A brief note:
I wrote this for a class and submitted it as a final paper on December 17, 2019. I received a perfect score, and the professor asked if it could be submitted for an award within the university. That never came to fruition, but I am appreciative nonetheless. This was for what I call a “forced diversity” class. Personally, I whipped it out in a few short hours the evening before it was due. What follows is a rough collection of thoughts as related to “foodways” and how they shape our society…written in a manner that fulfilled the requirements for the assignment. Personally, I think this need to write in a way that fulfilled the assignment clearly shows. I am unfamiliar with a decent amount of topics I touch on, as my knowledge in them only scratches the surface. Please excuse any errors.
What is this all about?
Picky eater? Guilty as charged.
A (very) brief history.
Belonging and Otherness.
Our foodways shape our social spaces and impact our cultural understanding of one another. Depending on one’s ethnic, economic, and cultural background, one might gravitate towards certain foods over others. Though our foodways are important, many of us never stop to think about them. Why is it that we eat what we eat? Why is it that certain foods are familiar and comforting, while others remain strange and exotic? My own experiences have shaped my preferences, and that means some foods will always be representative of the Other. One dish in particular is as much a part of my life and memory as it is foreign. Ramen, a dish that has been so cheap and ubiquitous throughout my life, is a dish with a long and rich history that is representative of the way our respective circumstances have shaped our perspective of food as it relates our identities.
If someone were to know that my parents are first and second generation immigrants from Mexico and Peru, they might assume that I was raised eating plenty of traditional Mexican and Peruvian dishes. Of course, I am familiar with a number of these dishes, but it would be wrong to assume that I like or have even eaten most of them. At gatherings, my family would welcome me in Spanish, but I would promptly reply back in English. The family gatherings on my mother’s side often featured a wide assortment of traditional Mexican dishes, while gatherings on my father’s side featured the “usual” mix of carne asada plates with rice and beans, lomo saltado, and anticuchos, with a cold Inca Cola to wash it all down with. Though I would happily eat three or four of these different dishes, I would never go near the majority of what my grandparents and other extended family members had to offer me. I had no interest in the likes of pozole, nor carne adobada, I turned my nose up at ceviche, and I could in no way ever even stand to smell anything spicy. My family pressured me to try various dishes, but to no avail. I had already known what most of these dishes tasted like from my earlier attempts to “try something new.”
To some extent, it can be said that I was an outsider within my own family. I was teased for not speaking Spanish, and I was teased for not eating whatever it was at that time that they were trying to feed me. Unlike most of my large extended family, I was born in the United States to parents who were both raised here rather than in Mexico. My parents divorced when I was at a young age, so I grew up in a single-parent household. My mother worked twelve-hour shifts for the many years that I had lived under her roof. With the exception of her days off, which she normally spent sleeping, I would, at best, typically only have a few short hours with her per day. Like many in my situation, I found that most of my meals came pre-packaged and ready for the microwave. Is it no wonder, then, that years of eating packaged and processed “instant” foods had an effect on my preferences? That I think twice when I am offered something spicy, or something fishy, or something that simply does not look or smell quite “normal” to me?
Certainly, I had the occasional “real food” a few times a week, but this was usually in the form of a basic spaghetti and salad meal, or chicken breast accompanied with rice and canned vegetables. These meals could only be had three or four times a week though; cooking could only get a child so far when the only adult in the house was at work or simply too exhausted to teach me. In terms of ingredients, the pantry, fridge, and freezer had also left much to be desired. Out of my commonly available options, the item that was the cheapest and most plentiful was instant ramen. Instant ramen was easy to make, the carbohydrates from the noodles kept me full (at least for a while), and the brick of dried noodles could even be broken apart in the bag, shaken up with the seasoning packet, and eaten much like potato chips. Even at school, friends and other students could occasionally be seen eating the noodles dry, right out of the packaging. The food was always there, but I never stopped to consider where it had come from.
