Japan is the land of bento boxes. If you are in a rush for a meal to go but want something fresh, filling, and better than convenience stores, many chain restaurants offer takeouts. Beef and rice bowls, sandwich sets, and even some sushi have takeouts containing raw fish. However, it was not until the recent COVID-19 pandemic that we started seeing ramen shops provide the same option. During the old “normal”, if you asked for your ramen to-go, the ramen shop owner would have questioned if you had been living under a rock.
Then, why didn’t ramen shops offer take-out options? It is not that the demand was non-existent. Otherwise, instant noodles, cup noodles, and other packaged noodles would not be the massive markets as they are now. The answer is simple: ramen takeouts would not be as good, and here are 5 reasons to show.
1. Noodle Texture
The biggest factor in why ramen is not good for takeout is the noodles themselves. If you watch a chef make ramen, the amount of time from the noodles landing into the soup to the bowl is delivered to you is kept to a minimum. This is because the longer the noodles are soaked in hot broth, the soggier it gets, and no one likes gooey sloppy ramen.
Stores try to overcome this issue by cooking the noodles for a shorter amount of time for takeouts, keeping them more firm. However, even an extra 5 minutes of keeping noodles under a covered bowl can drastically change the texture of the noodles for the worse. I am sure you too have experienced making a cup-noodle and forgetting about it. It’s tragic.
Ramen is usually served to the customer at its optimal temperature. That is why you would see chefs synch up the cooking time for soup and noodles to be done at the same time. All the time manipulations are to make sure the customers get to slurp the noodles while they are as hot as possible without burning your tongue.
The same cannot be promised for ramen as takeouts. The plastic or Styrofoam containers were not made to keep the heat in, so don’t be surprised by a bowl of lukewarm ramen by the time you return home. On the other hand, maintaining the heat too well within the bowl would produce soggy noodles, as mentioned above. Thermal insulation can be a cruel joke sometimes.
3. Condiments and Seasonings
Virtually every ramen shop has a set of carefully selected condiments and seasonings on the table. They add flares to your noodles. Minced garlic, black pepper, rice vinegar, chili oil… Part of the ramen fun is to explore the options and switch up the flavour throughout the meal.
If you have a stacked condiment rack at home, or if you prefer your ramen vanilla (as in no added condiments or seasonings, and not literally using vanilla extract), then this would not bother you. Otherwise, not having access to 4-5 condiments right on the table just feels like something is missing.
4. Unavoidable Spillage
Look, I have honestly tried my best, several times. However, the bowls are guaranteed to tilt once it lifts off in the plastic bag, even if the lids were taped down.
It comes down to a simple fact: soup spill. Sandwiches and bento boxes don’t.
5. The Ramen Atmosphere
On top of what you taste, there are also additional elements of the ramen experience that is difficult to replicate at home. Most people do not have large ramen spoons or an endless supply of ice-cold water. You can’t just walk in, eat, and leave. Even the store music and the heavy ramen bowls are small touches that enhance your ramen experience.
Eating ramen is more than just about food. It has taken decades to shape into a culture. Just as how singing karaoke at home would feel different even if you have an identical machine and microphone, the experience is just not the same.
With everything said, good ramen for take-out is not entirely impossible. There are 2 common-though-not-ideal ways shops have employed: separate the noodles and soup, or sell uncooked versions of the ramen.
The first option is fairly commonly seen, particularly with stores that specialize in tsukemen. Tsukemen noodles are usually served chilled anyway, so they do not lose their integrity as easily. As long as the soup is hot, diners can enjoy dipping at home. However, this increases material cost and environmental wastes.
The second option is also referred to as the omiyage (お土産) option, where shops sell you pre-packaged versions of their ramen uncooked. You would cook the noodles at home, heat the soup, and place the toppings yourself. While this lets you enjoy the ramen at home in its almost-original form, what you lose is the convenience. Rather than sitting down to browse Instagram until your noodles arrive, you have to do everything yourself.
Yes, given the current circumstances, ramen takeouts are undoubtedly better than no ramen, but I really can’t wait to be able to eat ramen in the shops again.