In the dead of winter, a Japanese ramen chain called Santouka decided to launch an outpost in Cambridge, Massachusetts, right across the street from Harvard Yard.
Santouka specializes in a particular kind of pork-broth ramen from the Hokkaido region of Japan which, depending on the toppings you choose will cost between $12 and $15 a bowl. Setting up a ramen shop in a university town makes sense in a funny kind of way. American college students love instant ramen, that miracle food which cooks in three minutes flat, is easy on the wallet, and tastes pretty darn good. Santouka is banking on the idea that students will spring for an upscale version of their favorite comfort food after a exam or a particularly long day at the library. After just a week in business, their strategy appears to be right on the money.
On the day of Santouka’s opening, Cambridge was in the midst of the most brutal snowstorm it had seen in years, but it was still impossible for me to get a table. Like most ramen shops in Japan, Santouka does not take reservations, so a crowd of freezing ramen lovers waited in the front of the shop, hoping that seated patrons would slurp down their noodles quickly. I went back a few days later, hoping for a shorter wait, but yet again, I was told I would be in line for at least an hour. This time, I was determined not to miss out, so I patiently waited in the cold until my number was called. And when my steaming bowl of soup arrived, I was not disappointed: The broth was thick and rich, the ingredients–pork slices, fish cake, mushrooms, corn, seaweed–added interesting textures and flavors, and the noodles were satisfyingly chewy.
Scaling snowbanks and braving frostbite do not, on the surface, seem like reasonable things to do in pursuit of a bowl of soup. But I am far from alone in my fixation with the noodle. Ramen has invaded America: Everywhere you turn someone is either slurping ramen or talking about it. And it’s now hard to believe that we (read: college students) ever consumed the cheap packets of Nissin or Maruchan instant noodles that came to America in the 1970s.
New York and Los Angeles are now saturated with gourmet ramen shops, with neighborhood hole-in-the wall joints competing with established Japanese brands like Totto Ramen, Ippudo, and Ivan Ramen. Sun Noodle, the Hawaii-based company that supplies the vast majority of these American ramen shops, produces 90,000 servings of ramen per day in three factories to accommodate demand.
One of America’s best-known chefs, David Chang, launched his career in 2004 by starting Momofuku Noodle Bar–named after the man who invented instant noodles–and shifted ramen from a dish served primarily in Asian American neighborhoods to the center of America’s food scene. Ramen is hotly discussed in seemingly every major magazine and newspaper, from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal to Food & Wine to Lucky Peach (which devoted an entire issue to ramen in January). And that’s not even counting the slew of blogs devoted to the cause, like Ramen Shaman and Go Ramen. Last year, a history professor at New York University even released an academic treatise about ramen’s history.
What is going on? How did ramen enter the American zeitgeist with such an enormous splash?
After talking to ramen experts of many stripes–cultural historians, professional ramen commentators, restaurant owners–one lesser-discussed fact of the phenomenon is that the American ramen revolution did not happen by accident. Ramen restaurant entrepreneurs have deployed Japanese marketing strategies to create a cult following for this humble dish in the U.S. Purveyors of ramen have cleverly used the media to spark trends, they have carefully considered how consuming food is as much about performance as pleasure, and they have played into the larger trend of elevating simple foods through craftsmanship. Here’s how they did it:
Brian MacDuckston, one of the world’s best-known ramen commentators, is an American who has lived in Japan since 2006; he regularly shares his thoughts about ramen culture on Japanese TV and magazines, he has his own popular ramen YouTube series, and five years ago, he took a New York Times reporter on a tour of Tokyo ramen joints. MacDuckston explains that Japanese media has a sophisticated way of manufacturing food trends. Over the last two decades, Japanese newsstands have been flooded with dozens of weekly and monthly magazines that report on very specific food subcultures including, of course, ramen. “There are six or seven ramen magazines in Tokyo alone,” he says. “Countrywide, there are even more.”
These magazines do not simply report on these fads, they are also in the business of igniting new trends and keeping them alive. While U.S. media is also instrumental in creating food trends, the scale and sophistication of the Japanese food media is in a league of its own, according to Nathan Shockey, a professor of Japanese at Bard College and a ramen aficionado. “Japan has highly developed marketing to cater to the latest trends,” Shockey says. “The magazine industry fuels the speed and intensity of the ramen fixation in Japan.”
Ramen shop owners in Japan are fully aware that it is not enough to produce tasty and original dishes: They need to work the media to get people talking about them. Shockey says that there is hardly any negative media coverage about restaurants in Japan, which suggests that food writers have a collaborative, mutual-back-scratching kind of relationship with chefs and shopkeepers. In other words, even small hole-in-the-wall shops are well versed in PR strategies and can maneuver their way into foodie magazines.
When gourmet ramen first came to the U.S. from Japan, many restaurant owners brought with them expertise about how to navigate the media. At the time, food blogging was beginning to mature in the U.S. and it operated according to very similar dynamics as Japanese food magazines. Japanese ramen entrepreneurs in the U.S. were well poised to work with blogs to create buzz about their restaurants. “Over the last few years, we’ve developed a whole blogging culture around food in the U.S., with personal blogs on Tumblr and publications like Serious Eats, Grub Street, and Eater focusing on food trends,” says Shockey. “But it was already like that 20 or 30 years ago in Japan because of the many food magazines.”
