Museums put ramen on a culinary pedestal

Museums put ramen on a culinary pedestal

There are two kinds of ramen in this world. There's the packaged staple of dorm-room cuisine, one of the most processed, industrialized foods ever invented.

And then there's the trendy, artisanal, handmade soup that fans line up for hours to try.

But in Japan, ramen isn't just for eating: There are entire museums devoted to it.

Yokohama, a short train ride from Tokyo, has one museum for instant ramen and another for handmade ramen, and both offer samples to taste or take home.

At the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum (the extra u gives the word a retro feel), you'll find nine shops showcasing different styles of ramen.

The English brochure helpfully describes the soup at each, noting whether the noodles are straight, curly or wrinkled, and how thick they are on a five-point scale. The richness of the broth is also rated on a five-point scale.

At each shop, you order and pay for your ramen in an old-fashioned way, via a ticket-vending machine in front with photos on the buttons. Some varieties are offered in small portions so you can try more than one type, although for some visitors, one small portion will be enough.

If you can't tell, ask the staff which button is mini-ramen.

A bit overwhelmed, my friend and I chose the nearest shop that didn't have a line, selling ramen from a replica of a shop in Kyushu (in the south of Japan) founded in 1954. The broth was delicious as were the crumbles of roasted garlic sprinkled on top.

Straight noodles the exact thickness of spaghetti made a less exotic impression than I'd hoped for, so pay attention to that helpful brochure.

The ramen shops are located in a two-story re-creation of a romantically shabby 1958 city shopping district, eternally bathed in twilight.

There are also movie posters and shop facades for a post office and pawnshop, along with a real store selling old-fashioned candy and toys. It's a period that evokes nostalgia for the Japanese.

In the gift shop, you can assemble a customised package of ramen to take home, choosing from different kinds of vacuum-packed fresh noodles, soup flavor and flavored oil, with a personalized label. The shop also sells prepackaged ramen, bowls, spoons and other souvenirs.

Then, if you're weary of foodie seriousness about what is, after all, simple noodle soup, the antidote is just a short train or subway ride away: Yokohama also has a branch of the Cup Noodle Museum.

Where Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum is a food theme park for adults, Cup Noodle Museum is designed for kids.

The small print on its brochure notes that it's formally named the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum after the inventor of instant ramen.

Run by an educational foundation that Ando started, the fun here is designed to support some high-minded goals with exhibits about creativity and invention.

Exhibits include a reproduction of the modest shack where Ando invented Chicken Ramen, a display of the astonishing number of varieties of instant ramen that the Nissan Food Products company has produced since then, and a food court called Noodles Bazaar, said to reproduce an "Asian night market" and "eight varieties of noodles that Ando encountered during his travels in search of ramen's origins".

The main attraction here, though, is the make-your-own section. For a separate fee for a timed ticket, kids (or adults) can make their own personal Cup Noodle, decorating the cup, then putting in the noodles and choosing the soup and toppings.

Watch the lid get sealed and the whole cup shrink-wrapped, then your creation is enclosed in a cool protect

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