Mexican-Style Maruchan: Japanese Food Overseas as Seen Through the Success of an Instant Ramen Brand

Society Lifestyle

Washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine), designated as an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO, is growing ever more popular overseas thanks to the legions of health-conscious diners. But what kinds of Japanese food have taken serious root in foreign cultures? Isami Romero looks into the case of Mexico, his homeland, sharing some childhood experiences along the way.

Japanese Goods Sold at Street Markets and Secret Shop Corners

In Mexico in the 1980s, when black-and-white televisions were still common, going out shopping was a rather murky business. Supermarkets were scarcely stocked, and what few items could be found were of very poor quality. This meant that we had to go to street markets and contraband vendors to buy both basic and luxury goods. For those of us who were children in this gray chapter of Mexican history, these shady markets seemed like a paradise where we could get sweets and chocolates from the United States, such as Snickers and M&M’s.

Scenes like these are probably familiar to Japanese people who, as children, experienced shortages of goods during the US Occupation (1945–52) and had to frequent the black markets scattered across Tokyo in such neighborhoods as Ueno, Shinjuku, and Shimokitazawa. But for children growing up in present-day Japan or Mexico, where everything is available, black markets and illegal outlets must be hard to understand.

During the “golden age” of Mexican black markets, not only US products but a variety of Japanese products were also brought in. While most were electric appliances, food was sold as well. I remember having to go to one of these shady places to get a hold of these products. My Japanese mother often took me to a candy store in the center of Mexico City. The owner was a Japanese-Mexican who, once he knew that my mom was Japanese, took us to a secret area in the back of the store. There were goods of all sorts: Kikkoman soy sauce, Nissin instant ramen, S&B curry roux, Glico caramel candies, and Calpis lactic acid drink concentrates, among others. Some had crossed the Pacific, while others had come from the United States or Canada.

Japanese Food Takes Root in North America

Japanese food products began entering North America in the 1970s. A boom in Japanese food began to take shape around this time, and many Americans came to eat Japanese cuisine more often. In the 1980s Japanese restaurants opened throughout the United States, and Japanese food established itself as one of the most popular international cuisines in the country.

Similar trends developed in Mexico, also a part of North America. In the 1980s Japanese restaurants—most of which were owned by Japanese proprietors—began to proliferate, mainly in Mexico City. And with the establishment of Restaurant Suntory, an international chain of Japanese restaurants, Japanese cuisine achieved great fame. But Japanese food was still beyond the reach of many segments of Mexican society at the time, and many Mexicans were reluctant to eat raw fish.

Sushi Itto Brings Japanese Food Closer to Mexicans

Japanese food became more accessible to Mexicans with the appearance of Sushi Itto. This chain of Japanese fast-food restaurants was founded not by a Japanese but by a Mexican man named Alberto Romano Hadid, who launched the first Sushi Itto in 1988. Romano Hadid took in many elements of Japanese cuisine but also incorporated elements that were not a part of it.

Today Sushi Itto is the most important Japanese food chain in Mexico, and it has even spread to Central and South America. According to data from Mexico’s National Commission of Aquaculture and Fishing, sushi is the second most ordered delivery food in Mexico after pizza. Moreover, Japanese food is the most consumed international cuisine in Mexico.(*1) This popularity of Japanese food explains why the Japanese restaurant chain Sukiya decided to venture into the Mexican fast-food market in 2013.

Japanese Diet Not as Healthy as Popularly Believed

Why has Japanese food been so successful in Mexico? There are two fundamental reasons, one of which is linked to health issues in Latin America. Mexico has the world’s highest obesity rate, surpassing the United States by a small margin. This has led many Mexicans to seek healthier diets to overcome this lifestyle-related disease, and Japanese food was one of the cuisines to fit the bill.

To be sure, traditional Japanese foods, such as rice, miso soup, vegetables, and fish, are healthy, and the rate of obesity in Japan is lower than in Mexico, the United States, or Latin American countries like Chile and Venezuela. But as for whether sushi is the healthiest Japanese food, I do not know.

In fact, according to Japanese authorities, the nation faces a worrying deficiency in its diet. Surveys by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare over the last decade have shown that many Japanese citizens are potentially at risk of developing metabolic syndrome, which could increase the possibility of cardiovascular disease. The government has therefore launched a campaign to prevent metabolic syndrome by encouraging exercise, warning against “Westernization” of the diet, and promoting the consumption of fish, vegetables, and fruit. The recommended intake per day is 200 grams for fruit and 350 grams for vegetables—somewhat difficult goals, given the lifestyles of most Japanese and the high price of most fruits in Japan.

