Instant hit: Swetha Sivakumar on how a war sparked the birth of the noodle craze
See how Momofuku Ando came up with the recipe for instant noodles, in 1958. He died as recently as 2007, living long enough to see his invention being gobbled worldwide.
In 1945, after Japan surrendered to the Allies, a young man named Momofuku Ando was walking through the streets of war-ravaged Osaka when he saw a long line of hungry people waiting for handouts of noodle soup. The image stayed with him.
Ando, an entrepreneur, resolved to develop a product that would help ease world hunger. He wanted to manufacture instant noodles that would be cheap, filling, quick to make, and non-perishable. After working for months, he developed his first product, Chikin Ramen, and decided to market it under a new company he founded called Nissin Foods.
Chikin Ramen hit supermarket shelves in 1958, and the world has not looked back since. As of 2021, a whopping 116 billion servings of instant noodles are eaten globally each year, according to the World Instant Noodles Association, a 25-year-old organisation that supports the industry.
Ando initially struggled with his instant noodle recipe, specifically with how to make dehydrated noodles that would soften in minutes but retain their texture. Multiple attempts failed, until he saw his wife Masako Ando making tempura. He noticed that when batter was immersed in hot oil, small bubbles formed on the crispy surface, rendering it porous. Ando had his solution. He flash-fried the noodles. Now, when hot water was poured on them, it penetrated the pores easily, making the noodles soft and pliable in minutes.
The noodles were a game-changer for Ando, who had been dabbling in the food supplies market until then. Now, he decided to aim high. To flavour his noodles, he decided he wouldn’t use soy sauce. Ando wanted a market that extended beyond Japan, and felt consumers would not be open to the flavour profile. He also realised early on that, unlike with Coca Cola or Cadbury’s, it would not be possible to sell the exact same product in every country. He knew he would have to cater to local tastes and cuisines.
This strategy of customising flavours, coupled with the convenience and low price tag, helped Nissin build a global empire in a few decades. Before the company could shift its sights to India, though, Nestle launched its Maggi brand of noodles here in 1982. By the time Nissin’s Top Ramen attempted to break in, in 1988, it was too late.
India is now the world’s fourth-largest consumer of instant noodles, after China, Indonesia and Vietnam, as per the World Instant Noodles Association. Though Maggi retains the bulk of the market share here, Ando lived to see Nissin become popular worldwide (he died in 2007). But with generations hooked to the taste and convenience of instant-noodle meals, it’s worth asking: How healthy are they?
Well, all instant noodles are flash-fried, unless they specify that they are “air dried” or “non fried”. Instant noodles are calorie-rich foods, with nearly a third of those calories coming from the fat of the oils they are fried in, and much of the rest coming from the starch of the noodles themselves. Instant noodles are low in protein and fibre, unless specifically fortified. They also contain high sodium levels, with a standard noodle packet containing between 900 mg and 1200 mg of sodium, which corresponds to nearly 60% of the recommended dietary allowance of 2 gm set down by the World Health Organization.
Despite these concerns, the instant noodles market continues to grow. A Swiss company using an invention created by a Taiwanese entrepreneur in Japan, successfully reformulated with local masalas to cater to the Indian audience, has achieved great success. Such is the power of food, even processed and packaged food, to unite people and transcend geography.