"The Japanese voted instant noodles their most important 20th-century invention, Sony Walkmans notwithstanding."
'The Economist' Book of Obituaries
Edited by Kieth Colqhoun and Ann Wroe
Hardcover, 410 pages
List price: $29.95
Momofuku Ando, inventor of instant noodles, died on January 5th 2007, aged 96
For centuries men and women have turned to the east for the secret of life, health and happiness. But Momofuku Ando taught that there is no need to climb half-naked up a mountain peak, or meditate for hours on a prayermat, or knot one's legs round one's neck while intoning "Om" through the higher nasal passages. One should simply
Peel off lid.
Pour boiling water.
Steep for three minutes.
Stir well and serve.
Nothing was easier. Of course, the unenlightened could stumble sometimes, burning their tongues, or jabbing in a fork after only one minute of silent contemplation, which bent the prongs and sprayed the soup over the keyboard. But the patient disciple achieved fulfilment: mouthful upon mouthful of warming, strangely angular noodles, in flavours such as "Hearty Chicken" or "Shrimp Picante".
Most devotees of Cup Noodle did not investigate the mystery further. Giddily grateful as they were to be relieved of cooking, it might have been electrical wire they were eating, or sauteed rubber bands. But some, after many portions, could make an unthinking mantra of the list of ingredients: Wheat Flour, Palm Oil (Tocopherols), Tapioca Starch, Salt, Dehydrated Vegetables (Cabbage, Green Onion, Carrot), Disodium Guanylate, Disodium Inosinate. And at the highest level one follower succeeded in straightening the noodles out, discovering in his cup eight strands 2mm in diameter and measuring 40cm (16 inches), evidently extruded with perfect uniformity, and cut into perfect lengths.
The cult was global. In 2005, 86 billion servings of instant noodles were eaten around the world. And all this began with a vision, as such things do. One cold night in 1957, walking home from his salt-making factory in Osaka, in Japan, Mr Ando saw white clouds of steam in the street, and a crowd of people gathering. They were waiting for noodles to be cooked to order in vats of boiling water, and were prepared to wait a long time. Why not make it easier? thought Mr Ando. And why not try to do it himself?
His life until then had been a bit of a mess. He had sold dress fabrics, following in the footsteps of the
grandparents who had brought him up. He had sold engine-parts, prefabricated houses, magic-lantern projectors, socks. He had presided over a credit association, which had gone bust, and tried to launch a scholarship scheme for poor students, which had landed him in jail for tax evasion. But now the "steadily rising" clouds (or possibly, as in the cartoon on the homepage of his Instant Noodle Museum in Osaka, one fluffy white cloud with a kettle dangling from it) had shown him the Way.
Nights in the shed
The road was long. It took a year, working night and day in a shed in his back garden, to find the secret of bringing noodles back to life. Mr Ando cooked quantities, but had trouble getting the moisture out and keeping any flavouring in. He sprayed them with chicken soup from a watering can, and festooned the shed with them. The secret, picked up from his wife as she cooked vegetable tempura, was to flash-fry the cooked noodles in palm oil. This made them "magic".
In 1958 instant noodles went on the market, yellowish wormy bricks in cellophane bags, and were laughed at by fresh-noodle makers all over Japan. They were just a high-tech craze, costing six times as much as the fresh stuff; they would never catch on. By the end of the first year Mr Ando had sold 13m bags and had attracted a dozen competitors. He never looked back. In 1971 came noodles in heat-proof polystyrene cups, so that the hungry did not even need to get their bowls out of the cupboard. The Japanese voted instant noodles their most important 20th-century invention, Sony Walkmans notwithstanding. Mr Ando's firm, Nissin, became a $3 billion global enterprise.
But it was never just a company, and instant-noodlemaking never just an industry. The three sayings of Mr Ando became a philosophy of life:
Peace will come when people have food.
Eating wisely will enhance beauty and health.
The creation of food will serve society.
Mr Ando practised what he preached. He ate Chikin Ramen, his original flavour of noodles, almost every day until he died. Though sceptics pointed out that they were loaded with fat, salt and monosodium glutamate, he looked bonny and spry. Seabeds across Asia were littered with plastic noodle cups; but that was not his fault.
His TV advertising, meanwhile, showed what instant noodles were really all about. When the world turned to eating them, barriers fell, children laughed and people loved each other. All liberating revolutions sprang from humanity's desire to gulp down steaming Cup Noodles whenever there was a chance. In 2006 a Japanese astronaut, on board the space shuttle Discovery, supped Mr Ando's noodles from a handy vacuum pack. He appeared on the TV ads weightless and smiling, his enlightenment complete.
Excerpted from 'The Economist' Book of Obituaries edited by Kieth Colqhoun and Ann Wroe. Copyright © 2008 by The Economist Newspaper Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Bloomberg Press. All rights reserved.