~2000 BC—Invention of noodles. Fossils discovered near China’s Yellow River suggest that the first noodles were made during the Late Neolithic period. Scientists speculate that the noodles were made from a combination of foxtail and broomcorn millet.
300–400 BC—Invention of hishio in China. Derived from fermented soybeans, hishio is an antecedent of both miso and shôyu. Early hishio was salty and pungent in flavor, porridge-like in texture, and dark brown in color.
701 AD—Japan begins to regulate sale and consumption of hishio and miso.
1500–1700—Development of shôyu. The first written record of tamari-shôyu appears in 1559. Manufacturers outside Tokyo add roasted wheat—which darkened the sauce considerably—and rename their product koikuchi (“dark mouth”) shôyu. Usukuchi (“pale mouth”) shôyu is invented outside Kyoto in 1666. Shôyu broth is recommended in a cookbook published two years later.
1868–1912—The introduction of shina soba (“Chinese style” soup). Shina soba later comes to be known as ramen. Some linguists speculate that “ramen” is a Japanese adaptation of the Chinese term for hand-pulled noodles, la mien, though there are competing theories as to the origin of the name.
1923—First ramen carts and street stalls appear in Tokyo and Yokohama after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. A Chinese-food craze in 1920s Japan helps popularize Chinese-style soup.
1939–1945 (World War II)—Japan enters the war in 1941, with a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and is the last Axis power to surrender, in August 1945. In response to Japan’s postwar food shortages, the United States supplies Japan with a large quantity of wheat, leading the Japanese government to encourage the production of wheat noodles.
~1955—Miso ramen invented in Sapporo. Miso ramen originally emerges as a light and flavorful noodle soup; an optional garnish of butter and a meatier soup base come into fashion in the 1960s, reducing any claims to healthfulness and increasing its popularity.
1950s—“Ramen” displaces “shina soba” as the preferred term for noodle soup.
1954—Kazuo Yamagishi introduces tsukemen. Yamagishi trained as a soba chef before getting into the ramen business. According to legend, when he prepared noodles for himself, he did so in the style of mori soba: chilled noodles in one bowl, a heavily seasoned dipping broth in another. Eventually the dish made its way onto the menu, and tsukemen was born. Yamagishi opened his shop, Higashi-Ikebukuro Taishôken, in 1961, establishing an enduring Tokyo ramen dynasty.
1958—Momofuku Ando invents instant ramen in his shed. Ando discovers that frying noodles parcooks and dehydrates them. He founds Nissin Foods and introduces Chikin Ramen to Japanese consumers.
1968—Takumi Yamada opens the first Ramen Jiro near Keio University in Tokyo. Jiro is renowned for its massive portions, oily broth, heavy hand with garlic, and long lines. Ramen Jiro eventually expands into a chain with more than thirty locations, which promote six guiding principles:
1. Live purely, truthfully, and beautifully. Go for walks, read books, and smile when saving money. On the weekends, fish and practice copying sutras.
2. For the world, for people, for society.
3. Love & peace & togetherness.
4. Sorry, but you’ve got to have the courage to speak
5. Disorder of flavor is disorder of the heart, disorder of the heart is disorder of the family, disorder of the family is disorder of society, disorder of society is disorder of the country, and disorder of the country is disorder of the universe.
6. You want garlic with that?
1971—Cup Noodles introduced. After five years of development, Nissin unveils the new product with the English-inspired name of Kappu Nudoru (“Cup Noodles”). Requiring nothing more than hot water to prepare, Cup Noodles prove incredibly popular around the world for their convenience and affordability.
1985—Director Juzo Itami releases Tampopo. Ostensibly a comedy, Tampopo parodies Western-movie clichés in its depiction of a young widow’s quest to learn the art of ramen-making, but its vignettes about dedicated eaters across the social spectrum reveal a true appreciation of the finer points of ramen.
1986—Sano Minoru opens Shinasobaya in Yokohama. Over time, he earns the nickname “Ramen Nazi” by establishing strict rules: no conversation, no cell phones, no smoking, and no perfume in his restaurant. Sano is also now known as the “Ramen Demon” for his temper and aggressive behavior toward young aspiring cooks on reality-television shows. He is not to be confused with the retired championship figure skater of the same name.
1992—James Brown appears in advertisements for Cup Noodles on Japanese television, singing alternate lyrics to “Sex Machine.” Brown sings “Misoppa!” or “Miso up!” in place of the iconic “Get up!”
Early 2000s—“Double-soup” ramen, which blends meat and fish broths, gains a foothold. Adding fish-and-seaweed broth to shio or tonkotsu soup produces an additional layer of flavor.
• Tsukemen boom. An annual Tsukemen Fair in Tokyo brings dozens of shops together to serve their takes on this ramen variation.
• Ramen Jiro’s popularity explodes in the 2000s, leading fans to dub themselves “Jirolians.” In 2010, a book on how to open a Ramen Jiro is published in Japanese.
• The kodawari movement takes root. Ivan Orkin of Ivan Ramen attributes this to the influence of Sano Minoru. Ivan says, “In the kodawari ramen world, of which I like to think I am a part, shop owners differentiate themselves by seeking out unique and high-quality ingredients—specially sourced chickens and pork, salt produced on a tiny island off Okinawa, small-producer soy sauce, water filtered through complex charcoal systems. For years (and even now, in many places), ramen was an extension of the fast-food business—huge corporate chains, product made in factories and shipped in plastic to retail outlets. Sano and a few other pioneers were the ones who allowed ramen to earn its stripes as a cuisine.”