“Maruchan” is one variety of instant ramen that certainly exists and is fairly popular, but my mother had always referred to instant ramen as “Top Ramen,” no matter the packaging. Until I was older and knew better, I had just thought that the Maruchan label was the knock-off or “store brand” version of Top Ramen (though both cost about the same). To some extent, I was right about that assumption. Nissin, founded by Momofuku Ando, is the dominant company that manufactures instant ramen noodles. “Top Ramen” is Nissin’s brand name for their packaged “brick” version as opposed to their “Cup Noodles” variety. Some of the text printed on any given Top Ramen package states that Ando invented instant noodles in Japan in 1958. The historian George Solt (2014) asserts that the popularity of instant ramen in Japan spread “during the high growth period,” when “large-scale import of cheap American wheat into Japan” was occurring (p.116). Ramen noodles are indeed wheat-based noodles as opposed to other types of noodles that might be rice-based. Post-war Japan was experiencing a food shortage when Ando created his instant noodles, and the United States was providing aid for this primarily in the form of wheat flour. Ando did not approve of the flour being used for bread as opposed to noodles (Solt, 2014, p. 115). Solt (2014) writes that Ando believed “that the invention of instant ramen contributed to the preservation of Japanese food culture by allowing wheat flour imports to be used for noodles rather than bread” (p. 116-117). Solt provides a clarifying quote from Ando:
I have already stated my belief that food forms the basis for culture, art, and civilization. This means that if you change your diet, you are in effect throwing away your traditions and cultural heritage. I believed that to adapt to a bread diet was tantamount to adapting Western culture. (Solt, 2014, p.116)George Solt
Nissin’s ramen noodles are primarily composed of three ingredients: wheat flour, salt, and palm oil. The broth for their noodles is made by emptying a flavor packet into the water one uses to boil the noodles in. As flavors can vary, so can ingredients. Solt (2014) notes that ramen’s soup broth (the shiru) “is made by simmering some combination of meat, seafood, and vegetables,” with the meat typically being chicken or pork (p. 19). The common vegetables found in the broth are “onions, scallions, ginger, and garlic” (Solt, 2014, p. 19). Lastly, the “concentrated seasoning sauce (tare)” is usually one of three flavors: “salt (shio), fermented soybean paste (miso), or soy sauce (shōyu)” (Solt, 2014, p. 20). As Top Ramen consists of only two parts, the noodles and the flavor packet, there are no “real” meats or vegetables in the dish. The powdered flavor packet contains a large amount of salt, but only contains small amounts of dried leek flake, egg whites, garlic powder, and powdered meat of some variety (depending on one’s chosen flavor).
Nissin (n.d.) brought their product to the United States in 1972, when they opened their production plant in Gardena, California (Our Story). To this day, any given Top Ramen package found in California is likely to have been manufactured by Nissin Foods (USA) in Gardena, California. Nissin (n.d.) also has a location in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, but it is likely that each plant is meant to service opposite regions of the United States for the purpose of efficiency (FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions). With the complete package being manufactured in Gardena, it is likely that a nearby distribution center is responsible for loading the product onto a truck and shipping it the roughly 120 miles to any number of supermarkets or convenience stores in Bakersfield (where I grew up). The aforementioned ingredients are all likely sourced from within the United States, with the except of the palm oil.
Nissin (n.d.) claims that since joining the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in 2013, they have only sourced their palm oil through other RSPO members (Making Products More Sustainable). Nissin states that their suppliers have to “adhere to principles and policies ranging from deforestation to ethical treatment of workers” (Nissin Foods, n.d., Making Products More Sustainable). Nissin’s commitment is only logical considering that today’s palm oil supply is commonly known to originate from sources in Africa, Indonesia, and other “third-world” nations where the clearcutting of forests and the use of slave-labor are still very real concerns. As the ingredients found in Top Ramen are simple, I spent many years unaware that ramen usually consisted of more than just noodles in a salty broth.
In early 2006, my friend Chris and I had met at his house to skateboard three and a half miles to his friend’s house in Bakersfield’s Seven Oaks neighborhood. We ended up meeting his friend at one of the neighborhood’s parks. It was a warm day, likely sometime in the month of May, and the three of us were slowly walking down the street when the topic of ramen was brought up. Our discussion had previously revolved around the popular shōnen anime Naruto, in which the titular character, Naruto Uzumaki, was particularly fond of ramen from his favorite stall, Ichiraku Ramen. It was Naruto’s enthusiastic boasting and borderline addiction to ramen that first made me curious to compare my cheap and comparatively pathetic instant noodles to the show’s mouth-watering depiction of a large, hot, noodle-filled bowl topped with meat, vegetables, and egg.
My childhood experience is much like what George Solt describes: the “exposure of American youths to Japanese popular culture in the late 1990s and 2000s, in the form of graphic arts” helped spread ramen in the United States (Solt, 2014, p. 192). Chris had asked me if I had ever had “real” ramen before, like in the show. After telling him that I had not, he mentioned to me that his friend’s mom made an incredible ramen dish with meat, vegetables, and egg all included. I never got the chance to try his friend’s family recipe, but his description only furthered my curiosity. My version of instant ramen was familiar, it was safe; attempting to try “real ramen” would be a new experience for me, outside of my own foodway. As Vicki Ruiz (2008) said, “foodways can be read as foreign or exotic,” but “they can also serve as markers of the familiar” (p. 6). Even if I had wanted to though, there was no way I could actually try the coveted “real ramen.”
