Chicken Soup for the World

The year was 1958. Toshiro Mifune was starring in the samurai epic The Hidden Fortress and Godzilla was stomping his destructive way across Tokyo. Japan blew everyone away in the 3rd Asian Games (mainland China not invited), and Momofuku Ando sold his first package of Chikin (chicken) Ramen.

In the pantheon of great 20th century Japanese innovations, instant ramen noodles might not rank up there with the transistor radio or the Walkman, but in many ways it was more enduring. It has sometimes been called Japan’s greatest post-war invention, just ahead of the karaoke machine

Ando introduced the world to instant ramen in 1958. In 1971 he rolled out Cup Noodles, the friend of the college student the world over, to even greater success. The little white polystyrofoam cups with the red lettering on them are today as ubiquitous on supermarket shelves as Coca-Cola.

The Nissin Food Products Corp that Ando founded has been growing at a steady 10 percent a year for the past seven years. Last year it earned a little more than US$3 billion in sales. Despite some efforts at diversification, the company still earns 80 per cent of its income from sales of Cup Noodles and instant ramen.

The largest market outside of Japan is greater China, including Taiwan and Hong Kong, where Nissin sells more than 40 billion servings, roughly half of international sales. Russia, the U.S. and Brazil are also big noodle customers.

Ramen is more than just a cheap bowl of noodles. It is, in essence, Japan’s national dish, cheaper than sushi, available everywhere and perpetually fashionable. Originally from China, the dish took off with Japan’s extraordinary economic expansion in the late 1950s, becoming the salaryman’s all-purpose fuel.

The basic (ie non instant) ramen is a bowl of wheat noodles sitting in a hot broth, flavored with soy sauce, bamboo shoots, a slice of pork and garnished with a piece of dried seaweed. But variations are endless, and many regions in Japan offer their own localized versions.

Instant ramen comprises an imperishable brick of noodles to which boiling water is added to soften them and bring out the flavor. As with the original, it is usually chicken-based. “It’s convenient, plus it is inexpensive,” says Syuji Yamashita of the Japan Food Analysts Association.

An immigrant from Taiwan and a struggling businessman, Ando grew obsessed with the idea of inventing a quick-to-prepare dinner made from readily available wheat flour noodles, and he began experimenting in his back shed.

Watching his wife prepare tempura, he realized that dunking freshly cooked noodles in chicken soup before flash-frying them in palm oil would enable the water to leach out while preserving the flavor of the broth. The brick of noodles would be ready to eat after just a few minutes in boiling water.

After months of trial and error experimentation to perfect his flash-frying method, Ando introduced his first package of precooked noodles, called Chikin Ramen, on August 25, 1958. He was 48 years old (Ando died in January 2007 at the age of 96; his funeral was arranged by former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone.)

Oddly enough, the first instant noodles were considered something of a luxury food. Priced then at about 35 yen, a package was roughly five times as expensive as a traditional noodle dish at a food stall. Now, of course, it is an economy item. As of 2007, Chikin Ramen sold for around 60 yen, slightly double the original price. A bowl of ramen in a restaurant can cost $800 yen.

The invention of Cup Noodles (when Ando was 62 years old) required more inspiration than perspiration. Ando had observed how Americans ate noodles by breaking the noodle brick in half, putting it in a cup and dousing it with hot water, spooning the noodles out with a fork rather than chopsticks.

Ando simply standardized the practice by providing a waterproof polystyrene container. Eating the noodles would then be as simple as opening the lid, adding hot water and waiting a few minutes.

Japan has museums for everything you can imagine, so it is hardly surprising that ramen has its own establishment – actually more of a theme park ‑ in Yokohama. Two floors are given over to a typical Tokyo street at dusk. The year is, naturally enough, 1958, the seminal year in noodledom.

One enters through a railway station gate, the ticket taker chanting and snapping his punch, a practice that has all but disappeared from modern railway stations. The darkened alley is lined with cubbyhole bars (some real), and a movie house with a posters of Godzilla and Toshiro Mifune.

For an hour or so the visitor is transported back to a time before the arrival of McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken or conveyor-belt sushi, and for many young Japanese visitors it is as quaint as Mainstreet U.S.A. at Disneyland is for Americans.

The real draw, of course, is ramen. There are half a dozen or more noodle shops, each one featuring a particular style ranging from Kyushu to Hokkaido and selected from more than a thousand shops throughout Japan. Lines of people stretch as visitors plunk down their ticket and take a seat around the crowded counter to receive their heaping bowlful.

At the Sixth World Instant Noodles Summit in Osaka earlier this year – yes, they have such confabs, earlier ones have been in Bali, Bangkok and Seoul ‑ the conferees loudly proclaimed their product to be an “earth food,” and with chicken as its flavoring base, it is readily acceptable in all corners of the world. Hindus may not eat beef and Muslims may not eat pork, but there does not appear to be a single culture, or country that forbids the eating of chicken.

“Global consumption of instant noodles reached 98 billion servings in 2007, and we have already begun our countdown toward achieving our 100 billionth serving in 2008,” declared the conference in an official statement.

“At the same time, we hereby propose that the use of raw materials for food should take precedence over the use of raw materials for energy. There can be no higher priority than providing safe nutritious food to all the people of the world who need it.”

In other words, chicken soup for the world.