Even if you’re familiar with ramen and yakiniku these days, you might not realize that these dishes are rooted in post-war Japan and have a fascinating story to tell.
When World War II ended in 1945, food supplies in Japan were at their lowest and many people suffered from malnutrition. In The untold story of ramen, author George Solt writes that although people received rations, these were nutritionally insufficient and often arrived late. Japanese food historian Professor Eric C. Rath explains that black markets, which were controlled by yakuza (crime bosses), suddenly became hotspots for most city dwellers.
Wheat began to be imported in large quantities from America during the post-war American occupation of Japan from 1945 to 1952. “The United States feared famine and social unrest in Japan due to lack of food “, explains Professor Rath. The untold story of ramen reveals that the black markets received a questionable supply of wheat flour, which fueled the illegal ramen stalls that were mostly controlled by the yakuza. Ramen’s low cost has made it an instant favorite among urban workers.
“Ramen was served in a fatty, nourishing broth and could be easily prepared 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 one, ramen could be easily prepared even over a cooking fire,” says Professor Rath. “There was also a decades-long tradition of ramen street vendors who had the know-how to prepare and sell ramen to consumers without the need for a restaurant. Thus, ramen was well suited to 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 markets. post-war blacks. Today, ramen is a staple dish in Japan. “It’s on almost every street, in the suburbs and in the cities, cup noodles take up entire 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, the weekly outings to the local ramen restaurant with mom and dad were highlights, [as was] hang out with friends to try the latest style of ramen to hit the streets.
Yakiniku (grilled meat) restaurants are said to have also proliferated after World War II. 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 the Korean-Japanese started selling grilled offal on black markets when the meat was still rationed. They soon began to establish restaurants that we recognize 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 such restaurants became very popular, Prof Rath says.
Today, Yakiniku restaurants continue to serve small slices of meat to reflect the high price of meat in Japan. “It’s enjoyable and something special to enjoy in small quantities,” says a spokesperson for Rengaya Sydney, a yakiniku restaurant that has been operating in North Sydney since 1993.
Yakiniku is not just about the preciousness of the meat, it’s also about the culinary experience. “Japanese people love to get together and eat, share food with family, friends and colleagues, while having fun drinking in a casual setting. Everyone can cook the yakiniku as they wish: rare, medium, well done, with the sauce of their choice,” explains the spokesperson. Eating directly from the hot grill is also part of the charm. And while lockdown restrictions limit Rengaya to just serving 10 people at a (socially distanced) hour, cooking yakiniku is still a lively, smoky experience for diners to enjoy.
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