The Wall Street Journal recently reported on a Taiwan chef named Wang Cong-yuan, who serves a bowl of beef noodles in his restaurant that costs 10,000 New Taiwan dollars ($324). To his credit, Mr. Cong-yaun sounds like a serious culinary practitioner. It took him 15 years to perfect the recipe, which calls for 120 grams of noodles and four samples of the best beef available from different countries, and the dish takes three days to make. For the economically challenged customer, or those who are just plain cheap, he offers a less elaborate version for around seven bucks.
I was intrigued with this, although the WSJ didn’t specify what type of noodles the chef uses. Around my house we experiment with soba and udon noodles from the oriental store, but tend to favor instant ramen for a quick dose of carbohydrates (3 for $1.09 at Publix). For many Westerners, ramen noodles have become the Big Mac of Asian cuisine, and we fall back on them when we’re faced with a lack of money or preparation time.
Instant ramen was invented in 1958 by Momofuku Ando, founder of Nissin Foods, when Japan was still suffering from food shortages related to World War II. Mr. Ando surpassed himself in 1971 with the creation of cup noodles, which popularized ramen all over the world. True enthusiasts can visit the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum in Osaka.
It turns out that instant ramen is the shoddy tip of the noodle iceberg. In Japan, the preparation of ramen has been elevated to a fine art. Most experts agree that the top practitioner is a restaurant in Tokyo called Fujimaki Gekijyo, which charges around $110 for a bowl of ramen. Don’t think that you can just stroll in and order it—reservations are nearly impossible to come by, and seats are only given to those customers who have dined at the owner’s other restaurants. We’ve come a long way from Maruchan, Top Ramen and Oodles of Noodles.