Changing the practice of dining at home: the creative determination of Momofuku Ando and instant noodles

Against the backdrop of food shortages in Japan following the Second World War, a businessman wanted to create an easy alternative for ramen. With no culinary experience and only basic tools to hand, he changed the face of at-home dining.

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Photography by
Kyle Berger
Date
23 February 2021
Reading Time
9 minute read

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During the winter of 1947, a businessman named Momofuku Ando found himself stopping in the middle of the street. Walking round the corner from Osaka station and passing a nearby black market, he was struck by the sight of a long queue of people patiently waiting in the cold to buy a bowl of ramen.

It had been two years since the end of the Second World War, yet the sight of people waiting for a bowl of warming sustenance demonstrated the effects of stark food shortages across the country. Japan was still feeling the effects of rationing imposed during the war, compounded by poor crop yields across multiple summers, as well as the government, at this time occupied by American troops, encouraging the population to eat bread supplied with surplus flour from the US. Two questions struck Momofuku as he paused in the street: Why were the government encouraging the consumption of bread, when the Japanese had such a long history of eating noodles? And why wasn’t there a simpler, at-home alternative for ramen? It sparked an idea in his mind: What if there were a readily available version? One that could be warmed up at home with little thought, especially considering all the other difficulties filling up day-to-day life in post-war Japan.

As Momofuku continued walking, the idea slowly drifted to the back of his mind. He had little need to pay attention to the food shortages and financial difficulties, as at the time he was working as a director at a credit union. In 1957, however, when Momofuku was 47, the union went bankrupt. The Ando family suddenly lost everything he had worked so hard for and only just held on to their home. Faced with the worries and stresses he saw in the faces of those queueing for ramen a decade earlier, the idea for an instant version returned. Soon after, development for the world’s first pack of instant noodles began.

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Momofuku Ando (Copyright © Cup Noodles Museum, 2021)

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Momofuku Ando’s work shed (Copyright © Cup Noodles Museum, 2021)

Switching from businessman to chef, Momofuku’s first step was to build a space in which to house his attempts. With no culinary experience and only household tools to hand, there was to be plenty of mess, trial and error, and eventually iteration. Transforming a wooden shed into a makeshift test kitchen, a year passed before he eventually settled on an ideal recipe for what would become Chicken Ramen (chicken was chosen as the ultimate comfort-food flavouring). In combining the traditional ingredients of chicken stock, soy sauce and noodles made from wheat flour, water and salt, the first hurdle of developing a recipe was successfully jumped. Next came making it preservable, the selling point being that Momofuku’s ramen would outlive the shelf life of fresh produce, while retaining the flavour.

Drying out his ingredients, however, proved troublesome. It was certainly possible with the ingredients included, but none of his attempts at drying noodles offered long-lasting preservation. Watching his wife prepare dinner one evening, a solution suddenly appeared in the bubbles that surround ingredients dropped into a pan while making tempura. Flash frying noodles in hot cooking oil forces out any moisture due to the high temperature. Once completely dehydrated the noodles remained in perfect curves, entwined together, not deteriorating nor decomposing when stored for even long amounts of time. The texture they created, like tiny cavities lined up on top of another, also allowed hot water to weave between them when poured over, restoring the noodles back to their original softness.

“It was the big breakthrough he needed,” says Kahara Suzuki, who works in the public relations team at Nissin, the company Momofuku went on to launch, “and even though everything is automated and high-tech in manufacturing, this is still the basic principle for making instant noodles.”

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Packaging for Chikin Ramen from 1958 (Copyright © Cup Noodles Museum, 2021)

Design as a means of offering solutions is a concept our industry has discussed and marketed at length. Whether you believe it to be the answer to all or in fact total bullshit, Momofuku’s invention of instant noodles proves that most of the time, creativity sparks from a desire to simply improve everyday life. Instant noodles demonstrate this first in how the idea came about, in Momofuku assessing the socio-political issues facing Japan after the war and the creation of a simple at-home meal as a solution.

The development of preserving his product also shows how design-focused solutions often appear by accident when we open our eyes to wider influences. By translating the process of cooking tempura to fresh noodles, Momofuku’s invention joins a long line of culinary accidents-turned-mass products. Take Francis William Epperson’s claimed invention of the ice pop in 1905: aged just 11, he accidentally left a glass of powdered lemonade and water outside on a winter’s evening, with a mixing stick carelessly left inside.

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Original Cup Noodles packaging from 1971 (Copyright © Cup Noodles Museum, 2021)

This serendipitous tendency of design can also be seen in other aspects of Momofuku’s career. When marketed in 1958, his instant ramen was, aptly, an instant hit, adopting the nickname “magic ramen” due to its convenience. Renaming his company Nissin Food Products the same year, Momofuku “being the ambitious man that he was”, according to Kahara, then wanted to make instant noodles an international success.

Seeing opportunity first in the United States, in 1966 he travelled over to share instant noodles with potential supermarket chain suppliers. During an early meeting, Momofuku noticed that buyers would break the block of noodles in half, place it in a paper cup, pour over water, and proceed to eat the ramen with forks. When finished, they’d simply throw the cup away. “This made Momofuku Ando realise that paying attention to the differences in eating habits between Western cultures and Japanese cultures was the key to making instant noodles a more global food,” says Kahara.