A number of ramen ventures in the U.S. have a remarkable ability to secure coverage in the blogosphere. Take Santouka in Cambridge, for instance. Nao White, a food consultant from Japan who helped launch the restaurant’s East Coast presence, tells me the company did not do any local advertising; there are no billboard or flyers about the shop, nor are there print or radio ads. Instead, all marketing efforts were media driven. In the months before the shop opened, a stream of coverage started appearing on local blogs. Eater Boston covered the shop no less than four times before the first bowl of ramen was served.
Santouka was also mentioned in local blogs like Bostinno and Boston Restaurants, as well as in Harvard’s college paper, the Crimson. Media hype is that it feeds on itself: Ramen entrepreneurs need to work to get the word out, but after the initial push, bloggers will write about a particular shop because they don’t want to be behind the trend. With all that buzz, it is no wonder that it was impossible for me to get a table on opening day.
Speaking of lines, making customers wait is another important part of ramen culture. Most ramen restaurants in Japan refuse to take reservations, and this appears to be a strategic move on their part. “Creating a line in front of the shop is a form of advertising for the restaurant,” says Shockey. Japanese consumers, for their part, are used to waiting to get a seat at a restaurant, and there seems to be an implicit understanding that good food is worth the sacrifice of time and comfort.
There is a lot of psychology that goes into waiting in line: It builds up anticipation and can trick consumers into feeling more satisfied with their food. That was certainly what happened to me at Santouka: After an hour of imagining my future bowl of noodles, all of my senses were heightened when it was finally brought out to me on a platter. Every morsel tasted good because I felt like I had earned it. That experience did not happen organically: It was manufactured by the restaurant, in part, because it chose not to take reservations. White says that Santouka has no intention of moving to a reservation platform like OpenTable and has chosen, instead, to invest in TapGuest, a technology that manages the waitlists.
Shockey points out that going out to a restaurant is, in some ways, just as much about making a public statement as about personal pleasure. “It’s a kind of performance,” he says. “For the customer, waiting in line becomes its own kind of entertaining experience. It allows you to communicate to other people that you are doing something cool and you are about to participate in an eating experience that is so awesome you were willing to wait two hours for it.”
For Americans accustomed to making reservations, standing in line at a ramen shop offers a taste into the broader experience of dining in Japan. In many restaurants, the kitchen is fully visible so customers waiting to be seated can take in the complexity of the ramen-making process: They can smell the broth that has been cooking for days and see the array of toppings that cooks are throwing into the bowls.
MacDuckston tells me that Japan has a long history of showing respect for simple foods. Japanese food magazines often specifically focus on affordable shops that are pushing the limits of their cuisine to the highest levels of craftsmanship. There is an entire class of food called “B-class gourmet” and, in many ways, ramen is the king of this category. “In the best shops in Tokyo that are using specialty soy sauce from micro distilleries, they still don’t charge more than $10,” he says.
About a decade ago, the U.S. suddenly developed its own fascination with elevating comfort foods. Top-tier restaurants across the country started serving bone marrow burgers, lobster mac and cheese, and gourmet cupcakes. Chang’s Momofuko Noodle Bar was part of this trend; it paid homage to the simple noodles that Asian-American children ate after school while their Caucasian counterparts noshed on Easy Mac. Japanese restaurant entrepreneurs who came to the U.S. were also keenly aware of this trend and had years of expertise navigating the complexities of transforming simple dishes into works of art without making them feel pretentious or complicated. “The soup is so simple,” says White. “It is just broth, noodles, and a few toppings, but each ingredient tells a story. It allows each chef to create a ramen recipe that is completely different from every other version and explain how each part is made.”
To develop a loyal following, ramen shops have to tread a delicate line between staying simple but also innovating so that your dish has its own character. And ramen is the perfect canvas for culinary creativity, in part because it is a relatively new food on the world stage and is not considered sacred: Ramen shops, as we know them today, only started appearing in Japan in the 1960s. “Being such a new food means there are really no rules with ramen,” says MacDuckston. “It’s not like sushi or even soba noodles that have a tradition of being made according to very clear specifications.”
In Japan, ramen restaurants have figured out the formula for tweaking comfort food so that it stays exciting without seeming like just a fad or a gimmick. This is something that many American food entrepreneurs are still trying to do successfully. Cupcakes, for instance, were a major trend that crashed and burned. Meanwhile, there is some talk that the gourmet burger might be losing steam. Some people, like David Chang, are worried that ramen shops in the U.S. are becoming too homogenous. “I don’t want to go to every city and taste the same fucking thing,” he wrote in Lucky Peach. “Everyone is sharing the same experience, but ramen is not supposed to be about that; it’s food for people that don’t want the same experience, that don’t want to be part of the mainstream.”
But ramen experts from Japan, like Santouka’s Nao White, are not worried about oversaturation. After all, the ramen industry in Japan has managed to sustain excitement about ramen for decades now and she believes the ramen entrepreneurs bringing restaurants to America have the skills to keep the trend alive here. Santouka itself has been very successful in Japan with over 20 shops that have been around for three decades. “Ramen lovers have different tastes much the same way people have different preferences with music,” she says. “We will attract customers who want a simple broth in a decent portion, but not far from here, there is another shop that serves an enormous, rich bowl of soup that feels like something you need to conquer.”
White believes there is enough room in the market for everyone, which is why she is committed to bringing Santouka to more locations in the U.S. Now that the Cambridge shop is up and running, she is thinking about new Boston locations and after that, who knows?