Ramen is one of the most popular dishes in Japanese cuisine and has countless variations. The soup has three components: the noodles (men), the broth (shiru), and the seasoning sauce (tare). It was imported to Japan by Chinese immigrants, who worked as cooks in restaurants in the port town of Yokohama, and served a growing number of international customers there. This information can be traced back to the 1880s, with the assimilation of the dish beginning in the 1910s and giving rise to Japanese ramen variants, that added ingredients not previously used. Given its particular history, the dish is highly characterized by appropriation and mobility. The adaptation of ethnic cuisine to the tastes of local customers is a long-standing phenomenon that can be observed globally, and where the concept of authenticity plays an important role. Ramen is traditionally a meat-based dish but has recently found its vegetarian or vegan counterpart. In Austria the negative consequences of meat consumption prompt more and more people to adopt a flexitarian, vegetarian or vegan diet and to reduce meat consumption as much as possible. This development is changing the gastronomical scene and these developments continue past Japanese cuisine.
Vegan ramen variants serve not only to convey personal values and ideals but as well as an expression of the cultural identity of its producers. Culinary authenticity is not only constructed by restaurateurs as an economic marker but also on an emotional level. This may include both subjective and objective elements, and influences restaurateurs’ perception, standards, and priorities in relation to Japanese cuisine respectively. According to a model developed by the Berlin-based Japanologist Cornelia Reiher, restaurateurs can be classed into three categories: “personal”, “fusion” and “as a profession”. Following this definition, two different strategies for handling the vegan diet can be identified within the Viennese ramen scene. On the one hand, there is an integrative approach that incorporates people’s changing eating habits into the restaurant concept as a whole. On the other hand, there is an approach that caters to these habits separately.
As vegan alternatives are offered in all the ramen bars I have surveyed, this development can be seen as a local adaption of Japanese cuisine to Vienna’s ramen scene. This realignment with the local market has produced a previously unimagined variety of vegan ramen in Vienna which, depending on the restaurateurs’ category, are legitimized by the personal taste of the head chef and their team or through original Japanese recipes. For that reason, the perception of what is considered authentically Japanese in relation to vegan alternatives is changing. However, despite the growing importance of the vegan movement in Japan, the vegan diet appears to be perceived as a Western trend by the respondents of my survey. The open-minded approach of the restaurateurs to the concept of veganism suggests nevertheless that the vegan diet has a lasting influence on the Viennese ramen scene, even if there is no consensus among the restaurateurs about its contribution to environmental protection or climate-friendly nutrition.