Nearly four decades after the first instant ramen noodle factory opened in the U.S., Japan’s beloved comfort food finally is making inroads — even achieving cult status — in a nation where burgers and pizza still rule.

Once considered just a bargain meal for cash-starved college students, ramen noodles suddenly are commanding as much as $15 or more a bowl in sleek New York noodle shops.

“We are living in a ramen moment,” says Alan Richman, GQ magazine food critic who wrote his first ramen review after dining at Ippudo N.Y. In March, the restaurant became the first branch outside Japan of a highly regarded noodle shop chain.

“It’s been discovered by people like me who were ignorant,” Richman says. “It’s the food of the moment.”

Ippudo NY landed in New York’s East Village, where celebrated Korean-American chef David Chang already was drawing hordes of customers to his stylish Momofuku Noodle Bar, which opened in 2004.

Shortly after Chang’s debut, Ramen Setagaya, another popular Japanese ramen chain, opened there, winning New York magazine’s “best ramen” award this year.

The essence of ramen is a rich broth, often made from pork bones, and thin, slightly chewy noodles, garnished with such toppings as sliced pork, hard-boiled eggs, seaweed, scallions, fish cake, mushrooms, even corn kernels.

The dish originated in China; the very name comes from the Chinese words for hand-pulled wheat flour noodles.

“Like most things, the Japanese imported the idea from another culture and have taken it to the extreme,” says Chang, who is known for insisting on only the finest ingredients for his soups, including specially bred Berkshire pork.

But for years, most Americans settled for much less — instant ramen still can be had for as little as six packs for $1.

Last year, 738 million pounds of ramen (or 4 billion individual packets) were devoured in the United States, a 4 percent increase over 2006, according to Nissin Food Products Co. of Japan.

And worldwide, the demand for instant noodles is huge — Nissin sales of more than $3.2 billion annually. China consumes the most, followed by Indonesia and Japan, according to the World Instant Noodles Association.

But it’s the ramen restaurants, or ramenya, that are most revered in Japan. It boasts 80,000 of them. There’s also a famous ramen museum near Tokyo, as well as a Japanese television program where ramen chiefs compete — Ippudo’s founder, Shigemi Kawahara, has won it three times.

Ramen noodle sushi

Start to finish: 30 minutes

Servings: Makes 6 pieces

Ingredients: 3-ounce package instant ramen noodles, seasoning packet discarded

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon seasoned rice vinegar

Wasabi paste or powder, to taste

3 sheets sushi nori seaweed, each cut in half

1 carrot, cut into thin matchsticks

1/2 small cucumber, peeled, seeded and cut into thin strips

2 scallions, ends trimmed, cut into 2-inch lengths

6 cooked shrimp, tails and shells removed

Preparation: Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. Add the ramen noodles and cook until just tender, about 2 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool for about 10 minutes. Every few minutes, toss with a fork to prevent excessive sticking.

Divide the noodles into six portions.

Meanwhile, to prepare the dipping sauce in a small bowl mix the soy sauce, rice vinegar and wasabi paste. Set aside.

One at a time, carefully roll each half sheet of nori into a cone. Dip a finger in water and rub it along the far edge of the nori and press it against the cone. The wet edge helps seal the cone. You may need to do this several times to get it to stick.

Place one portion of the noodles in the cone, then add strips of carrot, cucumber and scallions. Finish by placing 1 shrimp in each cone, then arrange on a serving plate. Serve with the wasabi dipping sauce.

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