A Brief History of Instant Noodles

If you’ve ever eaten instant noodles, you’ve participated in the fight against communism. That’s right, the crunchy or sloppy snack (depending on how you consume it) was invented as a result of America’s post-war operations in Japan, where Chinese noodle-soup, or Chuka soba as it was then commonly known, was a favourite dish among its starving citizens. It was also one of the only hot meals available under US Occupation. You see, the US didn’t prioritise feeding Japanese bellies (as a matter of policy, Asians received less food than Europeans), and it got to the point that the Japanese government were directing their people to eat acorns, snails, even weeds on the side of the road.

The Japanese Communist Party contended that the real reason people were starving wasn’t for lack of food, but because of widespread bureaucratic negligence and corruption—hence why the black market seemed to have plenty of Chuka soba on the go. Sniffing a mass rebellion, Eisenhower sent emergency wheat shipments over to Japan, along with a message: “The era of flour has arrived.” The food wasn’t free (the Japanese would have to repay the US for its “generosity” later on down the track), but it ensured that the population would a) not murder local US combat forces, and b) stick with Team America for the duration of the Cold War.

Of course, those US wheat shipments didn’t just come with a “pay us back later” price tag. They also came with “advice” (read: propaganda) that flour was better for you than rice, and top Japanese nutritionists agreed. One even claimed that European “reason” and “progress” was due to wheat-based food production, and a noted Japanese professor of medicine argued that excessive rice consumption hindered brain development, writing, “Parents who feed their children solely white rice are dooming them to a life of idiocy.”

While Japan rebuilt, a broken man by the name of Ando Momofuku was on the cusp of establishing an empire of his own: the mighty Nissin Foods Corporation, which today nets around $5 billion per annum. The then 47-year-old, who’d lost a fortune in various business ventures, locked himself away in his shed for two years, trying to figure out how to make a quicker, more convenient form of noodle-soup for the malnourished masses. He’d noted the abundance of US wheat flour, but was appalled when the Japanese government sent PR vans into his neighbourhood, urging the locals to eat bread. “Food forms the basis for culture, art and civilisation,” Ando later wrote. “This means that if you change your diet, you are in effect throwing away your traditions and cultural heritage. I believed that to adapt to a bread diet was tantamount to adapting to Western culture.”

Ando claims he figured out how to make the instant snack after dropping some noodles into his wife’s tempura oil one night. Frying both dehydrated the noodles and made them more absorbent. He wasn’t the first to put instant noodles on the market, despite what his self-built Instant Ramen Museum might have to say, but he was the first to crack the big time with them, thanks in part to the product’s chicken flavouring. Not only did this allow Ando to sell the sealed meal into most religious communities, but it also allowed him to use discarded animal parts previously thought inedible in his manufacturing processes.

The treat we all know and love now comes in a range of flavours, is slowly killing us with its high sodium, unhealthy saturated fat and glycemic loads, and in 2005 fuelled Japanese astronaut Sochi Noguchi during his Discovery space shuttle trip (Nissin Foods Corporation developed a version of instant noodles edible in zero gravity: Space Ram). Two years after Ando sent his invention literally into the stratosphere, he joined it. The Japanese blasted his corpse into space.

This article first appeared in Smith Journal volume 20 (Spring 2016).

Smith Journal volume 20

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