
Anyway, the whole notion of ‘fringe’ when it comes to food is just plain baffling, unless we’re really talking about the process whereby everyday food from a non-white community suddenly gets thrust into the Western foodie limelight and marketed as the next big thing. I mean, seriously. That’s the only reason you would need some kind of mythical narrative that grants ramen outsider status, so that dabbling it in can look all cool and rebellious and everyone will want to pay stupid amounts of money for it. Chang’s statement isn’t just the kind of thing wannabe outliers who care about being cool come up with; this is the commodification of culture. It’s Marketing 101.
(The thing about Orientalist outlooks on East Asia: now that we can actually learn about those regions and hear from people there, the Orient is no longer exotic. Now that everyone can take a stab at making their own tonkotsu, ramen has lost its mystique. And sweeping statements like, “Ramen in Japan was always a fringe pursuit” can be debunked with Google!)
But back to the hand-wringing over how ramen has become too mainstream in the States. It’s really not mainstream at all; just because all the food blogs and magazines are talking endlessly about it to everyone else in this foodie bubble doesn’t mean it’s actually penetrated the mainstream. Ramen isn’t part of American culture the way it is Japanese culture. More importantly, ramen — artisanal ramen, not instant noodles — is not mainstream because it is expensive. It’s made with ingredients that are sometimes harder to find outside of Japan or just cost more in the States, and it’s marketed to foodie types who are willing to spend more on dining out — i.e., not your average American.
In Japan, the point of ramen is that it’s B-grade cuisine that’s been elevated to Mona Lisa levels while remaining affordable. The average price of a bowl barely scrapes $9. In places like California, New York and even Texas, we’re talking $14-$17 bowls of soup noodles. (Ivan Orkin makes some wonderful and salient arguments about the high cost of making ramen in America, and I can sympathize. But the fact is that a bowl of handcrafted ramen like his is still too expensive for many Americans.) Burgers, on the other hand, now those are pretty damn mainstream. You can find them everywhere, expensive or cheap. But no one’s bemoaning, Oh god burgers are so mainstream. I don’t know for sure, but maybe this is what Dave Chang’s really grousing about: people are jumping on the money-making bandwagon, and his own overrated ramen’s getting left behind.
Here’s the thing: more ramen is a good thing. Putting aside the fact that the market for ramen is just starting to grow, market saturation actually increases the need for innovation. So what if everyone’s making tonkotsu? You just have to make a better tonkotsu. Once people get sick of that, consumers are going to want a variety of ramen that may not be tonkotsu. People are going to want to make more interesting ramen for other people. One of the best things I’ve heard about that’s emerged from this boom is the ramen tasting menu from Yuji Ramen in New York, which sounds utterly brilliant. If more people are selling ramen, maybe we’ll reach a point where ramen in the States might become actually more affordable! Well, one can dream.
Besides, ramen in the States has a long way to go before the overall quality of ramen even begins to live up to the good stuff in Japan. (I feel qualified to make this judgment, having been lucky enough to have eaten ramen at various places in both these countries.) That’s a lot of room for improvement and innovation. Japan took a whole century to get as far as they have with ramen. With more people pooling their resources on the internet, the whole world gets to put their own twist on this dish. The potential for innovation is greater than ever, and in an age where social media reviews make or break a restaurant, it will either get better, stay good, or die. Ramen, at this point, can only get better. When North America reaches the point where Japanese tourists can honestly say about any random ramen joint, this is as good as the stuff we have back home, then you can consider the market saturated.
On the subject of innovation and improvement, Dave Chang thinks ramen burgers and ramen burritos are, “The fucking end of everything.” Never mind that some people might actually like them; never mind that not every variation on a theme has to be groundbreaking Einstein-level shit; never mind that not everything needs his stamp of approval. Perhaps Chang should take a look at his own double standards: right after publishing his hipster chef rant, he released a video detailing how to make a Ramlet – a ramen omelette. Apparently, ramen burritos and ramen burgers are “low hanging fruit” — but mixing a packet of instant ramen powder into eggs and going about your business is totally innovative and cool. (It probably tastes pretty good, though.)
Anyway, cool is seriously overrated when it comes to food. Food doesn’t stop being delicious because it’s no longer trendy. The pursuit of originality in ramen – hell, any kind of cuisine — is laudable, but not every eating experience has to be a lightning bolt from heaven. Roast chicken isn’t original by any stretch of the imagination, but everyone still loves it. That’s why people like chains like McDonalds and Starbucks. It’s the comfort you get from consistency, and knowing that you’re going to taste the same damn thing no matter where you are. There’s nothing wrong with finding tonkotsu that tastes kind of similar across several cities, because not everyone has the means to travel and eat every bowl there is known to man. So what if they taste a bit uninspired? Sometimes ramen is really just a bowl of noodle soup. But if this ramen boom means that more people are trying to make delicious food, and more people have access to that, well then fuck yes! If more people can experience ramen as something other than poor student food, fuck yes.
Ramen isn’t dead. It’s just getting started.
Screw you, Dave Chang.
Special thanks to Jessica R. for her sharp comments on drafts.
[Originally published on 22nd January at Umamimart. Hello there!]