Low Fruit Consumption in Japan

So what is this deficiency in the Japanese diet? One key lies in the consumption of fruit and vegetables. With regard to vegetable consumption (Table 1), no country can boast a daily intake of 350 grams as is recommended by the Japanese government. Japan does not rank very high on the list; Iran, Turkey, and South Korea all top Japan, and even the United States consumes more vegetables. It is interesting to note that Cuba, which has suffered for many years under an embargo imposed by the United States, outperforms Japan as well. Meanwhile, Mexico, like other Latin American countries in general, consumes fewer vegetables than Japan despite having a climate and geographical conditions conducive to their production.

Japan scores even lower when it comes to fruit consumption (Table 2). Countries like Ghana and Brazil understandably rank high due to their climate, but some countries, such as the Netherlands and Norway, are high up on the list even though they do not necessarily have favorable conditions. Cuba, again, consumes a significant amount of fruit—even surpassing Mexico, the world’s largest consumer of lemons and other citrus fruits. In Japan’s case, geographical conditions and high prices no doubt account for the low fruit consumption.

By this, I do not intend to deny that Japanese cuisine is healthy or claim that the Japanese suffer from chronic health issues like the Mexicans do. There is definitely something about the food of this country that promotes health, as evidenced by the long life expectancy of the Japanese. But I do feel that it has been overrated in Mexico and elsewhere.

Table 1. Vegetable Consumption by Country (grams/person/day)

1 China 338.12
2 Iran 249.96 14 France 103.63
3 Turkey 241.04 15 Japan 101.31
4 Greece 232.13 16 Australia 95.82
5 South Korea 221.68
6 Israel 167.73 31 Uruguay 51.73
7 Italy 144.51 32 Mexico 51.63
8 Cuba 129.66 33 Mexico 49.06
9 Spain 123.83 34 Costa Rica 47.7
10 Canada 113.98 35 Paraguay 46.18
11 United States 113.09      

(Only representative countries listed)
Note: Compiled by the author based on data from FAO STAT.

Table 2. Fruit Consumption by Country (grams/person/day)

1 Ghana 472
2 Ecuador 470 21 Thailand 292
3 Netherlands 444 22 Mexico 276
4 Cuba 425 23 United States 266
5 Italy 386
6 Brazil 381 38 India 141
7 Iran 380 39 Japan 140
8 Norway 378 40 South Africa 107

(Only representative countries listed)
Note: Compiled by the author based on data from FAO STAT.

Sushi Itto’s Success and “Japanese Peanuts”

Going back to the case of Japanese food in Mexico, I mentioned above that its status as a healthy food is one of the factors behind its success. Another reason, and possibly the most important, is the way in which the Mexicans have adapted Japanese food to local tastes. Sushi Itto is a perfect example. On its menu is a sushi roll containing avocado and fried banana and served with chipotle sauce—an item that would never sell in Japan.

There are other examples illustrating the successful Mexicanization of Japanese food, one of which is the cacahuates japoneses, or Japanese peanuts. Peanuts are not originally from Japan but are native to the Americas. Brought to Japan by the Dutch during the Edo period (1603–1868), they have a relatively long history in the country. Nevertheless, the peanut has never found a significant place in the Japanese diet like the soybean has. In fact, what we know in Mexico as Japanese peanuts do not exist in Japan. While they resemble Japanese mamegashi (cracker-covered peanuts or other legumes), they are a Mexican product invented by a Japanese immigrant.

Nakatani Yoshihei, a Japanese who immigrated to Mexico in 1930, created the first snack of the kind in 1945 and began selling it under the company name Nipón. For some reason he never patented it, and in the 1970s a number of companies began to mass-market similar products. From around this time, “Japanese peanuts” became one of Mexico’s favorite snacks. Today they are available anywhere in the country, and I often bring them to Japan as gifts for my colleagues and friends. Many of them are fascinated by the taste, but they are astonished when they see me pour a generous amount of hot sauce over the snack.

Instant Ramen Makes Inroads in Mexico

Another successful example of Mexicanized Japanese food that greatly changed the nation’s diet is Maruchan, a brand of instant noodles developed by the Japanese company Toyo Suisan.

