Earlier this month I had the opportunity to attend the Ramen Expo USA in Austin, TX. The expo is held mainly for businesses in the Japanese ramen industry to create ties and relationships with one another. A main goal of the event is specifically for companies from Japan to establish relationships with those already operating in the United States. With a wide variety of businesses in attendance, from manufacturers of toppings to tableware, to even an automatic gyoza forming machine, the ramen industry in its entirety was well represented at the Austin event.
While the expo is mainly business-to-business, plenty of access is afforded to the public. This year’s Ramen Expo USA took place over two days, with members of the public allowed entry in the afternoons and full access to that given to industry/media personnel, just not all day, which of course made it easier to get business out of the way earlier in the day and focus on the delicious ramen in the afternoon.
Despite being an avid ramen eater, this festival goer would definitely not say that I know much about the industry itself. Most of the ramen I’ve eaten in my lifetime has been the kind you can make in the microwave… thanks to college. (It still tastes good though!) Needless to say then, attending this event made me realize how little I actually knew about the dish. Thanks to being able to talk to many people at the expo who work in the industry, this has now changed. With 34 different vendors set up throughout the Travis County Exposition Center venue, it was almost impossible to not learn something new.
One of the first companies I had the chance to talk with was Kyoto Katsuobushi Co., who manufacture and distribute ramen seasonings. Their display at Ramen Expo USA featured giant packages of their varying products, along with flavored fish. Overcoming a language barrier to talk with one of their employees, I found out that while the company does not have a branch in the United States for manufacturing and distributing, they often come on trips to the U.S. (such as the one they were currently on to visit the expo) in order to do business.
Another vendor I spoke with was Samurai Noodle, a ramen shop based out of Seattle, Washington (with another two locations in Houston, Texas). Unlike many manufacturers and distributors in attendance at the expo, Samurai Noodle is a ramen shop which markets itself as 'authentic Japanese ramen.' When I inquired as to what made them consider themselves more authentic than most ramen shops we see here in the United States, staff explained that they do their best to avoid using pre-made ingredients when it comes to making their ramen. Each bowl contains noodles freshly made that day, never manufactured off-site or made in bulk and frozen. Each and every employee is taught every step when it comes to creating a bowl of ramen, from making the noodles to perfecting the broth - something which brings about healthy competition when it comes to who can make the best noodles.
It was interesting to listen to the employees of Samurai Noodle tell me about how they do not use pre-made ingredients, when so many of the other vendors at the expo were manufacturers and distributors of said toppings, broths, and noodles. I was able to try some of Samurai Noodle’s ramen and have to say that they were very delicious. Whatever works for them, I hope they keep doing it and we see more Samurai Noodle shops pop up around the U.S. In fact, this is something which could very well happen as I learned that not only do Samurai Noodle train their employees to make great ramen, they also train them to run the business, and the people at Samurai Noodle are open to partnering with those who want to establish their own ramen shop.
One of the most interesting things I learned at this expo, and someting that I had seldom thought about before, is the fact that the noodles are often manufactured and distributed by larger companies to restaurants and grocery stores. My clueless self really thought that each and every ramen shop made their own noodles from scratch, every day. It seems that this is far from the truth.
I learned a lot about the manufacturing of ramen noodles from the company Sun Noodle, a U.S. based noodle manufacturer. With locations in Hawaii, California, and New Jersey, Sun Noodle is one of those companies that distributes their noodles to restaurants and grocery stores. They make over 200 different kinds of noodles, all of which can last two weeks in your refrigerator and six months in the freezer. I asked one of the employees about whether it's the norm or not for restaurants to order pre-made noodles and was told that it is very normal, as the machines used to make noodles in restaurants are generally very small and can only make a limited amount of portions per hour, while of course a factory contains much larger machines and can make so much more.
It took nearly an hour to sit down and eat some of the ramen from the next vendor - Nishiyama Ramen USA, Inc. - where people were seated and ramen cooked for them on the spot. Nishiyama Ramen USA, Inc. were at the Ramen Expo USA showcasing a vast amount of the noodles that they had created. There were so many and expo goers were able to pick which ones they wanted to try. In all honesty I didn't really know the difference, but someone helped me pick. The noodles were so incredibly delicious and very much worth the hour long wait. Though there was some pressure to eat quickly (they could only seat four people at a time) and everyone waiting in line would just stare at you until you finished, I was happy to be able to eat a full bowl of ramen after only getting small cups from other vendors.
Aside from the “edible” vendors, Ramen Expo USA showcased some beautiful tableware, including chopsticks with cool features that make it a bit easier to pick up noodles (“tornado chopsticks” are my life now), and even an automatic gyoza forming machine. (Watching the latter at work was actually kind of mesmerizing.)
The Ramen Expo USA was a very cool event indeed - really informative and really delicious. By the end of the day I was waddling around, having eaten way too much ramen. All worth it though to be afforded such a cool experience and to get to learn more about the ramen industry by actually talking to people whose businesses and lives revolve around it.
Ramen Expo USA was held over Oct 9 and 10 at Austin's Travis County Exposition Center.