Instant noodles

'Good taste is a universal language'

Momofuku Ando (Chiayi, Formosa, March 5, 1910 – Osaka, January 5, 2007)

"It's like a dream," Momofuku Ando, 95, said at a press conference in late July 2005 at his noodle museum in Ikeda, near Osaka.

The space shuttle Discovery was in space at that time, not only with the Japanese cosmonaut Soichi Noguchi on board, but for the first time also with space windows, space noodles.

The very old gentleman briefly demonstrated to the cameras how you should eat them, slurping, in other words, and said: 'Exactly what it should be. I would like to go into space myself.' It was a celebration for the inventor of instant noodles and cup noodles.

In the margins of the Discovery mission, the typical Japanese fast food captivated the whole country in those days.

The idea came from Momofuku Ando himself. Since 2001, ten experts from his laboratories had been working with the Japanese space agency to develop noodles that met NASA standards. You were not allowed to heat the water above seventy degrees.

Plus, soup and noodles weren't supposed to fly around the cabin. The taste was also supposed to be a bit more powerful because the taste buds apparently weaken in space. The miraculous result could be eaten with a fork as well as with chopsticks at zero gravity.

Four flavors emerged, soy sauce, miso (another soybean-based condiment), chicken, and pork. Noguchi had specifically requested the latter. The 'space noodles' were the crowning glory for Ando.

Under the motto 'Good taste is a universal language', his company distributes four billion servings of noodles around the world every year and has a turnover of 3 billion dollars.

Ando's noodle era has been just one of his many lives. Momofuku Ando was born on March 5, 1910 to Japanese parents in Formosa (now Taiwan), which was conquered by Japan in 1895.

His parents both died when he was a child so his grandparents in Osaka took care of him. They had a textile shop in which he spent a lot of free time as a child. According to his autobiography, when he was ten years old, he and his sister lived separately.

Little Momofuku did the laundry, slaughtered the chickens, prepared his sister's lunch box every day at dawn, and helped her to school. He had no greater satisfaction than being able to sell something in his grandparents' shop.

When he was able to dispose of his parents' inheritance at the age of 22, he returned to Formosa, where he established himself as an importer of knitwear. He later started a wholesale business of knitwear in Osaka. In this merchant city par excellence, he took classes in bookkeeping in the evenings.


Like many entrepreneurs, he switched to war industry at the outbreak of the Second World War. He started dealing in weapons and assembling starter motors for airplanes under the motto: 'The Japanese people against the rest of the world'.

There was a shortage of just about everything, as a result of which the black market in particular flourished, much against the wishes of the military regime. When he went to the police one day to report the theft of a number of starter motors, he himself was arrested under suspicion of black market.

Apparently he had been tricked by the thief, one of his employees. Despite the torture that was common in Japan at the time, he maintained his innocence.

He was beaten and kicked repeatedly in the stomach, an assault that left him with stomach problems for the rest of his life.

Prison was tough. He shared his small, filthy cell with six other men and was unable or unwilling to eat because of the harsh sanitary conditions. When he took some food in extreme need, it was almost too late.

He became seriously ill and was released early after 45 days.

He then spent 65 days in a hospital. "A man who has no food cannot be a man," he later wrote, "he is not much different from an animal." The slogans that his company uses today, such as 'Only if everyone in the world has enough to eat, can there be peace', originate here.

After his recovery, he first tried it out with a factory for the production of slide projectors. Japan's wartime economy increasingly relied on unskilled workers; the idea behind it was that you could quickly train them with slides.

After the first bombing of Osaka in March 1945, he fled into the hills and bought a piece of forest to burn charcoal. Fuel became scarce and more and more people had to make do with charcoal. He was constantly on the lookout to respond to new needs.

With a fat Buick

Formosa, received a much higher insurance payment than Japanese owners for its destroyed factories. Suddenly he had 40 million yen in cash. In 1990 he said that when converted it must have been worth $750 million, a fortune.

With that money he started to buy up large pieces of land in Osaka and the surrounding area. One of them was by the sea. He set up a salt production and bought three boats to fish for sprats.

