• This familiar Japanese staple has a surprising history. (Feast magazine)Source: Feast magazine
These dishes may have originated in China and Korea, but have since become beloved Japanese staples. This is their history.
Seraphina Seow

29 Jul 2021 - 12:04 PM  UPDATED 29 Jul 2021 - 12:12 PM

Even if you're familiar with ramen and yakiniku these days, you might not realise these dishes are entrenched in Japan’s post-war period and have a fascinating story to tell.

At the end of World War II in 1945, food supplies in Japan were at an all-time low and many people were malnourished. In The Untold History of Ramen, author George Solt writes that although people received rations, these were nutritionally inadequate and often arrived late. Japanese food historian Professor Eric C. Rath explains that black markets, which were controlled by the yakuza (crime bosses), suddenly became food hotspots for most city folk.

Wheat began to be imported in large amounts from America during the post-war American occupation of Japan from 1945-1952. “The United States feared starvation and social unrest in Japan due to the lack of food,” says Professor Rath. The Untold History of Ramen reveals that black markets received a questionable running supply of wheat flour, which fuelled the illegal ramen stalls that were mostly controlled by the yakuza. Ramen’s low cost made it an instant favourite among urban workers.

“Ramen was served in a fatty and filling broth and could be readily made with few ingredients and substitute ingredients, making it a versatile food to prepare and desirable to consume. Unlike bread, which required an oven and few Japanese homes had those, ramen could be easily prepared even over a cooking fire,” says Professor Rath. “There was also a tradition of several decades of ramen peddlers who had the know-how on how to prepare and sell ramen to consumers without the need for a restaurant. So, ramen was a good fit for post-war black markets.”

Although ramen first set foot on Japanese soil in the 1880s, brought by migrant cooks from Guangdong, China, it was never popular until it proliferated in post-war black markets. Today, ramen is a hallmark dish of Japan. “It’s on almost every street, in the suburbs and in the cities, cup noodles take up whole shelves in convenience stores. Ramen is simply Japan’s beloved soul food,” says Sydney-based ramen chef Hideto Suzuki. “Like any child growing up in Japan, weekly outings to the local ramen eatery with mum and dad were highlights, [as was] going out with friends to try the latest style of ramen to hit the streets.”

Yakiniku (grilled meat) restaurants are said to have proliferated after World War II, too. Yakiniku is commonly referred to as Japanese barbecue, where thinly sliced meat is grilled at the table, accompanied by a variety of sauces and side dishes. Some people believe that Korean-Japanese people started selling grilled offal in black markets when meat was still being rationed. They soon began establishing eateries that we recognise today as yakiniku restaurants. As Japan recovered economically in the 1960s and more people could afford to eat meat, better cuts became more accessible and these restaurants became very popular, explains Professor Rath.

Yakiniku restaurants today continue to serve small slices of meat to reflect meat’s high price in Japan. “It is enjoyable and something special to taste in small quantities,” says a spokesperson for Rengaya Sydney, a yakiniku restaurant that's been operating in North Sydney since 1993.

Yakiniku isn't just about the preciousness of meat – there's the dining experience, too. “Japanese love to get together and eat, sharing food with family, friends and colleagues, while having fun drinking in a casual setting. Each person can cook yakiniku as they like: rare, medium, well-done, with their favourite choice of sauce," says the spokesperson. Eating straight from the hot grill is also part of the charm. And while lockdown restrictions limit Rengaya to only serving 10 people at a (socially distanced) time, cooking yakiniku is still a lively, smoky experience that diners can appreciate.

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