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Noodles History Cube at Cup Noodles Museum (Copyright © Cup Noodles Museum, 2021)

Holding on to this use of paper cups, when Momofuku got home, the development of what we now know as Cup Noodles began. Nissin spent five years developing a container that would serve multiple functions. The “cup” would be packaging, cooking utensil and bowl all in one. “When people bought it at a store, it was a package, but when they poured hot water into a cup it could be a substitute for a pot, which was really revolutionary at the time,” recalls Kahara. Its third use of course was that Cup Noodles could then act as a bowl for the meal, just as the buyers had done in testing the previous packet of instant ramen. “That’s what he had in mind.”

Nissin’s packaging for Cup Noodles has since grown to shape how markets globally recognise instant noodles, whether it be the UK’s popular variant of Pot Noodles, released in 1977 (six years after Nissin’s own product came to market), or South Korea’s Shin Ramyun edition, which followed in 1986. Momofuku’s wish for the product to be embraced by various audiences was also a major factor in its packaging design, not wanting it “to look distinctively Japanese, but something that was really universal,” says Kahara. For instance, the gold border which gleams round the top and bottom of a packet of Cup Noodles is a nod to “Western-style dinnerware that Momofuku happened to see at a department store,” she continues. “He wanted to make Cup Noodles into a product with international flair, a quality the packaging needed to embody.”

This quality extends to Cup Noodles’ logo design, created by Takeshi Otaka. At its centre is a wordmark believed to be a custom variant of Windsor, a typeface designed by Eleisha Pechey in the late 1800s. Released posthumously by British foundry Stephenson Blake in 1905, and now owned by Monotype, Windsor’s shape is said to be influenced by the French Art Nouveau style. Its curved serifs were globally popularised during the advertising boom of the 1950s and has been continuously used ever since. (The typeface has cropped up everywhere from the sleeve for Pulp’s Different Class album in 1995 and The Cheesecake Factory’s wordmark or, more recently, the masthead for Paradiso magazine.) That heritage helped Momofuku achieve his wish to create an identity for Cup Noodles that would sit comfortably on supermarket shelves around the world.

The creative spirit of Momofuku, who passed away at the age of 96 in 2007, is now distilled in the Cup Noodles museums in Japan. With locations in both Yokohama and Osaka, the museums not only offer insight into Momofuku’s inventions, but the continued history of instant noodles as a whole, as well as a home for his creative legacy.

Driven by a belief that Momofuku’s creativity should inspire all ages, across five floors visitors are guided through every stage of the production of Cup Noodles. There is a replica of the shed in which instant noodles were first invented, through to an area where visitors can make their own cup of noodles (making the noodles by hand, adding their own flavourings and designing the packaging), as well as an exhibit featuring over 3,000 packets of ramen from 1958 to the present day. For younger visitors, there’s a Cup Noodles park, a space that offers a virtual experience of being a noodle in a factory. Above these areas sits an in-house food court, inspired by a trip Momofuku took to discover the roots of noodles during the 1980s, with purposefully small portions so visitors can try as much as they fancy without getting too full.

Across these floors there are also art installations connecting each activity with a number of Momofuku’s inspirational sayings. Kahara explains how these words of encouragement are often visualised to ensure they speak to every visitor, no matter their age or the language they speak. One, for instance, reads: “It’s never too late to do anything in life,” a nod to how Momofuku was 48 when he invented instant noodles, 61 when he launched Cup Noodles and 95 when he returned to his desk to redesign his noodle recipe for astronauts. It’s a message that runs throughout the museum in the hope of sparking possibility, noting both Momofuku’s struggle in relaying how “I failed in business and lost my possessions, but made a fresh start at the age of 48,” and how “Making an invention or discovery does not require massive facilities or funds.” A favourite, however, is Momofuku’s perfect saying: “Human beings are noodle beings.”

The key takeaways are shorter statements of Momofuku’s philosophy, empowering turns of phrase that could easily be applied to any kind of creative thinking. Momofuku’s words encourage visitors to “Discover something completely new” in their day-to-day life and “Find hints in all sorts of places”, just as he did in walking past the market that fateful winter’s evening. More specifically, he also motivates visitors to “Nurture your ideas” and to “Look at things from every angle”, no matter the subject at hand. “Don’t just go with the status quo” continues the advice, ending with a last burst of: “Never give up.” For Kahara, working on behalf of such an inspirational figure leads her to reflect how Momofuku was simply “committed to trying to create something that would make people’s lives better and make them happy,” she says. “He always emphasised the importance of determination and being creative, this would be the legacy we would want to pass on.”

This legacy Kahara mentions feels palpable in multiple ways today, in the sense that instant noodles have reached an equilibrium of being both iconic and ubiquitous. Despite expansion, competition and the passing decades, Momofuku’s invention has always maintained its initial aim of being a product that would make people’s lives easier or, as Kahara says, that little bit better, after a tough day in London in 2021 or Osaka in 1958. It’s also a legacy that despite its mundanity continues to resonate with its home, voted “the greatest Japanese innovation of the 20th century”, beating the CD, Pokemon and the works of Akira Kurosawa.

Most of all, however, Momofuku’s invention presents design in its purest form, as a solution to a problem that may affect you personally or those around you. With continued determination – even if you don’t have any experience in your area of interest, or even the tools or budget you think you may need, Kahara concludes that she hopes those learning about Momofuku Ando today are inspired “to really go after their dreams,” she says. “To not give up, because Momofuku never did.”

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About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In October 2016 she became a staff writer on the editorial team and in January 2019 was made It’s Nice That’s deputy editor. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about new and upcoming creative projects or editorial ideas for the site.

lb@itsnicethat.com

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