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Hipsters, Salarymen, and Ramen

June 10, 2014

For a long time, sushi was a strange, alien concept to Americans, and many movies and TV shows from the 80s and 90s feature characters getting nauseous at the prospect of eating raw fish. But today, sushi restaurants have become an increasingly popular and commonplace feature of American cities. There are now nearly 4,000 sushi restaurants in the US, and it’s a $2 billion dollar industry. It’s not quite as prevalent as Italian or Chinese food, but Americans are now more likely to wax poetic about how delicious sushi is, rather than gag. But today, sushi is being overtaken by a reinvention of a Japanese food Americans have known for years: ramen.

Tonkotsu (prok bone) Ramen (image resource: wikipedia)

Most Americans associate ramen cheap instant noodles—a favorite snack of thrifty college students across the country. But while ramen in Japan includes plenty of cheap instant noodles, it’s also a much broader category, with plenty of far more delicious and nutritious options. For years, ramen has been a popular lunch or dinner among busyサラリーマン (salarymen) in Japan’s white collar industry. In particular the tonkotsu (pork bone) style of ramen, which uses a pork-based broth for extra flavor, is commonly served in Japanese business districts, where the extra calories are needed to get through a long work day.

Ramen stands in Japan are popular with salarymen who wanted to unwind and grab an afterwork bite. (image resource:

Tonkotsu ramen and handmade noodles are partially behind the ramen boom in major US cities (particularly in California and New York). Young urban bohemians, otherwise known as “hipsters,” have found the rich, flavorful, and meaty style of ramen a new and exciting alternative to traditional American staples like hamburgers and pizza, and more filling than sushi. And like hamburgers and pizza, ramen has proven to be a flexible template for culinary experimentation. Some shops follow traditional Japanese recipes, while others have added American specialties or other ethnic ingredients, like bacon, peppers, or avocados. Lines are common sights at many of these new ramen shops, overwhelming the often small dining spaces and intimate bar-style seating, but customers don’t seem to mind the wait.

In big cities, like Cheng & Tsui’s hometown of Boston, some sushi shops have gone so far as to rebrand themselves as ramen shops, hoping to catch onto the trend. However, the big portions, often using handmade and unique ingredients, and urban market prices makes these ramen shops a little expensive. Whether they can break out of the “hipster” market and, like sushi before them, expand out of major metro areas to become a major part of American cuisine remains to be seen.

You can learn more about ramen, sushi, and more Japanese food while learning Japanese with Cheng & Tsui’s Adventures in Japanese, now entering its 4th Edition!

Teaching Tips and Activities: 

Japan is a major producer of both ramen and video games, so why not combine them? There are plenty of games and apps about cooking ramen and running your own ramen stand out there, so have funplaying one of these while improving your Japanese reading skills!

Ramen Restaurant
By Char Room

Cost: FREE

Ramen restaurant is a business management game in Japanese. For students of Japanese like you, isn’t it a perfect app to making language study into something fun? In the game, you make made-to-order ramen for customers with their own unique tastes. To expand the menu and grow your business, you need to know how to make proper ramen in a timely fashion to keep your customers happy. Satisfaction is always the key to business!

Ramen Chain
By Touchten Pte. Ltd.

Cost: FREE

If a Japanese interface is a bit daunting at your language level, you might want to try Ramen Chain, a popular business management game that is ranked four stars on both Google Play and iTune by users worldwide! The game features various recipes,  an engaging storyline that allows you to interact with international customers, and more than 50 challenge levels to build your won ramen chain. Sound fun?  Go play!