Solt (2014) notes that ramen, as made in a restaurant, “was unknown to most people in the United States until the 2000s,” and those of us outside of cities “with a substantial population of Japanese residents would probably still have difficulty finding a bowl in 2013” (p. 191). Asians in Bakersfield currently account for just 7.2% of the city’s racial and ethnic makeup (“Race and Ethnicity in Bakersfield, California,” n.d.). Naturally the Japanese, being a subset of that population, would represent even a smaller percentage. Perhaps this is representative of author Jeff Chang’s (2016) lament that “panethnicity” was “a creation of the state—a provocation turned census category” (p.140). Chang (2016) claims “the state has been blunt and overbroad” in how it has lumped “all kinds of people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent together” (p.140-141). As such, it is hard to tell how many people of Japanese descent reside in Bakersfield. Even just using the percentage from the broader term “Asian” though, presents a picture that is easy to imagine. Very few ramen restaurants currently exist in Bakersfield, and there were likely even less during the years—my childhood years—during which Solt mentioned “restaurant ramen” was largely unknown. “Real ramen” was simply outside of my foodway.
My desire to eat “real ramen” as opposed to instant noodles could be seen as an example of what Lucy M. Long calls “culinary tourism.” Long (1998) notes that “adventurous eating” is contextual, as it is dependent “on the perspective and motivations of the eater” (para. 1). It is culinary tourism by which “a foodways is considered representative of the Other” (Long, 1998, para. 1). Originally, it could be said that my desire to eat “real ramen” was rooted in a need to satisfy my “curiosity about Otherness,” hence my desire being characteristic of “tourism” rather than the more general “exploratory” eating (Long, 1998, para. 2). I never ate my first “real” bowl of ramen, however, until I was an adult living in the northern end of California’s Orange County. This part of California has a substantially larger Asian population than Bakersfield, where ramen restaurants are more common (especially post-2000s and into the 2010s). However, my decision to eat that bowl was not rooted in curiosity alone.
My girlfriend, a Korean woman, was the ultimate catalyst for my decision to finally experience, in 2017, what “real ramen” was supposed to taste like. According to Long, a “consideration for one’s host,” does not constitute tourism, as tourism requires that I sought a new experience “for the sake of the experience itself” (Long, 1998, para. 2). Still, my openness to finally sit down in an “authentic” Japanese ramen restaurant was a mix of both. Was this a part of what Jeff Chang (2016) meant when he asked “What does it mean to be the evidence that racism is not real? To be fetishized by colorblind liberals and white supremacists alike?” (p. 144). Chang was referring to a different topic, but his questioning of the fetishization of Asians by “colorblind liberals and white supremacists alike” stuck with me. Have I been guilty of fetishizing “Asianness” by taking an interest in both Japanese and Korean food, music, entertainment, language, and their broad culture in general? My desire to try new Korean foods stemmed from wanting to better relate to and understand my first-generation Korean girlfriend and her family, but what about my love of Japanese manga, anime, movies, and curiosity for their food, language, and culture? Perhaps that is more akin to Long’s “tourism;” do I have a desire to experience the Other simply for the sake of it? At what point does this “tourism” translate to appreciation? At what point is it a fetish?
Lucy Long (2015) based her definition of culinary tourism on “the idea of tourism being voluntary—becoming a tourist is a choice, and with that choice there is an implied openness to the new” (para. 2). Vicki Ruiz (2008) posed the question: “Do foodways bring people together across cultures, within racial/ethnic communities, or do they serve as signifiers of otherness?” (p. 2). At the very least with tourism, there is an openness to what is new, but it is only for the sake of experiencing that which is new. Japanese cuisine, ramen, signified the Other, but my childish curiosity has long since developed into a desire to understand and appreciate aspects of other cultures, not for the sake of the experience itself, but to gain a deeper understanding. Is this desire “acceptable,” is it “ok,” is it “healthy”? If I feel I have a cultural connection to the Japanese through their food and entertainment, is that appreciation or appropriation? If I marry my Korean girlfriend, is adopting aspects of Korean culture for the sake of the cultural enrichment of our potential children appropriation or appreciation? Whatever the answer may be, I think it is clear to me that foodways certainly bring people together across cultures and within racial/ethnic communities.
Vicki Ruiz (2008) wrote of how “examples of appropriation and conflict in relation to Mexican cuisine reveal” what historian Donna R. Gabaccia called “the symbolic power of food to reflect cultural or social affinities in moments of change or transformation” (p. 2). Historian George Solt (2014), wrote that ramen as we know it today originated in China and entered Japan in either 1665, 1884, or 1910, as either ūshin udon, Nankin soba, or Shina soba (p. 31). I am left wondering, is “appropriation” perhaps only so if it is malicious? Then again, by whose authority is “appropriation” considered “malicious” or not? I only feel as if my girlfriend, her family, potential future children, and I myself could benefit from me adopting aspects of Korean culture. Ramen itself, largely seen and accepted as distinctly Japanese, did not entirely originate in Japan either.
