The Nissin instant noodles story: Japanese invention that went from garden shed to national treasure to outer space
We trace the rise of Nissin’s noodles – the original and, some say, still the best
When Momofuku Ando died in January 2007, The New York Times devoted a large part of its editorials page to a man who had earned “an eternal place in the pantheon of human progress”.
This was not an inventor who had helped create the bullet train, founded one of Japan’s world-beating car companies or an electronics firm that had grown to become the envy of every developed economy. Ando perfected the humble dish of instant noodles and the company that he founded, Nissin Food Products, had grown to bestride the instant food sector like a colossus.
His creation – 60 years ago this August – remains unmistakable from his native Osaka to Ontario and Cape Town to Cologne, with few products better epitomising Japan’s recovery from the ravages of the second world war.
But like most success stories, Ando’s moment of inspiration had more than a hint of good fortune about it – and that story is best told in the museum dedicated to his invention in Yokohama.
On the day of my visit, it is mayhem. At least three school parties are visiting, and the children are busy trying out the interactive exhibits and racing from one display to the next.
The noise and chaos are arguably even more intense on the third floor, where children have a choice of soups and toppings to create their very own Cup Noodle – and, apparently, 5,460 potential flavour combinations.
Next door, another group is busy kneading and spreading wheat flour that is then dried and flash-fried – Ando’s breakthrough discovery – before the children take their creations home to sample.
It is likely that Ando would have approved, as he famously got the idea for instant noodles after witnessing ordinary people in Osaka queuing up for a bowl of the steaming staple at an outdoor stand.
Born in March 1910 to a Taiwanese family, Ando was raised by his grandparents in the city of Tainan after both his parents died, and demonstrated an entrepreneurial streak from a young age. He opened a textile company in Taipei at the age of 22 and later operated a clothing company in Osaka, also enrolling in the city’s Ritsumeikan University.
In the precarious years immediately after Japan’s defeat in the war, Ando was convicted of tax evasion and served two years in prison. In his autobiography, he claims he had provided scholarships to students at a time when it was considered to be tax evasion. By 1957, he had lost his business and almost everything else except his home.
Ando always credited his breakthrough to walking past a ramshackle noodle stand. Inspired, and short of cash, he immediately built a shed in his garden equipped with a stove and a workbench – an exact replica is in the museum – and set about perfecting the recipe and his idea. Initially, it did not go well, and every attempt to create a product that could be stored for a long time, yet ready in an instant, failed.
That changed one evening as he watched his wife fry “tempura” and he realised that flash-frying the noodles would eliminate the water they contained. By simply adding boiling water, the noodles could be rehydrated and ready to eat.
On August 25, 1958, Nissin released the first packet of pre-cooked instant noodles in a garish red and yellow package, with the product name – Chikin Ramen – interestingly in both English and Japanese.
The price of this new innovation was set at 35 yen, which was daring considering that “udon” noodles would commonly cost just 6 yen. But it paid off.
“They were a huge hit straight away because they were quick and convenient, but also because the late ’50s was the time when televisions were becoming more commonplace in Japanese homes and mass-marketing was evolving, while supermarkets were also appearing,” says Kahara Suzuki, a spokeswoman for the company.
“Nissin was also one of the first companies to sponsor a television programme, so the company was proactive in getting its name out there,” she says.
That policy continues to this day, with Nissin sponsoring tennis players Kei Nishikori and Naomi Osaka, recent winner of the US Open.
Chicken Ramen (Nissin has since fixed the name) is still available in Japan and sells for about 105 yen (94 US cents)– a third of the price of the cheapest bowl of noodles in a restaurant in the country.
Refusing to rest on his laurels, Ando sought out new markets and travelled to the US in 1966 to assess the chance of success for instant noodles in the booming post-war economy.
The American businessmen he spoke to, however, were not sure that eating noodles from a bowl with chopsticks would catch on. That prompted Ando’s second brainwave – selling the dehydrated noodles in a styrofoam cup that was easy for anyone with a fork to use.
The following year, the first Cup Noodle choices appeared on supermarket shelves – and the problem went from being how to crack the US market to how to keep up with demand.
Today, 100 billion portions of instant noodles are eaten around the world every year. By 2016, Cup Noodles had sold a total of more than 40 billion packs since its launch.
Statistics from the World Instant Noodles Association show that nearly 40 billion packs of instant noodles are consumed in China and Hong Kong each year.
“Cup Noodles are far more than just a snack; they’re a meal in their own right and ideal because they are cheap to buy, they’re warm and filling on a cold day, and very quick to prepare,” says Hiroko McCormack, who is married to a Canadian and lives in Toronto – but all too often hankers after a taste of home.
“I have to get them sent to me or buy mine directly from Japan, even if that is more expensive, because the ones we can buy in Canada taste different,” she tells the Post. “Instant noodles are very popular in Canada, although we do have a lot of Korean copies, but I have to say that I prefer the original, authentic taste.”
According to Suzuki, Nissin releases an astonishing 300-plus new products a year in Japan as it tries to keep up with the changing desires – and dietary requirements – of consumers. The vast majority of those are discontinued, leaving the most popular products in place.
“Since 2000, there has been a sharp increase in the number of 24-hour convenience stores in Japan, but each of them has limited space so we need to devise ways to show a broad range of products to customers, who are increasingly fickle,” she says.
“At the same time, there is a lot of very stiff competition in this sector, so we need to be constantly innovating and evolving.”
One of the newer products on the shelves, both in Japan and internationally, is the “Nice” range of Cup Noodles, which has the same rich flavour but fewer calories than its standard counterpart. Similarly, some products are being released in smaller portions for older people who tend to eat less, while the company has found that certain ranges – such as the Thai Tomyam Kung Noodle – have found a firm following with female consumers.
“We have found that often Japanese people will go to an izakaya after work, have a few drinks and then they decide they want a big bowl of ramen,” Suzuki says. “We feel the Nice range satisfies the needs of such consumers with none of the guilt.
“Ramen really is comfort food for Japanese people and Mr Ando’s ‘magic noodles’ are just that, plus they can be a low-calorie alternative.”
Ando remained an innovator throughout his life and in 2005, at the ripe old age of 95, perfected his final contribution to the instant noodle menu, Space Ram. Designed to be eaten by astronauts – as it has been – Space Ram uses his original flash-frying method, although the noodles come as bite-sized nuggets in a plastic pouch.
“It’s funny, but a few years ago I was on a business trip in Europe and I’d been gone for several weeks when I went into a supermarket in a town in Wales to get something to eat after a meeting,” says Chris Dunn, an export trade consultant who has lived in Japan since 1990.
“Among the biscuits and other different snacks on the shelves were these immediately recognisable Cup Noodles,” he says. “All of a sudden, as I’m standing in this supermarket, I get a lump in my throat. And I want to go ‘home’. Home for me is really Canberra, but I just want to get back to Japan and – for me – there is apparently nothing more Japanese than a Cup Noodle.”