Overseas sales of Japanese instant ramen began in the United States. In the 1970s Nissin Foods sought to make inroads into the US market, but American consumers did not take a liking to the noodles-in-a-plastic-bag look that was prevalent in Japan at the time. So it was that Nissin came up with the world’s first instant ramen in a cup: Cup Noodle. The product was an immediate success, as it was cheap, easy to carry, and required minimal preparation. All one needed was hot water—or, failing that, plain water and a microwave oven. Other companies subsequently attempted to enter the US market as well, but none were able to compete with Nissin except Toyo Suisan.

A cup of Maruchan instant ramen.

Come the 1980s, cup noodles began entering Mexico. According to the book Maruchan wa naze Mekishiko no kokumin-shoku ni natta no ka? (Why Maruchan Became a National Dish of Mexico) by business planner Anzai Hiroyuki and product designer Nakabayashi Tetsutarō, a Mexican man working in the United States brought the first Maruchan to Mexico when he returned to his homeland. He had brought back the noodles as a souvenir for family and friends.

The truth of this story is dubious at best; the authors do not give the man’s name or indicate where in Mexico he was from. Neither do they explain why Maruchan, and not any other brand, has established itself as one of the most consumed fast foods in Mexico today.

I would like to offer an alternative explanation: Toyo Suisan set up a Mexican subsidiary in the latter half of the 1980s and, along with Nissin, sought to make inroads into the Mexican market. They were not successful in the early years, as they faced the competition of other fast foods, particularly street tacos.

Toyo Suisan’s Long-Term Investment for Success

From there, why did Maruchan go on to achieve success? There are several reasons. First, it is cheap—the product currently costs between 7 and 10 Mexican pesos, making it accessible to many people. Second, it is convenient to carry around. Third, its entry coincided with the popularization of microwave ovens in Mexico. In the late 1980s, thanks to the liberalization of the Mexican economy and the economic bubble created under President Carlos Salinas de Gortari (in office 1988–94), many homes and establishments came to have microwave ovens. This helped make it possible to eat Maruchan almost anywhere.

Last but not least, Toyo Suisan has persistently invested in the Mexican market. Nissin and other Japanese food companies pulled out of Mexico after the 1994 crisis, but Toyo Suisan stayed on. Maruchan thus came to dominate the Mexican market for cup noodles.

It should be noted that Mexicans completely changed how the noodles are eaten. To begin with, they eat the noodles soggy. In fact, noodle soups are always eaten at that consistency in Mexico—a thought that would surely make the Japanese shudder. Moreover, Mexicans use a fork instead of chopsticks. In Mexico the noodles are cut short, unlike the long noodles in Japan. Mexicans also do not slurp or make a noise when eating like the Japanese do. Finally, although Maruchan noodles are already flavored (shrimp, chicken, or pork), Mexicans further add lemon and plenty of hot sauce (see banner photo).

The Irony of Japanese Food Turning Junk

In recent years, however, various Mexican groups have warned about the negative health effects of Maruchan. Many of them have noted that it contains chemical additives, artificial colors and flavors, and high levels of sodium. They also point out that the product contains monosodium glutamate. There is a whole debate on the health effects of these ingredients, and the content of artificial flavors has been exaggerated at times.

What we do know is that Mexicans eat excessive amounts of cup noodles, which may very well be problematic for their health. As already noted, vegetable consumption in Mexico is not very high, and mass consumption of Maruchan and little else is certain to increase health problems. It is paradoxical that on the one hand Japanese food is seen as the epitome of a healthy diet, while on the other a food product created in Japan is considered one of the potentially most harmful “junk foods” in Mexico.

In closing, I would like to touch on a book that the Japanese author Akikawa Tetsuya published about 10 years ago, titled Mekishiko-jin wa naze hagenai shi, shinanai no ka (Why Mexicans Are Not Bald and Do Not Die). In the novel the protagonist, a Japanese, travels to Mexico and learns that the country has a very low suicide rate, in contrast to Japan. The key apparently lies in the diet—particularly in tomatoes, beans, and chilies, three traditional Mexican foods. Akikawa concludes that the Japanese could eliminate many of their problems if they were to eat these foods---yet another of the world’s paradoxes.

(*1) ^ Marissa Sánchez, “La inovación hace al líder” (Innovation makes the leader).

Japanese food Health Washoku ramen Mexico Maruchan Sushi Itto