Ramen originated in China during the late 19th century, but the dish came to greater prominence in Japan. The first specialized Japanese ramen shop opened in 1910, though at the time the dish was called shina soba, literally meaning “Chinese soba noodles.”
Ramen came to symbolize Japan’s increasingly imperialistic attitude in the first half of the 20th century. Along with many other aspects of Chinese culture, Ramen became extremely popular in Japan, indicating the Japanese desire to conquer or even consume China. After Japan’s defeat in World War II, the term shina as a referent to Chinese became seen as an ethnic slur, implying Japan’s history of militaristic aggression and wartime massacres in China. For a time the dish was renamed chuka soba, a less politically-charged term for “Chinese-style.” However, in 1958, Nissin Foods developed the first packaged version of chuka soba, christening the chicken-flavored soup “Chikin Ramen.”
Prior to 1958, ramen was a dish that was served only in restaurants, but Nissan’s instant noodles required only boiling water to prepare. The simple, convenient food quickly grew in popularity in Japan and the world over. Nissin brought Top Ramen to the United States in 1970, and the dish has since become a staple of convenient cuisine. A 2000 poll reported by the BBC found that the Japanese considered instant ramen their most important invention of the 20th century.