Successful businesses manufacture products for the markets, but the extraordinary ones create markets for their products. For all intent and purposes, Momofuku Ando was neither successful nor extraordinary till the first half of the 20thcentury. When he built a makeshift shed outside his house in 1957, he was 47, broke, bankrupt and had even done time for tax evasion. A year later when he emerged from the self-imposed seclusion, he had invented what would go on to become the world’s most consumed food: instant noodles.
The sight that inspired Ando
Legend has it that Ando was once strolling through the streets of Osaka when he chanced upon a long queue at a pushcart noodle, or ramen as it is called in Japan, outlet. Japan was yet to recover from the ravages of the Second World War; unemployment was high, food supply short, poverty all pervasive and opportunities scarce. The scene was emblematic of the deprivation of the post-War Japan. Ando could never forget the faces of the nameless multitudes waiting in serpentine queues for what should have been their inalienable right as a human: food. Years later, when the Japanese government insisted on people to consume more wheat products imported from the US, Ando sought to know why not supply the hungry masses with noodles, which was something they were accustomed to, rather than asking them to munch on imported biscuits and bread. The answer was simple: noodles had short shelf life.
The beginning of an experiment
In 1957, Ando began experimenting with various methods to prolong the shelf life of ramen, but success eluded him. The much-awaited bright spark came when he saw his wife flash frying tempura. It suddenly occurred to him that if he heated oil to a high temperature and then fried his noodles in the wok for a few seconds, it would dehydrate the ramen, ridding it of the unwanted moisture and priming it up for a longer storage.
He worked on this theory, and found that noodles thus fried not only stayed longer on the shelf, they could be also be consumed almost immediately after just adding hot water to it. Over the next few months, Ando perfected his recipe and set a five-point agenda for the manufacturing process:
1. Must be delicious
2. Should be non-perishable so that they could be stored in kitchens
3. Quick and easy to prepare
5. Safe and hygienic
Instant noodles are invented
In August 1958, Ando’s brand of Chikin Noodles hit the stands, but it wasn’t a runaway success. Chikin was the misspelt form of Chicken and Ando got the spelling right later that year when he founded Nissin. But pricing remained a sore point. Ando was selling his noodles for at least six times more than what a pushcart seller charged. Moreover, Japanese people’s preference to fresh food, too, scuttled the prospects of Nissin. The right impetus for Nissin’s Chicken Ramen came when Mitsubishi Corporation began supplying it to the poor and the hungry as part of its corporate social responsibility. Mitsubishi favoured Nissin because its products could be stored longer and could also be easily transported to far-flung areas of the Japanese archipelago.
Emergence of the middle class
After its humiliating defeat in the World War, Japan had embraced a pacifist constitution, with focus on economic rebuilding under the US influence. The capitalist ideals soon spilled over to the Japanese society, which saw rapid urbanisation, emergence of nuclear families and working spouses. With prosperity came higher purchasing power albeit at the expense of time spent in the kitchen. Emerging middle-class families now wanted instant food and Nissin milked the market. This new middle class – short on time but hungry for ramen – became the bulwark of Nissin’s clientele.
Ando would later recall in his biography that by opting for chicken noodles he had struck gold, for this was a flavour that had no taboo associated with it. Ando reasoned that pork was abhorred by one community, while beef by another, but in chicken he had found a recipe with international appeal. By late 1960s, Nissin had crossed the Atlantic, and Ando wanted to personally see its growth across the Pacific. It was during his sales campaign in the US that he came across a peculiar problem. He wanted to make an on-the-spot demo of his chicken noodles to a prospective customer when he realised there was no bowl available to soak the ramen in. That’s when one of the employees of the store took out the noodles, broke it into two, put the pieces in a paper cup and added hot water to it. The noodle was ready for eating.
Cup noodles are introduced
The little demo by the staff got Ando thinking about a new product, which could be eaten on the go. Ando now wanted a cup that could hold vegetable and meat chunks along with the flash fried noodles that could be eaten with a fork instead of the chop sticks. Ando wanted his team to develop a cup that would be suitable for holding it in one hand; this could be enjoyed on the go, or even standing. After analysing and discarding 40 prototypes, Ando selected the one resembling an oversized paper cup. On the advice of his team, he selected polystyrene foam as the material for his cup because it was lightweight, offered good heat insulation and was economical. It was here that Ando hit another roadblock: how to fill the cups with noodles.
According to the Nissin website, since the top of the cup was wide and the bottom narrow, noodles could easily be inserted provided the block was made smaller than the cup. The downside, however, was that the noodles could be jostled inside the cup during transport and break apart. And so, Ando came up with the idea of making the block of noodles larger than the bottom of the cup and suspending it in the middle of the cup (called middle retention). However, when he actually tried putting the noodles into the cups, they would tilt or tip over. Ando thought about the problem constantly. One night after he had retired to bed, the ceiling suddenly seemed to spin as he had a flash of insight. The answer wasn't to drop a block of noodles into a cup, but rather to turn the block upside down and place the cup face down over it from above. This counterintuitive idea made possible reliable filling of the cups and opened the way to mass production at the factory, the Nissin website says.
In September 1971, Ando launched his instant cup noodles, but it received a lukewarm reception. The issues the new variant had to grapple with were again cost and tradition. Japanese considered the cost prohibitive, while traditionalists were aghast at the idea of standing, or worse, moving and eating. For the initial few months, the sales were dull, but the demand rose exponentially in March 1972 thanks largely to the Communists who were waging a war against capitalism, of which Nissin had become the poster boy in Japan.
The Asama-Sanso Incident
On February 28, Japanese special forces stormed into a winter resort to free a woman held hostage by five armed members of the United Red Army. The attack was the culmination of a 10-day standoff between Left-leaning university students and authorities, and was telecast live on TV in a 10-hour relay. During the telecast of what is now called the Asama Sanso Incident, the camera crew zoomed in on special forces munching on cup noodles in the biting cold weather; and for some reason it captured the imagination of the populace. News reports of the event suggested that the visuals of the forces eating ramen buoyed the sale of cup noodles, and yet again Nissin hit a purple patch, so much so that production was unable to keep up with the demand.
Another major achievement for Nissin came in 2003 when Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi consumed a specially-made variant of ramen called Space Ram in space, marking the realisation of the long-cherished dream of Ando to sell noodles in space.
The best Japanese invention, ever!
In the six decades since 1958, instant noodles have become one of the most consumed foods in the world. According to the World Instant Noodles Association, the world consumed 1,16,560 million servings of ramen in 2020, an 11% rise against the previous year, with China, Indonesia, Vietnam and India topping the overall demand charts. However, it’s South Korea that tops per capita consumption, followed by Vietnam and Nepal.
The trivia page of the World Instant Noodles Association sums up Ando’s influence succinctly. It says, plain noodles made from wheat flour were invented in China around the 6th century, but it took approximately 1,300 years before they spread across the world. Instant noodles, on the other hand, came to be eaten worldwide just 40 years after their invention. As they have evolved, instant noodles have successfully incorporated the food cultures of various regions around the world.