In the year 2000, people in Japan were polled and asked what the greatest Japanese creation of the 20th century was.
They didn’t pick the walkman, digital cameras, or the compact disc. Nor did they pick any even any cultural achievements like the works of Akira Kurosawa, anime, or Pokemon.
What they selected as the greatest Japanese accomplishment of the 20th century was…….instant noodles.
Learn more about the simplest, cheapest food in the world, and its inventor Momofuku Ando, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
This episode is sponsored by Audible.com
My audiobook recommendation today is Rice, Noodle, Fish: Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture by Matt Goulding.
In this 5,000-mile journey through the noodle shops, tempura temples, and teahouses of Japan, Matt Goulding, co-creator of the enormously popular Eat This, Not That! book series, navigates the intersection between food, history, and culture, creating one of the most ambitious and complete books ever written about Japanese culinary culture from the Western perspective.
You can claim your one month trial to Audible and your 2 free audiobooks by going to audibletrial.com/EverythingEverywhere or clicking on the link in the show notes.
Japan’s greatest inventor wasn’t actually Japanese.
Momofuku Ando was born in Taiwan in 1910 to a Chinese family with the birth name Wu Baifu.
In 1933 Ando moved to Osaka where he started a clothing company.
After WWII, Taiwan became the Republic of China and he had to choose if he wanted Japanese citizenship or Taiwanese citizenship. He chose Taiwanese to keep some family property on the island but continued to live in Japan.
By the late 1950s, Ando’s company had gone bankrupt, he had been found guilty of tax evasion, and he started a new company which sold salt called Nissin.
Japan at this time was also dealing with some serious food issues stemming from the end of WWII.
Japan was receiving foreign aid in the form of wheat from the United States and encouraging its people to eat bread. However, bread was never a staple of the Japanese diet. It wasn’t was people were used to consuming. It wasn’t just Japan either. The same wheat was being sent to Korea and Taiwan with the same recommendations of consuming bread.
Ando wondered why they weren’t encouraging people to eat noodles instead of bread, which the people in the region were used to eating.
He had a meeting officials in the health ministry and expressed his concern about promoting bread, as opposed to noodles which were also made out of flour, but would be more readily adopted by the populace.
The representative from the health ministry told him, “Why don’t you solve this problem?”
So he did.
In 1957 at the age of 47, he set to work to try and create a type of noodle that would be easy to make at home.
He bought an old noodle making machine, 18 kilograms of wheat, some cooking oil, and set to work.
He eventually came up with a way to fold and shape the noodles, then flash fry them to create something which could last for a long time and easily be prepared by adding boiling water. The process of flash-frying reduces the water content of the noodles by 95%.
With the addition of a freeze-dried flavor packet, he created the modern instant noodle.
In 1958, his company Nissin released the first instant noodle product, Chickin Ramen.
Believe it or not, when the product was first launched, it was released as a high-end luxury product priced at six times the price of regular ramen.
Within 5 years, the price had dropped and instant noodles were a huge hit. By 1963 they were selling 200 million servings annually.
In many ways, the popularity of instant noodles in Japan mirrored the rise in TV dinners in the United States. Consumers wanted something fast and easy to eat that fit into modern lifestyles.
As instant noodles took off in Asia, they weren’t yet a big hit in the US. In countries like Japan, most people might have a noodle bowl or some experience in cooking noodles. That didn’t exist in the US.
To expand into the American market, 1971 Ando, at the age of 61, introduced the Cup Noodles.
The idea for cup noodles came from talking to an American supermarket manager who took the noodles, broke them up, and put them into a coffee mug to prepare it.
Cup Noodles were noodles packaged and served in a styrofoam cup. These noodles were intended to be eaten with a fork rather than chopsticks. All you needed was boiling water, and you had a packaging container and a bowl in one convenient package.
For years, there was a steaming Cup Noodle advertisement right in the middle of Times Square in New York below the spot where the ball dropped on New Year’s Eve.
Instant noodles went on to be far more successful than anyone could have ever imagined. There are over 103 billion servings of instant noodles served each year around the world. That is 13.2 serving per person, each year, for every person on Earth.
Indonesia is the largest consumer of instant noodles at 12 billion servings per year.
Instant noodles have become extremely sophisticated. I personally remember on my travels going to stores and seeing entire isles that had an amazing selection of instant noodles. They’ve gone well beyond small styrofoam cups and now are large bowls. I’ve even had some with packets of actual preserved meat or eggs you could add. Not just powdered flavor packets.
In 1999, they opened up an instant noodle museum in Yokahama, Japan, and today there are actually two museums that celebrate the instant noodle.
In 2005, a Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi flew on the space shuttle and Nissin created a special type of instant noodle which could be eaten in space.
In Japan, probably the vending machine capital of the world, they have developed instant noodle vending machines that not only dispense noodles in a cup but also the hot water to make the noodles as well.
In the US prison system, packages of ramen are often used as currency. Each package is known as a “soup” and you can tell how well someone is doing by how many “soups” they have.
Instant noodles have become the stereotype for what college students eat. I remember eating it all the time in a tiny electric coffee pot when I was a student.
Lots of people gravitate towards instant noodles when times get tough. During the initial days of the COVID-19 crisis, from February 23 and March 21, 2020, Walmart reported a 578% increase in instant noodle sales.
Innovation in instant noodles hasn’t ended. There are now some companies which have self-heating instant noodle bowls that just require adding water, which doesn’t even have to be hot.
One company has created a packaging that will dissolve in water, thus ensuring that there is no waste product to leave behind.
On January 5, 2007, Momofuku Ando passed away at the age of 96.
His famous saying is that “Peace will come when people have food.”
There are only a few people who can claim to have fed as many people as Momofuku Ando is. Every day, hundreds of millions of people are fed with his creation.
So, on behalf of the billions of people who have eaten instant noodles, may I say Domo Arigato, Mr. Momofuku!