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Andō Momofuku: An Inventor Who Used His Noodle to Change Global Food Culture

Instant ramen: just add hot water and you have a meal in a few minutes, anytime, anywhere. The product had its beginnings with Chicken Ramen by Nissin Foods, invented by Andō Momofuku in a backyard workshop. National broadcaster NHK’s morning serial Manpuku, slated for broadcast beginning in autumn 2018, recounts the ups and downs of Andō’s life and his indomitable originality.

Early Entrepreneur, Late-blooming Inventor

Andō Momofuku (1910–2007) was rightly known as “Mr. Noodles.” His instant noodles, invented in 1958, record yearly sales of 5.5 billion units in Japan alone; worldwide, nearly 100 billion portions are consumed every year, truly making the product a “global food.” Nissin Food Products, the company Andō founded, is part of the Nissin Group, which has grown into a giant with net sales of more than ¥490 billion in the fiscal year ending March 2017.

The “Instant Ramen Tunnel” at the Cup Noodles Museum in Ikeda, Osaka, traces the evolution of Nissin Foods’ products over the years.

But before success came many trials. Andō was an up-and-coming industrialist who lost all his wealth overnight. By the time he invented Chicken Ramen, the world’s first instant ramen, he was already 48 years old

Looking back on his invention, Andō left these words: “In life, it’s never too late. It took me forty-eight years to invent this product.”

A statue of Andō Momofuku. The attractions and displays at the Cup Noodles Museum teach visitors about who Andō was, his successes, and the importance of the entrepreneurial spirit.

A Last-Ditch Effort for a Penniless Andō

Andō in the 1930s. After graduating from high school, he worked briefly as a librarian before becoming an entrepreneur.

Andō was born on March 5, 1910, in Taiwan, which was under Japanese rule at the time. Losing his parents at an early age, he, along with his two older brothers and a younger sister, was raised by his grandparents, who operated a kimono store in the city of Tainan. Seeing his grandparents at work as he was growing up, he came to see going into business as an interesting choice.

Aged 22, Andō set up a company in Taiwan to sell Japanese-made knitted fabrics. His business got off to a good start and the next year he opened a branch in Osaka, soon making a name for himself in the Kansai region as a young entrepreneur. Although he lost much of his business due to World War II, he was full of vitality and spirit as he branched out into manufacturing rudimentary postwar housing, producing salt, and founding a school.

Andō was jailed twice during his life. The first time, in the early war era, was for diverting military goods onto the black market. Following the war, he had his second brush with the law for tax evasion. Both times he was found innocent and released. Accusations against him had been made partly because he was a wealthy Taiwan-born businessman; he faced more than his share of troubles in the chaotic postwar years. During the war, he met and married his wife Masako, who supported him thereafter through thick and thin.

Happy couple Andō Momofuku and his wife Masako in their later years.

The greatest test in Andō’s life occurred when he was in mid-forties. In 1957, a credit union he headed went bust. With the exception of a rental property in Ikeda, Osaka, he lost all of his wealth overnight. The credit union role was one he had been asked to take on by a friend; he would later recall his “bitter regret” at having gone into the finance business, which he knew little about to begin with.

But he was quick to see that despite losing his assets, the experience would serve him well. It was very like him to quickly look for a way to get back on his feet. Here began his history as the “father of instant ramen.” Building a small workshop behind his house, he began developing a new product all by himself.

A life-size reproduction of Andō’s backyard workshop.

Tempura Provides the Spark of an Invention

The idea for instant ramen came to Andō at a black market near Osaka’s main train station during the years of severe food shortages following the war. Under a cold winter sky, he saw a long line of people lined up waiting their turn to eat a bowl of ramen.  He was struck by the insight that food was important, and that without food, there could be no clothing, no housing, no art, and no culture. He also realized that Japanese loved noodles and was convinced that the long line of people standing outside represented pent-up demand. A few years later, when he did not know where his own next meal was coming from, he recalled that scene and decided to try developing ramen that was simple to make and easy to eat, in addition to keeping well.

Andō’s workshop, just 10 square meters in size. He used ordinary equipment and materials to develop his product.

Getting by just 4 hours of sleep a night, Andō doggedly kept at his research, never taking a day off for an entire year. The biggest hurdles to overcome were drying the noodles so they could be preserved for a long time and allowing them to be prepared for eating simply by pouring hot water over them. He finally came up with the flash-frying method, frying the noodles briefly to eliminate moisture.

Andō’s hometown of Tainan is known for yi-mian, a type of noodle that is deep-fried before boiling. Since the noodles keep for some time after they are boiled, some people say that yi-mian is the forerunner of instant ramen. In reality, though, Andō got the idea from his wife Masako’s tempura. Seeing how she prepared crispy tempura by frying it in a way that drove out excess moisture, he hit on the notion of flash-frying his noodles.

Chicken ramen was created using the principle of tempura.

Thanks to Andō’s experimentation, Chicken Ramen, the world’s first instant ramen, went on sale in August 1958.  The noodles are permeated with a concentrated soup consisting of chicken stock and seasonings; simply adding hot water produces a steaming bowl of ramen. Called mahō no rāmen, “magic ramen,” when it first went on the market, Chicken Ramen became a runaway hit.

When Andō first told Masako that he was going into the ramen business, she reportedly said: “If you’re going to do that, make sure you become Japan’s best ramen maker.” Her admonition came true, as Andō watched yearly sales of his Chicken Ramen reach ¥4.3 billion just five years later.

The first Chicken Ramen package. The package came with a transparent window displaying the noodles inside.

  • [2018.04.17]
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