He spent his money easily, funded the education of promising young people, but also threw parties and drove around in a big American Buick.

In short, in the crisis economy of the occupation years, when many Japanese did not even have a place to live and were starving, this upstart showed inappropriate behavior.

By 1948 he was trading seafood, textiles, salt, Western household appliances, and was also running a publishing business.

The general malnutrition gave him the idea a short time later to set up a small laboratory for the development of nutritional supplements. The lab worked on protein tablets made from frogs, cows, pigs and chickens.

The government bought the finished products and distributed them in hospitals.

With his foreign car, his glitzy entourage and his excellent relations with the American military, he aroused the suspicion and jealousy of many Japanese.

The Japanese police convinced the American occupiers to arrest him for tax evasion, claiming that the scholarships he awarded to local youth were actually hidden wages.

The judge allowed him to choose between going abroad – he still had a Formosa passport – or a four-year prison sentence. He chose prison; in Chiang Kai-shek's new Taiwan there was absolutely no place for a hated Japanese.

The tax authorities confiscated all his financial resources. In prison, he interacted with war criminals, learned to appreciate American food, and spent many days playing mahjong. His sentence was reduced by two years on appeal.

Once free, he lent his name to a building society that was badly run and went bankrupt. A court convicted him of 'breach of trust' in 1956, and all but his house were forfeited.

He almost ended up in prison for a third time.

A long line of noodle buyers

Momofuku Ando was now 46 and once again grounded. In the backstreets near a department store in Osaka, he saw long lines of people queuing at the mobile stalls selling bowls of wheat noodles (ramen). That had to be faster.

In those years, the United States donated its wheat surpluses to ailing Japan, and the Japanese government encouraged citizens to eat more bread. Ando thought that ramen, for which wheat was also a raw material, was better suited to Japanese eating habits.

He bought a machine to make noodles and started experimenting with a ready-made version in a wooden shack.

He had watched his wife make tempura in the kitchen, seafood or vegetables with a crispy fried coating. He boiled the noodles, fried them briefly in palm oil and let them dry. If you poured boiling water on them afterwards, they were quickly ready to eat.

But what flavor would it add? One of his sons refused to eat chicken meat after getting splashes of chicken blood on his face one day. But when Ando's mother-in-law cooked her noodles in chicken broth, he didn't mind, he ate it all right away.

Ando thought if the chicken flavor was that good, he could use that flavor. He prepared a stack of chicken-flavored sample packs, called them "chikin ramen" in pseudo-English, and took them to a local department store. The packages were sold out in one day.

That was August 25, 1958, the founding date of his noodle company.

Ando moved his operations to an abandoned warehouse in Osaka and put his entire family to work. Because of his bad experiences with banks, he only wanted to be paid in cash. The wholesalers refused, but the demand was so great that they had no choice.

In December 1958, he changed the name of his firm to Nissin Food.

Nissin literally means 'new every day'. The following spring, he moved into a 20,000 square foot factory. In 1960 he opened his second factory. The following year three factories were added, all paid in cash.

It was the days of the first television broadcasts and Nissin was one of the early sponsors of a commercial TV program in Japan. In 1961 he already sold 550 million bags, in 1963 a billion. That was also the year that Nissin Food went public.

Noodles in cups

In search of opportunities to improve his product and market it abroad, he made a trip to Europe and the United States in 1966.

He knew that Westerners didn't eat with chopsticks, so he had to come up with a container that could be eaten with a fork.

In the United States he learned something about broth, he saw the ubiquitous disposable cups and on the plane on the way home he received an airtight aluminum bag with nuts as a gift. With those three elements he came up with his cup noodles.

First of all, a disposable cup made of styrofoam, the perfect material because it insulated well and was light. It was still so new that the Japanese manufactures broke down and the customers burned their hands. Only an American company could help.

Even then the jars still stank, a problem that disappeared by first heating them after production. He added ridges so that you could hold the cups well and had the shape designed by a well-known designer.

