The compact disc. The digital camera. The instant ramen noodle? Believe it or not, the third one is considered one of the most significant and impactful Japanese inventions of any kind.
You probably equate the instant noodle with hazy college dorm rooms or the earliest, most uncertain days of your young career. But the world’s collective hunger for instant noodles has remained insatiable for decades — to the tune of more than 100 billion servings consumed globally each year according to the World Instant Noodles Association. (Yes, that’s a thing.)
So important a part of Earth’s culinary history is the instant noodle that it’s worth exploring on your next trip to Japan. The ultimate noodle-immersion experience can be found in the Cup Noodles museum on the northern edge of Osaka — hometown of Momofuku Ando, inventor of the instant noodle. It’s a side trip well worth taking, just a quick journey outside of Kyoto.
Granted, most epicurean-minded visitors are likely to seek out the latest Tokyo subway ramen hotspot known for queues that begin snaking back and forth well before lunchtime each day. And, of course, you could spend years exploring the different regional styles of noodle dishes served up throughout Japan. But the instant ramen noodle has a fascinating legacy all its own.
Ando invented instant ramen noodles in 1958. In discovering a process by which the noodles could be made, steamed, seasoned, and dehydrated in oil heat (flash fried, really), he created a system in which the noodles could not only be mass produced, they’d have a shelf life longer than that of frozen noodles. First introduced as Chikin Ramen by Ando’s company Nissin, the product was a hit since the noodles only required the addition of boiling water and two minutes of patience before they were ready to eat.
It wasn’t long, of course, before discerning customers clamored for higher quality. So separate flavor packets were added to the dried blocks of noodles, which triggered another surge in instant-noodle excitement. Eventually a slew of competitors emerged (five food conglomerates control the lion’s share of Japan’s instant noodle market), along with industry-wide agreements on production standards and quality control. But it was Nissin that changed the noodle game again in 1971, when it introduced Cup Noodles.
Cup Noodles came in Styrofoam cups to which consumers only needed to add boiling water and then, presto — flavored noodles two minutes later. Even today, this is considered a revolutionary product that changed the entire processed-foods industry; one vessel, the cup, served as the means of production, transportation, stocking, cooking, and consuming the contents. The key to Cup Noodles’ global success wasn’t just the convenient packaging, but the fact that the flavoring could be altered for each new country to which the product was introduced. For a decade, there was even a 60-foot-high Cup Noodles installed high above Times Square in New York, complete with steam rising from its lid.
Noodle it some more
In other words, there are 100 billion reasons why there’s a Cup Noodles museum in Momofuku Ando’s hometown of Osaka.
The museum provides a thorough journey through the history of the instant noodle, starting with a reproduction of the backyard wooden shed in which Ando first invented his instant ramen. There’s even a theater shaped like a Cup Noodles, of course, as well as exhibitions that display the hundreds of different instant-noodle products that proliferated around the world as a result of Ando’s invention.
You can even indulge in two hands-on noodle experiences. First, in the Chicken Ramen factory, you can knead, stretch, and cut noodles by hand, and then flash fry them just as Ando once did. Then, over in the Cup Noodles factory, you can design your own package, and create your own soup and flavor packet for a completely original, bespoke Cup Noodles.
If you’re not noodled-out by then, well, you’re in Osaka—which happens to be famous for its exquisite ramen shops offering a wide range of styles and flavors. Why not treat yourself since, after all, you’re no longer living in that cloudy dorm room, right?