The History Of Instant Ramen

by Rudy Sanchez on 08/18/2020 | 7 Minute Read

Instant ramen is one of those beloved dishes consumed the world over, a universal product that did so in an age that lacked persistent digital connections, social media, and “going viral.” Inspired by long lines waiting to buy ramen in a post-WWII Japan, and a philosophy that food is a bridge to peace, instant noodles have been embraced as a comforting, quick—and cheap—meal. 

But instant noodles wouldn’t reach its now vaulted status as a global dish were it not for a deceptively simple packaging innovation, a simple, multifunctional cup that serves as packaging, cooking vessel, and bowl.

The official origin story of instant ramen noodles is that Momofuku Ando, a Taiwanese-born Japanese man, was inspired to create instant ramen as a way to feed his war-torn country, after seeing long lines for black market ramen. His newly invented instant ramen would not debut until 1958, however, years into Japan’s economic boom postwar.

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First Instant Ramen packaging.

Momofuku Ando started by buying second-hand noodle-making equipment, bringing it back to his work shed, and started tinkering, eventually coming up with a way to cut and shape noodle cakes, then flash frying them. This technique made the noodles shelf-stable, and quick to prepare by adding boiling water and freeze-dried broth and other ingredients.

Ando would initially package his creation, “Chikin Ramen,” in a plastic pouch, protecting the noodles from air and moisture, but not much protection from crushing. Though Ando’s fundamental motivation, providing an inexpensive and easy-to-prepare meal, wasn’t realized at the exact start (instant was slightly more than buying from a local cart), that didn’t stop his new invention from quickly becoming a hit, and by 1963, they would sell over 200 million servings annually. 

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Pictured above, Momofuku Ando.
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Rather than serve as an answer to having to wait in long lines for traditionally prepared fresh ramen, Nissin’s Chikin Ramen would, in some ways, parallel the trajectory of Swanson’s TV dinners. It was an innovative way to eat using a new preparation technique that was much more convenient. Add to that a war-weary public, tired of years of austerity and now suddenly flush with more money, were more than eager to engage in some hardcore next-level consumerism in Japan and the US.

Instant ramen would prove more at-home in an industrialized and booming Japan. Much like in the US, the desire for fast-prep meals fueled the demand for innovations like Nissin’s. Instant noodles also provided a cheap and hot lunch for many workers, furthering its utility, a characteristic that helps maintain the popularity of instant noodles to this day.

Nissin’s success in its home market eventually led the firm to establish a US subsidiary. Nissin’s product had potential in the land of spacious skies and amber waves of grain as Americans were insatiable when it came to innovative and convenient meals. However, ramen noodles weren’t something familiar to most Yankees at the time. As Ando would soon find out, his instant noodles would require a packaging change before it would become a global hit.

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The lack of a convenient source of bowls and utensils limited when instant ramen could get consumed. The requisite bowls and chopsticks were freely available in Japanese homes and work kitchens, but this wasn’t the case in every country, most especially western nations like the US. How to overcome this limitation came to Ando when he saw an American supermarket manager break the noodles into several pieces into a coffee mug. That lead Nissin to develop and patent the breakthrough packaging, debuting Cup Noodle in 1971. this first iteration actually used paper but quickly moved to expanded polystyrene foam (EPS, or Styrofoam) material for the cups.

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Though Ando saw the market need for ramen packaging in its own serving container, it was unclear at first that consumers would see the same benefit. Nissin’s new instant noodles in a cup cost about four times the original instant ramen and required a source of hot water. This lead the noodle firm to develop a vending machine that dispensed cups and hot water. Ando also had another strategy; use the launch of another global icon, McDonald’s, to attract attention to his Cup Noodle. Nissin set up a shop selling the Cup Noodles in the Ginza District, popular with young people, and across the street from the new American burger outlet.

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Instant Ramen vending machine.

Of course, if there's any downside to these packaging innovations, it's the waste left in instant ramen's wake. According to the World Instant Noodles Association, a trade group, 290 million servings get consumed daily, and though they don’t break down their statistics by packaging, it’s easy to conclude that a significant number of those servings came in their own cup, leading to a lot of styrofoam cups ending up on the trash heap. 

Nissin itself has explored alternatives to polystyrene, including the use of bioplastic materials, but the category desperately needs a more environmentally-friendly refresh. 

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Dissolvable ramen by Holly Grounds.

Some designers are exploring more sustainable containers that preserve the utility of the original Cup Noodle. “Paper Noodles,” a concept by Australian designer Emily Enrica, gets made entirely out of biodegradable paper and molded fiber, also improving on the original by including utensils, which also come from the same materials. Additionally, student Holly Grounds’ ramen uses a flavor-embedded film that wraps around the noodles and dissolves in water. Waxed paper gets utilized for the outer packaging since you probably don't want your food touching the store's shelves.

While some of the brands try to find better packaging materials for Earth, Nissin has certainly had some luck in space. Instant ramen in a cup, though convenient around the globe, isn’t particularly useful in zero-gravity as the noodles, water, and all that MSG-powered yumminess won’t stay inside the container. This, of course, poses a burn risk to passengers aboard a space station or vessel, and could potentially damage expensive equipment.

In 2005, Japanese astronauts from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) brought specially-designed instant ramen, given the very awesome moniker of “Space Ram” by Nissin. It replaces the cup with a uniquely-valved pouch, with a stock designed for heating on-board. Plus, it features a more viscous, space-friendly broth; even the noodles get modified to work in space, and instead of long thin strips, they come as a distinct spherical shape.

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Nissin Space Ram.
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Still, to this day, Momofuku Ando’s legacy can not be understated. 

Business visionaries in the computing and software space, such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, are on the tip of the tongue for many. Not only were their products technological marvels, but they were also transformative in the way we live our lives. Much like Apple Computer, Ando’s business empire started in a garage, and, similar to Jobs, he was also a charismatic businessman with a personality that loomed large at Nissin and in Japan. He published a book of his philosophies, Momofuku Ando Speaks, an enumerated collection of Ando’s thoughts, rules, and philosophies, and Nissin’s website quotes them throughout its website.

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Momofuku Ando passed away in 2007, a beloved national hero; having invented and globalized a Japanese innovation, he changed how the world eats. Unsurprisingly, his send-off was representative of his impact upon the world and fellow countrymen. Held in a baseball stadium and officiated by 34 clergy members, it was attended by two former prime ministers, with Yasuhiro Nakasone delivering a eulogy. Ando is also memorialized at two museums run by Nissin, which include replicas of the original shed where he developed instant noodles.

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One of Ando’s philosophies was “peace prevails when food suffices,” an ethos that has given the world a way to have a quick, inexpensive, and easy-to-eat meal that is also simple enough to adapt to local palates with the infusion of whatever's handy in your fridge.

For Ando, instant ramen was created for a more noble purpose, to make available inexpensive and easy-to-prepare meals for as many people as possible. His vision transcended commercial ambition, and his wisdom and charisma drove him to continue innovating his whole life, making Momofuku Ando a national treasure and his instant noodle a point of culinary pride in a nation with an already rich gastronomical tradition.

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