Successful businesses manufacture products for the markets, but the extraordinary ones create markets for their products. For all intents and purposes, Momofuku Ando was neither successful nor remarkable 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 self-imposed seclusion in the shed, he had invented 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 outlet. Japan was yet to recover from the ravages of the Second World War; unemployment was high, the food supply was short, poverty was pervasive, and opportunities were scarce. The scene was emblematic of the deprivation of 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 that people consume more wheat products imported from the US, Ando sought to know why not supply the hungry masses with noodles. The people were more accustomed to noodles than imported biscuits and bread. He found the answer soon: noodles had a 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 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. This process would rid the noodles of unwanted moisture and prime them for longer storage.
He found that noodles thus fried not only stayed longer on the shelf but could also be consumed almost immediately after adding hot water. Over the next few months, Ando perfected his recipe and set a five-point agenda for the manufacturing process:
1. It must be delicious
2. It should have a long shelf life
3. It should be quick and easy to prepare
4. It must be inexpensive
5. It must be 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 misspelled 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 a pushcart seller charged. Moreover, Japanese people's preference for 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 favored Nissin because its products could be stored longer and easily transported to far-flung areas of the Japanese archipelago.
The emergence of the middle class
After its humiliating defeat in the World War, Japan embraced a pacifist constitution, focusing on economic rebuilding under the US influence. The capitalist ideals soon spread to Japanese society, which saw rapid urbanization and the emergence of nuclear families with 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 later recalled in his biography that he had struck gold by opting for chicken noodles, for this flavor had no taboo. Ando reasoned that some people abhorred pork while others beef. However, in chicken, he had found a recipe with international appeal. By the 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 realized there was no bowl available to soak the ramen in. That's when one of the store employees took out the noodles, broke them into two, put the pieces in a paper cup, and added hot water. The noodle was ready.
Cup noodles are introduced
The little demo by the staff got Ando thinking about a new product that 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 chopsticks. Ando wanted his team to develop a cup suitable for holding in one hand; this could be enjoyed on the go or even standing. After analyzing and discarding 40 prototypes, Ando selected the one resembling an oversized paper cup. On the advice of his team, he picked polystyrene foam as the material for his cup because it was lightweight, offered good heat insulation, and was economical. Here, 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 smaller than the cup. The downside was that the noodles would jostle 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 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 to turn it upside down and place the cup face down over it from above. This counterintuitive idea made a reliable filling of the cups possible and opened the way to mass production, the Nissin website says.
In September 1971, Ando launched his instant cup noodles, but they received a lukewarm reception. The issues the new variant had to grapple with were cost and tradition. Modern Japanese considered the cost prohibitive, while traditionalists were aghast at standing, or worse, moving and eating. For the initial few months, the sales were dull. Still, the demand rose exponentially in March 1972, thanks mainly to the Communists waging 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. It 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. 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. Nissin hit a purple patch, so much so that production could not keep up with the demand.
Another achievement for Nissin came in 2003 when Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi consumed a specially-made variant of ramen called Space Ram in space. It marked the realization 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, South Korea 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. Still, 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 evolved, instant noodles successfully incorporated the food cultures of various regions worldwide.