In Praise of Ramen, and Its Inventor

College students, raise your wallets to Momofuku Ando, the inventor of a staple food for students and other folks eating on the cheap. Ando is credited with inventing ramen noodles.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The inventor of the instant Ramen packet, Momofuku Ando, has died at the age of 96. Ando founded the Nissin Food Products Company, which still makes billions of cheap packets of chicken Ramen and Cup Noodles a year.

NPR's Robert Smith has this appreciation.

ROBERT SMITH: It's brilliant in it's simplicity. Boil water. Open the top of the Styrofoam cup. Pour the water. Now we have a couple of minutes while it steeps or whatever little magic's going on in there. So let's go on a quick trip.

OK, our first stop is Greenwich Village, NYU, New York University. But let's face it, I could go to any college campus in the nation, any cheap, hipster neighborhood. Any place you can find a starving artist or a grad student, that's where you find the Ramen people.

Mr. JAY THOMPSON(ph): Easy to cook. They taste great and they're very salty.

Mr. LUTHER NAVANACH(ph): You know what it reminds me of? It reminds me of my childhood, the saltiness, the salty goodness.

SMITH: What would be a great deal on a package of Ramen?

Mr. NAVANACH: I don't know, usually you get them in bulk. You know, you go like down to the Costco, it's like that the wholesale place, and get like for three bucks or something like that like 14 million servings.

These guys, Jay Thompson and Luther Navanach, are pretty much the customers that Momofuku Ando had in mind after he developed instant Ramen in Japan after World War II, hungry people with not much money.

Ando's real innovation was that if you deep fry the noodles first and then put them in a package, they'll be quick and easy to reconstitute.

OK, we got to hurry. Our next stop is the East Village. So what happens when Ramen eaters graduate, get a job, make a little bit more money? I'm standing here with David Chang, who owns Momofuku Noodle Bar in the East Village.

Is your restaurant named after Momofuku Ando?

Mr. DAVID CHANG (Owner, Momofuku Noodle Bar): Our restaurant is not named after Momofuku Ando. Our restaurant is named because momo in Japanese means peach and fuku means lucky.

SMITH: So it's just a coincidence?

Mr. CHANG: It was pure coincidence, yeah.

SMITH: So your bowl of ramen is slightly different than the Cup Noodles.

Mr. CHANG: Yeah, very much so. Our Momofuku ramen, it's $14. We use Berkshire pork from Iowa, local greens, seasonal greens that change, bamboo shoots and some nori.

SMITH: As much as I'd love to have a bowl of your ramen, I have a Cup Noodles brewing back in the studio and I have one last stop to go before I eat it.

Mr. CHANG: All right.

SMITH: This is it, Times Square, home of the Ando's greatest marketing coup. For 10 years, a 60-foot tall, 3D, steaming cup of Ramen loomed right up there on a billboard. It was recently taken down, but you can't take a way the impact that instant Ramen has had in our culture. I mean you already know the bad part. It's basically a carbohydrate cocktail of salt and fat and MSG, you know, helped create this eat-it-on-the-go fast food culture.

But - and I hope and Nobel Prize committee is listening - you got to think about the innovations of the last 30 years. The Internet, gene splicing, you named it it was probably worked on by graduate students, poor graduate students, poor graduate students fueled by what else - Instant Ramen.

You need the impact has been that great from noodles, from Cup o' Noodles?

Mr. CHANG: Not really.

SMITH: Probably not, right?

All right I'm back in the studio and the chicken flavored Ramen noodles are hot and they smell great. So let's all raise our fork and that Momofuku Ando's invention had the last word.

(Soundbite of slurping)

SMITH: Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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