He added an aluminum bag of herbs and freeze-dried vegetables. And he also made the noodles a bit thicker so they didn't break in the cup. It seemed like a silly thought: eating noodles with a fork from a plastic cup; The Japanese ate noodles from a soup cup and with chopsticks.

It was rude to eat while walking the streets. In addition, the price was six times more expensive than the fresh variety. He gave his new product the English name 'cup noodles', because he already had an international market in mind at the time.

In 1971, on a busy shopping day, he took his new product to Tokyo's Ginza district, to the main street. The cups immediately caught on with the students and teenagers. So he put a hot water dispenser on the Ginza.

He then installed his cup noodles in vending machines in schools and offices across the country. Orders poured in. Today, only Coca-Cola has distributed more vending machines in Japan.

Years earlier, a study had shown that his classic noodle packages, the 'cushions', had no chance in America. Americans eat noodles like spaghetti, but not in a broth or with chopsticks, the message read.

Ando ignored the advice, traveled to California and, dressed conspicuously in white, gave the demonstrations himself in four Los Angeles market squares. He shortened the noodles a bit so that the Americans could eat them without lavish slurping like the Japanese.

Under the name Top Ramen, the noodles were a completely new product for the American consumer. In 1970 he established his first retail outlet in Gardena, California, in 1972 the first production plant. A year later, the introduction of the cup noodles followed.

After six years, Nissin Food USA was out of the red. Currently, Nissin owns about 50 percent of the US noodle market and 15 percent of the world market. The company produces in more than fifteen countries.

The arrival of son Koki

In 1981, at age 71, Ando retired as president of the company. His eldest son took over the helm, but he was dismissed by his father after two years because he did not take any initiatives. It also bothered the old boss that his son didn't even like his own products.

Momofuku put 37-year-old Koki, his second son, in the saddle in 1984, and he is still president.

It was Koki who came up with the idea of building the Foodeum headquarters in Shinjuku, in Tokyo's shopping and entertainment district – costing 160 million dollars.

An eleven-storey complex with the aim of: generating interest in instant noodles, bringing the company closer to the consumer and gaining greater visibility.

The building houses an Italian and a ramen restaurant, a ramen museum, a two-story disco, a test kitchen and a space where lectures on nutrition are held every week. The headquarters offices occupy floors four through eleven.

Momofuku Ando grew into a folk hero in Japan, not someone who had greatly improved something from abroad, no, he was the inventor himself. He was affectionately nicknamed "Daddy Noodles," or "King of the Noodles."

In 2006, Japanese consumers chose instant noodles as the most important Japanese invention of the twentieth century; before karaoke, the Sony walkman and the Nintendo games console.

The criticism from traditional Japanese noodle makers that Ando's products are nothing more than artificially seasoned webs of flour and water dipped in fatty palm oil has had little effect.

13 billion of these dried meals are now consumed annually in ninety countries.

In November 1999, Ando opened an instant noodle museum in Ikeda near Osaka, where it all started. With the wooden shed in the center in which he conducted his first experiments in 1957. Visitors, about 120,000 a year, can prepare their own noodles.

It includes the first noodle machines and the truck from which Nissin served free noodles after the 1995 Kobe earthquake. And in front of the entrance is a marble statue of the founder.

In 2002, like many Japanese top entrepreneurs, he published his autobiography: How I invented the magic noodles.

How does it feel to have achieved success so late in life, journalists asked him. "There's no 'late' in life," Ando would say. 'You can also invent something when you are fifty or sixty or older.

Creativity and passion are the two character traits that characterize an inventor.' And: 'If you think it's too late to take up a new challenge, you won't get anywhere.

You can succeed, you can fail, but it is always better to start a race than not to start at all.'

Although he resigned as chairman at the end of June 2005, he was back in the spotlight a month later with his space windows. At his company's New Year's Eve party on Thursday, January 4, 2007, he gave a speech and ate another portion of his noodles with his staff.

He died of a heart attack on Friday.
Momofuku Ando, standing on a bowl of noodles