Never mind all the Toyotas, Nissans, Hondas, Mazdas, Sonys, Toshibas, and other technological wonders from the Land of the Rising Sun, many native Japanese think that instant Ramen Noodles are the best export they offer the world. A Fuji Research Institute public opinion poll discovered that Ramen Noodles truly “represent Made in Japan,” because the noodles are a global phenomenon.
The development of the world’s favorite instant soup began with the interaction of two of history’s most famous arch-enemies, China and Japan. In 1895, Japan’s navy trounced the Chinese navy in a humiliating battle. The spoils of victory included control of Korea, annexation of Taiwan, and eventually some other areas of China. As often happens with imperialistic conquest, the winner assimilates parts of the defeated peoples’ culture, including food.
The legend continues at a Tokyo restaurant where two Chinese cooks invented a popular soup of salty broth and long noodles called “Shina Saba”. The soup quickly became very popular. As with much 20th century Japanese culture, there was an off-beat aspect about the name. Shina is a word for China. Soba is the buckwheat noodle that’s been a staple of the Japanese for many years. The Chinese cooks altered the
technique of making the noodles by kneading the dough with effervescent mineral water. The result was a more yellow, longer, elastic noodle.
The dubious part of Shina Soba is what it represented to many of those who ate it. The Japanese lived the concept of their empire by figuratively eating their nemeses. You might say Shina Soba consumption represented cultural cannibalism.
The cultural cannibalism metaphor came to a crashing halt after the defeat of Japan in the second World War. Due to the embarrassment of military aggression and brutality against China, the Japanese saw the name Shina Soba as a shameful ethnic slur. The soup was renamed “Chuka Soba”. “Chuka meaning “Chinese-style”.
After the war, clothing entrepreneur Momofuku Ando of Taiwan relocated to Japan, entered Ritsumeikan University and started a small merchandising company in Osaka. In 1948, Ando was convicted of tax evasion and served two years imprisonment. His clothing company was shuttered due to bankruptcy.
Following his release from prison, Ando founded a family-owned salt company that was eventually renamed Nissin Foods. Postwar Japan was frequently plagued by food shortages for many years. Ando was motivated to help the Japanese people have enough basic food. Ando came up with a set of criteria that had to be met in order to provide people with basic sustenance. The food needed to be nonperishable, safe, healthy, palatable, quickly prepared, and cheap.
In 1957, Ando began experimenting with different methods to make dehydrated, mass-produced noodles. Then serendipity struck. Ando placed some dehydrated Chuka Soba noodles into some hot tempura oil left over from dinner. He noticed that frying the noodles rehydrated the food and also created a perforated texture. This became the basis for a successful instant Chuka Soba noodle.
The first Nissin instant noodles were named “Chikin Ramen” because they contained trace amounts of chicken broth. The packages were introduced in 1958 as a luxury product. Although the cost was a little higher than the fresh Chuka Soba from street stalls, the idea of preparing it at home was very attractive to Japanese consumers. Instant Ramen became an instant success. Ramen’s popularity motivated Ando to expand into the international market.
The next chapter in the Ramen legend says that Ando visited the United States, in 1966, for a supermarket executive convention in Los Angeles. He noticed that a few of the attendees used Styrofoam coffee cups as Ramen containers. He took note, and forwarded the idea to research and development. In 1977, Nissin introduced “Cup Noodles”, which became another hit with the public.
A crowning achievement for Ando was the consumption of Ramen in Outer Space. In 2005, he created “Space Ram”. The noodles are shrink-wrapped with a thick broth. The food is easily cooked and safe to use in the weightless environment of orbital flight. “Space Ram” was designed for the Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi to enjoy in the “Discovery” Space Shuttle.
The day before Ando died, the long-retired Ando paid a visit to the Nissin factory to deliver the New Year’s speech. The message stated that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of humanity. That is “believing we can achieve all of our desires, without limitation”. Ando reminded his listeners that resources are limited relative to human demands. That means that we must prioritize.
96-year-old Momofuku Ando died on January 5, 2007 at a hospital in Ikeda, Osaka Prefecture, Japan of heart failure.