Considering which year (1665, 1884, or 1910) of ramen’s introduction to Japan one follows, one would arrive “at a different dish with its own origin story and a distinct historical trajectory producing a particular view of Japan” (Solt, 2014, p. 31). Ultimately, Solt (2014) concludes that “the adoption of ramen in Japan was a collective, multiethnic effort, with many non-Japanese actors playing major roles” (p. 54). My personal favorite happens to be chāshū rāmen (pork belly), which Solt (2014) traces back to a Korean man who resided in Japan named Takamoto Koji (p. 51). Thus, ramen as a dish certainly contains the aforementioned “symbolic power,” that absolutely reflects “cultural or social affinities in moments of change or transformation” (Ruiz, 2008, p. 2).
In the mid-twentieth century post-war period, ramen in Japan became popular among construction workers and young bachelors. It became a dish “essential to the nightlife industry,” yet symbolic of their blue-collar “frustration and stagnation in the highly rationalized and commodity-defined economy of high-growth Japan” (Solt, 2014, 108). On the other end of the spectrum, white-collar workers embraced “the idea, if not the actual lifestyle, of the salaryman escapee,” with the “production of ramen” being “a new way to escape and thereby critique the regimented labor practices that prevailed at Japan’s large companies” (Solt, 2014, 109). Ramen’s status and symbolism in Japan has certainly shifted since then. Perhaps the greatest shift in its meaning is represented by its move to the United States.
Merry White (2015) wrote that food moves, and when it moves, foods “may change their meaning and character, well beyond the changes demanded by different ingredients or local tastes” (para. 5). America’s obsession with ramen is a “demonstration of seriousness over a bowl of what is seen to be the most plebian of foods in Japan” (White, 2015, para. 13). White (2015) quotes chef David Chang as saying, “You take something deemed by the world as junk food and pour passion into it and make it the most delicious food possible. In that conflict is what I love about ramen” (para. 14). Ramen in the United States is a representative “product of Japan’s Gross National Cool” (White, 2015, para. 13). It appears in the United States, everyone wants “in” on Japan’s “cool.”
I spent my formative years in Bakersfield, California, eating garbage food and watching Japanese cartoons. Maybe it was my poor upbringing in the oft-called “armpit of California” that made me look to Japanese culture as an “out,” as a cultural escape from dusty fields, country, Mexican, and pop music, and my own Mexican/Peruvian heritage that I personally never cared to explore. In some ways, as much a part of it as I am, my own inherited culture, my very own inherited ethnicity, is my “Other.” Food has certainly allowed me in, but I chose to stay out. Bakersfield is a “majority minority” in the state of California. I am surrounded by fellow Mexicans/Latinos/Hispanics or whatever other label exists to categorize Spanish-speaking “brown people” of all types. Vicki Ruiz (2008) quoted the sociologist Yen Le Espiritu in saying that foodscapes are “the processes by which diverse subjects imagine and make themselves at home in various geographic locations” (p. 6). Certainly, the “diverse subjects” of Bakersfield have made themselves at home here.
It seems to me that there are restaurants and other sources of food and entertainment that are culturally and proportionally representative of and relative to the city’s own specific blend of diversity. Vicki Ruiz (2008) said that the “Citizen Restaurant” is what “encapsulates racial/ethnic foodscapes as markers of belonging and difference set within a larger frame of U.S. inequality” (p. 3). I have to wonder that on paper I seem to “belong” in Bakersfield, but seeing as how I do not identify closely with my heritage, do I really “belong?” Am I an “Other” here? My own family fits in and is comfortable well-enough, but I remain an outsider. It is the “white people” food, the American food, that I most closely associate with here. Where would I fit within the “larger frame of U.S. inequality?” Ruiz (2008) makes a point that has resonated with me:
The connections between the past and present require an interrogation beyond a comparative rhetorical analysis but one that recognizes the ways in which both historical memory and popular culture shape claims to public space and citizenship. Memory plays a vital interpretive role in shaping social reality. Whether preparing a cherished family recipe or noshing at an ethnic food festival, memory, public and private, mediates agency. We do race; we remember race; and we create culture. (p. 3)Vicki Ruiz
It is interesting to see how my memory of a humble package of instant ramen has connected me to a broader cultural history. This exploration of ramen’s origins as it relates to my own life has reminded me of the role my own, and others’, experiences play in “shaping social reality.”
Chang, Jeff. (2016). “The In-Betweens.” In We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation, (pp. 137-157). New York, NY: Picador.
Nissin Foods. (n.d.). Making Products More Sustainable. (Page no longer available)