I have a quick question for you, and you have to think really quick…..what is the greatest Japanese invention of the 20th Century?
My guess is that the first thoughts that come to mind might include the Walkman, instant cameras, the VCR, blue-green lasers, DVDs (jointly with Phillips), or something involving technology.
They took a poll at the end of the 20th Century asking that very question. The #1 Japanese invention considered by the Japanese was……… instant noodles.
I’ve been wanting to write about this since the first month of my trip when I was in Hawaii. Since then, I’ve probably seen more people eating instant noodles in all the countries I’ve been to than probably any other food. Along with corned beef, it was a staple in the Pacific. In the Philippines and in Taiwan, you could find a large selection of instant noodles in most convenience stores.
To the average American, instant noodles immediately bring up images of starving college students living of square packages of ramen. In Japan, nothing could be farther from the truth. The instant noodle meals you can purchase here are full blown meals and several generations removed from the bare bones ramen packets you see in the US.
First some background. The inventor of the instant noodle was Ando Momofuku, who at the age of 48 in 1958, came up with the modern instant noodle. Hunger was a serious problem in Japan after WWII and one of the primary staples of the Japanese diet was wheat imported from the US. Noodles are perhaps the staple food in the Japanese diet, yet everyone was encouraged to make bread. Because noodles didn’t have a long shelf life, he set out to do his part to end starvation by developing a way to preserve noodles.
After many attempts, he developed a technique of flash frying noodles in palm oil. The company he started was Nissin which still exists today. They are the makes of Top Ramen and Cup Noodles. (what’s the one advertisement in Times Square that almost everyone can recognize? The Nissin Cup Noodles sign.)
I always referred to instant noodles as ramen. That isn’t exactly correct. Ramen refers to noodles in a broth, not the noodles themselves. The prepared dish would be ramen, but the noodles by themselves, technically wouldn’t be.
While you can find noodles in cups and bowls, the most common form of instant noodles in the US are the brick packages with the powder flavor packets. Based on this, you’d be right to be suspicious of eating instant noodles. The brick packages are throwbacks to the 60’s when instant noodles first hit the market. Since then they have been taken a long way in Japan, but we have never followed along.
The modern Japanese instant noodle meal is still not nearly as good as a freshly prepared noodle dish, but it is miles better than the noodle bricks with powder flavor packages. Here is a breakdown of an average instant noodle meal in Japan:
Most of the noodle meals in Japan are sold in styrofoam bowls or cups. You can find the brick packages, but there are usually only a very small number on the bottom shelf. In the Pacific, I remember seeing larger family size brick packages of noodles at roadside village stores. In the Philippines, most of the noodle bowls you’d see in convenience stores (and there were lots of them) were imported directly from China or Japan and hand no English packaging.
The styrofoam bowl, while increasing the price over the brick packages a bit, increases the convenience factor dramatically. In fact, if you purchase a noodle bowl at a convenience store in Japan, they will always put a pair of chopsticks in your bag. The entire meal is self-contained.
Inside the bowl, you’ll see a lot more than just a powder flavor package. I’ve had some noodle bowls with as many as 5 or 6 packages inside the bowl. The ingredients is really where most of the progress has been made in noodle technology. Most bowls will have a powder flavor packet. That hasn’t changed. What they do have is one of more of the following: a liquid flavor package, dried meat, dried vegetables, a moist meat package similar to the pouches that tuna comes in.
The problem with the brick packages of ramen isn’t so much what is in it or the fact that it is fried. The problem is what it lacks. There is zero protein, zero vegetables, and very low nutritional value. Putting more meat, vegetables, and nutrients into the package, it makes it a more well-rounded meal. I must confess however, I have no idea as to the actual nutritional contents of each package because I can’t read the labels.
You can see in the photo, that the end result is something much more appetizing than noodles in broth. Because of the liquid packages, the broth is usually much more creamy. I’ve even had some bowls which had something that looked like a small pad of butter. When you added hot water, it would melt and form a creamy broth. Personally, I’d often buy a small package of dried octopus or fish and add it to the bowl for extra flavor and protein.
If you should ever find yourself in an Asian grocery store, check out the instant noodle section. You should be able to buy most any noodle bowl for under $2. Just throw a bowl into the shopping cart and give it a try. You’ll like it. You may have no clue what you’re eating because you can’t read the package, but so long as you can eat pork or seafood (this stuff definitely isn’t kosher), you’ll be fine.