The Inspirational Origins of Instant Ramen

Momofuku Ando once said, “Peace will come when people have food.” He was an innovator, convict, and the creator of instant ramen.

People love instant ramen. It’s consumed by struggling college students, traded as the currency of choice in US prisons, and even eaten in space stations. But before all this, it was an idea. And the person we have to credit for its creation is Momofuku Ando.

Immigration, Prison, and Failure

Ando was born in Taiwan and moved to Japan at the age of 23, during the beginning of the Pacific wars. His entrepreneurial spirit led him to numerous, albeit unsuccessful business ventures. He sold salt, magic-lantern projectors, and prefabricated houses.

Ando even opened a school. And according to a piece by the Guardian, this led to his conviction in 1948 for charges of tax evasion. He explained that he was giving scholarships to children, which was a form of tax evasion in Japan at the time. Ando spent two years in prison for this.

After he got out, a credit union he was partly running went bust. This failed venture led to the loss of all his assets except for his house. Yet despite all this, Ando (now a middle-aged man riddled with more than his fair share of failure), went on to the next one. And thank the Noodle Gods he did.

“Inspiration leads to invention. Tenacity is the breeding ground for inspiration. There can be no invention in the absence of tenacity.” — Momofuku Ando

Hunger, Innovation, and Success

The creation of instant ramen cannot be separated from the context of post-war Japan. The country’s economy was in shambles. People’s spirits were low. There was a massive imbalance in the nation’s food supply.

People were hungry, but there wasn’t enough food. And even when there was food, they’d have to stand for hours in a long line waiting for a bowl of ramen.

According to a 2019 biography by Andrea Wang, “Magic Ramen: The Story of Momofuku Ando,” Ando’s idea came after passing by one ramen shop with a line full of overworked and tired construction workers. He wanted to do something for those rebuilding the country. And his proposed solution was instant ramen.

The noodles had to be tasty, easy to prepare, and slow to perish. And it had to be inexpensive. Ando needed to create a product optimized for the constraints of a post-war country.

The quest for an “optimized ramen” started in a humble garden shed, repurposed into a test kitchen, at the back of Ando’s house. If you ever get the chance to visit the city of Yokohama, you’ll find a replica of the same shed in the Cup Noodles Museum. It looked like a cross between a laboratory and the nativity of Jesus in the manger.

A photo of the Replica of Momofuku’s Wooden Shed by Adam Lederer on Flickr

After months of experimenting with different methods of drying noodles, Ando-san stumbled into success thanks to the divine intervention of his wife’s cooking. For dinner one night, his wife was preparing tempura, a deep-fried battered dish. This cooking method gave him the idea of flash frying cooked noodles in boiling oil to allow it to dry.

It worked. And what came from it was a long-lasting, convenient, and tasty bowl of noodles.

The noodles were an instant local hit, which with the help of quirky cartoon commercials, boosted sales to over 10,000 packs a day. And as Ando-san’s company grew, it obtained more capital to allow him to reach a market overseas.

Cup Noodles Go Worldwide

In the late 1960s, Ando-san took a trip to the United States to see how his products were fairing. He noticed an odd practice from his US patrons in the way they ate instant ramen. Americans would first break the dried noodles in half and place them inside a styrofoam coffee cup to be eaten with a fork.

This practice was the inspiration for the almighty cup-noodle, an even more convenient version of his invention. And it took over the world soon after.

An assortment of Nissin’s offerings in the Cup Noodle Museum. A photo by Matt & Chris Pua on Unsplash

The world adopted Ando’s invention for two reasons. First, he accomplished the metrics he set out for himself. Instant ramen is food that is durable, portable, cheap, and quick and convenient. Second, it’s a product that can easily be adapted to fit the preferences in tastes of different markets. There’s a spicy Tom Yum (a hot and sour soup) flavour for Thailand, and there’s a Champiogns (mushroom-based soup) flavour for Germany.

If you’re interested, there’s this Youtuber named “Tontantin” that has about 3,400 videos of him rating all sorts of instant ramen from around the world. His channel is a gift to real instant ramen fanatics.

Momofuku Ando’s Instant Ramen Legacy

It’s impressive that even today, almost 70 years after its invention, the demand for instant ramen is only rising. In 2019, its worldwide sales totalled over 106 billion packs. A report by Bloomberg last March showed the quarantine had increased Walmart’s online sales for instant ramen by 578%.

The appreciation for instant ramen has evolved to reverence in its birthplace. According to a survey, the Japanese believe that the country’s best contribution to the world in the 20th century was Ando-san’s instant ramen. These noodles are clearly here to stay, despite the passing of its persevering inventor.

Momofuku Ando and other great innovators in the Cup Noodle Museum. A photo by Camknows on Flickr

Even with claims on the ill effects of instant ramen to one’s health, Momofuku Ando had at least one bowl every day. He passed at the ripe old age of 96. But not before making sure his invention was sent to space.

Truth is stranger than fiction. I write about both. ||

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