A nation’s food can be seen as a window to its soul. Take hamburgers, for example. Handheld, quick to assemble and eat, hamburgers embody a quintessentially American idea that founding father Benjamin Franklin put to paper in 1748 and which still powers those on Wall Street and beyond: “Remember that time is money.” In China, food is so omnipresent in the national psyche that people greet each other with the phrase “ chi fan le ma? ” – have you eaten? – and French food snobbery prompted French President Jacques Chirac to once quip unkindly of the British that: “One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad.” Which leads us to the Cupnoodles Museum in Yokohama, Japan. Yes, there is such a place (more than one – there are two in Japan and another in Hong Kong) and, yes, instant noodles have plenty to say about the Japanese traits of inventiveness, risk-taking and an openness to adapting and upgrading foreign influences that helped Japan recover after World War II to become an economic, cultural – and gastronomic – titan. Some of those same traits have also helped Japan pull off the improbable feat – or folly, the jury is out – of hosting the Olympic Games in the midst of the pandemic. Allowing 11,000 athletes to come from around the world, some bringing the coronavirus with them, testified to Japanese resilience, hospitality and flexibility. Tempura isn’t from Japan? How the country made the dish its own Now back to ramen. The Japanese cribbed noodles from China, where they are called lamian . Over the years, Japanese chefs elevated ramen into a taste-bud-blowing spectrum of flavours, textures and choices. In short, Japan absorbed a foreign influence and improved on it. The same would later be true with automobiles, gadgetry and – for fans of Demon Slayer , One Piece and other mangas – cartoons, to name just a few. Horrified by the food shortages that ravaged post-war Japan, former credit union worker Momofuku Ando hit upon the idea of turning surplus American wheat into noodles that hungry people could prepare with just hot water and a few minutes. Ando’s eureka moment came while watching his wife deep-fry tempura. That gave birth to the idea of flash-frying noodles to dehydrate them, and Ando’s first instant noodles were launched in 1958. Cup Noodles followed in 1971. The brainchild for that idea came on a fact-finding trip that Ando made to the United States in 1966, when he saw consumers of his instant noodles rehydrate and eat them from paper cups. According to Nissin Foods , the company Ando founded, worldwide cumulative sales of Cup Noodles surpassed the 40 billion mark in 2016. Ando died in 2007 at age 96, but his inventive spirit lives in what must rank as one of the world’s unique flavour experiences: the Cup Noodle ice cream. The Japanese invention that changed the world Served only at the Cupnoodles Museum, in its fourth floor cafeteria in Yokohama, the ice cream is made with the same powdered soup and freeze-dried toppings – onion, shrimp, chunks of egg and meat – used in actual Cup Noodles. Museum visitor Noriyuki Sato, who tried it, described it as “salty-sweet” and neither here nor there. “I’m not sure if that word makes sense to foreigners,” he said. “It’s not sweet and it’s not salty, either.” The ice cream is a monument to out-of-the-box thinking and to a Japanese knack for fusing together seemingly incompatible things to make wholly new ones. It’s hard to imagine an Italian gelato maker veering so audaciously off the beaten track. Nissin Foods spokesperson Kahara Suzuki says the ice cream – having tasted it, one hesitates to call it a dessert – embodies “what I would call a punk rock spirit that many Japanese people have”. “Who would ever come up with an idea like this? I mean it’s very unique,” Suzuki said. “You can see that punk rock spirit in every aspect of Japanese life.” It’s a spirit certainly seen on Japanese plates – other examples include the fruit sandwiches sold in corner stores and rice burgers. Since May, they have been joined by rice pizzas – developed by Sachie Oyama, an innovation chef and manager of the menu innovation department at Domino’s Pizza Japan. 11 things you may not know about historic Asian brands The Domino’s Deluxe version is a pizza built on a base layer of pre-cooked Japanese-cultivated white rice instead of pizza dough. The rice base is smothered with rich tomato sauce and topped with pizza ingredients: Mozzarella cheese, onions, peppers, pepperoni and Italian sausage. Domino’s only sells the product line in Japan and Oyama calls it “a pizza you can eat by yourself” rather than something to be shared. “Japanese people are good at rearranging things,” she said. “A combination with pizza and rice is not a weird thing at all.” Perhaps not, but foods like that do help explain why Japan seems to never stand still. After all, there are always new tastes to invent.