In the eternal pantheon of creators whose eye for simplicity touched consumers around the world, Steve Jobs probably features prominently. But you can’t eat an iPod, and when Japan faced poverty and hunger in the wake of defeat in World War II, one man carved his name into the national psyche with an indelible edible product that would eventually go global: Nissin Cup Noodle.
When Momofuku Ando invented the world’s first instant noodles in his garden shed, it was amid times of turmoil for Japan. Food was scarce and money was scarcer, and that led failed businessman Ando to his eureka moment – if only he could invent a kind of food that was cheap and easy to make and could be stored for a long time, he could make a fortune.
Chikin Ramen was the fruit of many years’ trial and error for Ando. Eventually released in 1958, it consisted of ramen noodles in chicken sauce that were deep-fried to dry them out while sealing in the flavour, an idea Ando got from watching his wife making deep-fried prawns in his kitchen. By simply adding boiling water, the dried noodles would expand to become a hot meal – just like that. It sounds obvious now, but in the 1950s it was a stroke of genius. As for the name Chikin Ramen, well, who says geniuses need to be good at spelling?
Ando noted that his hosts would place the noodles into a bowl to cook them (presumably they were designed to be made on a stove) and would eat them with a fork, not chopsticks. This gave him the idea to sell his successful instant ramen in a foam cup, perfect for storage and for eating out of – with any utensil.
Cup Noodle made its debut in 1971 and became a worldwide smash, generating a multitude of flavours, scores of copycat brands and sales of over 25 billion packs. Nissin became a household name in Japan.
Ando’s gift for lateral thinking takes centre stage at the Cupnoodles Museum, a bright building whose white walls and clean lines resemble a modern airport. In a plush red theatre, Ando’s struggles and successes are crunched into an engaging 14-minute CG movie, while various displays, timelines and statues promote the benefits of thinking outside the cup.
But perhaps the most fun attractions for the hundreds of families who visit every day are the ones that let you get your hands dirty. At the Chikin Ramen Factory, visitors get to make their own instant noodles from scratch – and I went along to have a go. Over the course of 90 minutes, the staff talked us through each step in a huge kitchen that smelled faintly of soy sauce and cooking oil: mix the various natural ingredients (including chicken extract, sesame oil and kansui, the alkaline mineral water that makes ramen yellow) and knead them into a sort of dough, flatten this with a pin, squish it several times through a rotating press which later doubles as a noodle cutter, and eventually you have 100 grams of fresh noodles.
After they’ve dried, a pungent chicken stock is added and mixed in by hand, before the noodles are placed in a round metal receptacle ready to be deep-fried by the staff. In the meantime, visitors get to illustrate their own noodle package and the whole thing is sealed up ready to take home and eat. The Chikin Ramen Factory is so popular, it’s booked solid three months in advance.
When inventing Cup Noodle, Ando had to figure out a way for his automated factory machinery to place the noodles into the tapered cylinder cups – simply dropping them in from above didn’t work, since the dried noodles, which were pre-moulded in the shape of the cup, rarely landed the right way up. Lying in bed one night, Ando suddenly realised that instead of placing the noodles into the cup, he should place an upside-down cup on top of the noodles and then turn it upright, allowing the noodles to drop flush into position.
At the My Cup Noodle Factory, punters get to do just that. First you decorate your cup (now made from an eco-friendly material, not plastic) with a bundle of felt pens; then choose a soup flavour (original, Curry, Chilli Tomato or Seafood) and four freeze-dried toppings (including egg, meat, kimchi, corn and a naruto illustrated with Chikin Ramen’s chick mascot). Once the staff balance your upside-down cup over a bundle of noodles on a special machine, you get to turn the handle yourself and watch as everything falls into place. The package is finally shrink-wrapped, just as they are in the shops.
Anyone who’s ever compared a Cup Noodle with a British Pot Noodle can tell you which is superior. Indeed, supermarket shelves in Japan heave with hundreds of different types of instant ramen, the crappiest of which still put our humble Pot Noodle to shame. Some come loaded with a slice of chashu (roast pork) and a sachet of fresh miso paste, while others are designed by chefs at gourmet ramen restaurants around the country.
You can’t actually eat any instant ramen at the Cupnoodles Museum, but a food court serves fresh noodles from eight different countries, including not only the obvious soup-based dishes from China, Vietnam and Korea, but also (and perhaps controversially) Italian spaghetti. Each is sold as a half-size serving for 300 yen (£2.50), so you can slurp two or three different types on a single visit.
But while noodles carry worldwide appeal, Ando had set his sights even further. In 2005, at the age of 95 and two years before his death, Ando unveiled Space Ram, a new type of instant noodles designed to be eaten in zero-gravity aboard a NASA space shuttle by astronaut Soichi Noguchi. The noodles, sealed in a special pouch, are moulded into bite-size pieces and can be cooked with lukewarm water, to be eaten safely where no noodle had been slurped before.
That might explain why in 2006, Nissin sponsored the anime series Freedom, designed by Akira and Steamboy godfather Katsuhiro Otomo and directed by Shuhei Morita. Set on the Moon and exploring themes of blossoming adulthood in a post-Earth society, the characters in the seven-part series are often seen chowing down on a steaming hot Cup Noodle.
But while Ando’s imaginative products may have reached far beyond the boundaries of our planet, they are grounded in real life. Part of his instant noodles’ success was due to their usefulness in times of disaster and destitution. A replica of Ando’s inventing shed at the museum drives this home: While today’s Cup Noodle and Chikin Ramen (plus Nissin’s dozens of other lines) are made by robots in huge factories, they were born of humble conditions by a man who saw something bigger – and who knew that the key to success is simplicity.
The Cupnoodles Museum is an eight-minute walk from Minato-Mirai Station in the city of Yokohama, about half an hour by train from Shibuya in Tokyo. Adult admission is 500 yen (£4.20); the Chikin Ramen Factory is an additional 500 yen and requires a reservation; the My Cup Noodle Factory is 300 yen per cup. While signs and information within the museum are available in English, the website is Japanese-only. www.cupnoodles-museum.jp
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