Yokohama: A Tale of Two Ramen Museums
Years ago, when I was researching interesting story tidbits for a food client’s newsletter, I was amused to discover there was a CupNoodles (no space between “cup” and “noodle”) Museum in Osaka, where museum goers could produce their own custom Cup Noodles. No kidding.
Planning my first trip to Japan, I learned that a second museum was built last year in Yokohama, a short train ride from Tokyo, our home base. Who could resist?
The CupNoodles Museum
First things first. Once we purchased our tickets, we made a beeline for My CupNoodles Factory. For 300¥ (or $3.90) you line up with about 300 other enthusiasts to: purchase a cup and sit down to design your cup with color markers. Then you get into one of four or five lines to choose your soup flavor and four ingredient garnishes.
There’s a cacophony of sound, with the upbeat staff behind every counter, explaining over a microphone, as they seal the lid on your cup, shrink-wrap the cup, then provide you with a clever plastic bag for your cup. At this point you are handed a small hand pump to pump air into the bag and tie it with red string handles, cocooning your cup and making it easy to carry around. In typical Japanese fashion, despite the massive crowds, the whole process is extremely well-organized and satisfying.
Next door in a kitchen with glass walls, the Chicken Ramen Factory was going full steam. Here kids and parents, wearing yellow kerchiefs, were making ramen by hand – kneading, spreading and steaming the wheat flour and then drying it – and looking like they were having a heck of a good time. We didn’t have the advanced reservations required so I could only look on jealously.
The sleek, modern museum with beautifully mounted displays, is built around the idea of creative thinking as espoused by Nissin Food founder Momofuku Ando, who invented the world’s first instant ramen, a way to feed post-war Japan in a time of food shortages. The breakthrough answer, which had eluded him for a year, was a way of flash-frying the noodles to dehydrate them, then drying them. The year was Showa 33 (1958).
With Cup Noodle, introduced 1971, Ando found a way to make instant ramen even more convenient, by packing ramen in its own cooking and serving dish. And in 2005, he developed Space Ramen to accompany Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi on Discovery.
Scoff as you might about instant noodles, Ando started a global phenomenon, with 98.2 billion packages of instant noodles now sold annually around the world.
Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum
In a different part of Yokohama, life is frozen in 1958, the year instant ramen was invented. The Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum recreates Tokyo in that nostalgic era, with a tobacco shop, samurai movie posters, period music and back alleys.
The museum celebrates authentic ramen, freshly made, with slightly chewy, wheat flour noodles cooked al dente, in steaming soup with fresh garnishes. Ramen varies by the region of the country, with some regions seasoning with salt; others with miso or soy sauce. You can eat your way across Japan at the museum, stopping from restaurant to restaurant. Most of the ramen restaurants are from long-established institutions from the different regions of Japan.
Half orders are allowed, so patrons can try more types. Since my family is from Kumamoto, we had to have the ramen from the region, with tonkotsu (pork) broth, delicious pork slices, seaweed and green onion.
There is a museum of sorts on the first floor about ramen culture and history, but is in Japanese only.
If you have a hankering for ramen, try this one from one of my favorite books on Japanese cooking, Let’s Cook Japanese Food! Everyday Recipes for Home Cooking by Amy Kaneko, published by Chronicle Books, San Francisco, copyright 2007. The recipe, from Amy’s husband, is a hybrid that uses fresh broth and ingredients with instant ramen. Don’t try to save money by using the package seasoning instead of the chicken broth or you will kill the flavor. I made this last night and it was delicious.
To get the recipe and shopping list on your smartphone (iPhone, BlackBerry, Android device) or PC, click here.
Shohei’s Special Pork and Sesame Ramen Noodle Soup
1 teaspoon sesame oil
½ pound ground pork
1 tablespoon chili bean paste
1 teaspoon finely minced garlic
2 packages (3 ½ ounces each) instant ramen
4 cups reduced-fat, low-sodium canned chicken broth
1/4 cup sesame seeds, toasted and ground
Hot chili oil (optional)
2 green onions, including tender green tops, minced
4 slices bamboo shoot (optional)
¼ cup bean sprouts, both ends trimmed (optional)
1 hard-boiled egg, peeled and halved lengthwise (optional)
In a frying pan, heat the sesame oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the pork, breaking it up with a wooden spatula or spoon. Then add the chili bean paste and the garlic and cook, stirring often, until the pork is cooked through and a little crispy, about 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Open the ramen packages, discard the flavor packets, and then cook the ramen noodles in boiling water as directed on the package. Meanwhile, in a saucepan, bring the chicken broth to a boil over high heat.
Just before the noodles are done, divide the ground sesame seeds between 2 large soup bowls and pour the hot chicken broth over them, dividing it evenly. Drain the noodles and add them to the soup bowls, dividing them evenly and swirling them so that they don’t stick together. Drizzle in a little hot chili oil (if using), and then top each bowl with an equal amount of the pork, green onions, bamboo slices, bean sprouts and half of the hard-boiled egg, if using. Serve immediately.
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