In this Food Non-Fiction podcast episode, we tell the rollercoaster story of the birth of instant noodles. On March 5, 1910, Momofuku Ando was born in Taiwan and raised by his grandparents. This was during the 50 years of Japanese rule that started after Japan won the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895.
He was a natural entrepreneur and started a clothing business when he was only 22. With his success, he moved to Japan the next year and expanded his clothing company while still attending university.
But during WWII, he lost everything when Osaka was firebombed by American forces. It was a tragedy that informed his world-view. He saw the hungry all around him. In a 1988 interview, he said, “the world is peaceful only when everyone has enough to eat. Everything starts with food.”
With his strong respect for food, he made his first attempt at entering the food industry by producing salt and nutritional products but it was too competitive. Instead, he worked as chair of a credit union until it went bankrupt in 1957.
He was 47 that year, and had once again lost his livelihood. But Ando was not one to give up. He saw every failure as muscle added to his body. He thought once more about food and remembered a day when he had seen people waiting in a long line for a bowl of noodles.
He thought that it would be wonderful if the hungry could have a bowl of warm noodles whenever they needed it. So, he began searching for a way to make instant noodles.
To prepare, he built a shed in his backyard that was to be his makeshift lab for creating instant noodles. He bought a used noodle making machine, a chinese wok, some flour and cooking oil.
He set his criteria right from the start. His noodles had to be tasty, nonperishable and ready in less than 3 minutes. He knew he had to figure out two things to create instant noodles - first, he had to find a way to remove all moisture from the noodles, in order to make them nonperishable. Second, he had to find a way to revive the noodles by putting the moisture back in.
He worked for a year in his backyard shed until he finally got the creative insight that he needed. This happened while he watched his wife making vegetable tempura. Ando once said that, “Perspiration might lead to inspiration, but only if you set clear goals”. He set clear goals, he worked hard, and he got the inspiration he needed. When Ando watched that tempura batter enter the frying oil, he recognized two important things. One was that the oil pushed the water out of the batter. Two was that water exiting the batter created little pores in the it. So dipping noodles in hot oil would remove all the water from the noodles, making the noodles nonperishable AND create pores in the noodles, so that water could re-enter the them and moisten them up again. The year was 1958 and Ando had created the world's first instant noodles.
Unfortunately, when Ando approached wholesalers, they told him it was too expensive for consumers, because at the time, it cost 6 times as much as a serving of fresh noodles. So, undaunted, he took matters into his own hands and organized tastings around the city
The tastings were successful and within a year, he had a factory and was producing 100,000 packs of instant noodles a day.
Right from the very first packs of instant noodles, Ando had planned to go international. He knew he was going to sell his product in the west. That’s why the very first flavor of instant noodles was flavored like Chicken Noodle Soup.
Not soy sauce flavored, but chicken noodle soup flavored, because Ando knew that people in the west might find soy sauce flavoring too foreign.
He famously said “Let them eat it with forks!" showing that he wanted to spread his product to the west and was going to accommodate western norms.
In 1966, Ando traveled to Los Angeles to promote his product. According to an article by Karen Leibowitz, he saw the supermarket executives he was meeting with reuse their styrofoam coffee cups to hold instant noodles.
At this point, he already knew that making portable bowls was the next step to improving the convenience of instant noodles, and now he knew that the bowls should actually be shaped like cups!
Cups would be the trendy new way to eat noodles. Bowls were outdated. Cups you could carry around with one hand without soup spilling!
Ando chose young adults as his target market. In order to reach his target market, he again used tasting events. This time he set up tasting events in Ginza, the fashion district in Japan. It was a successful tactic and cup noodles took off.
Ando’s cup noodles were brilliantly designed. Because manufacturing equipment at the time lacked the finesse to evenly wedge the noodles into the cups, he had the machines put the cups over the noodles instead.
We should also note that the noodles went in the mid portion of the cups, so they did not sit at the bottom. Having noodles in the mid portion of the cups made them more structurally sound, a great asset for shipping. As well, the noodles had room to expand on both sides when hot water was poured in.
Ando’s innovations took off. By 1973, Nissin had opened its first factory in the US. Today, Nissin continues to innovate. Ando had wanted his product to feed the masses - he never intended his noodles to be considered cheap, unsubstantial food. So these days, his company is working on adding nutrients to the centre layer of their noodles.
Nissin has created a line of healthier noodles called Raoh that are not fried. These noodles consist of 3 layers of different textures to mimic fresh noodles - the outer layers are silky and the inner layer is chewy. They’ve achieved these different textures by changing the levels of gliadin and glutenin that combine to form the gluten in the noodles. The chewy center layer is where they are working on adding nutrients.
Special Thanks to Looperman Artists for the music!
Ambellient by Danke Piano Quality Cajsa by MINOR2GO Piano Quality Make A Wish 2 by MINOR2GO Poppy Acoustic 2 by BradoSanz Poppy Acoustic 4 by BradoSanz