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Why Cup Noodles are so popular?

Did you know that in 2020, people around the world consumed 116.6 billion servings of instant noodles?

China tops the list in instant noodle consumption with 45 million servings, followed by Indonesia. Japan ranks 5th in this list.

Since I started to live in Japan, I became a big fan of eating instant noodles. My typical Friday would be Seafood Cup Noodles and a can of beer. It was cheap and perfect for a broken student like me. There's something about Cup Noodles that's not just tasty and convenient, but also nostalgic, reminiscent of the warmth evoked by Ghibli Anime. Truth is, I never tried instant noodles prior to living in Japan, as a matter of fact I learned about them mostly from anime. And, oh man anime makes food look way more appetizing than it might actually be! (I'm sure many of you can relate). So today, I want to delve into the history of these instant treats, explore their rise to popularity, and share some fun facts.

Below is a snapshot from Ghibli’s 'Ponyo'. It captures a moment when Sosuke and Ponyo indulge in chicken ramen( famous brand of Nissin). Sosuke's mother adds hot water, then crowns it with ham and an egg. Just look at their expressions, their sheer delight makes the dish look so tasty, you’d want to dive into the screen for a taste lol. This, right here, is how my fondness for Japanese cuisine grew, all thanks to the brilliance of Miyazaki.

As much as I love noodles, I also love to learn the history of it. Now, let’s dig a little bit. It's been said that humans began eating wheat around 5 million years ago and from there many varieties of wheat products were born. The earliest form of noodles was discovered in a village in Northwest China. These uncovered noodles were more than four thousand years old, providing evidence that the Chinese have had a culture of eating noodles for over four millennia. In ancient China, noodles were originally called "bing," which means “cake” in modern Chinese. Later, during the Northern Wei dynasty, "shui yin bing," literally "water-induced cakes," was documented in the book Qi Min Yao Shu. This was described as a boiled noodle, about a foot long, and as thin as "leek leaves." Source

For your curiosity, WINA(World Instant Noodles Association) has made an educative video on the history of noodles. In the 8th century, noodles traveled to Japan and by the 10th century, they reached Iran, later transforming into pasta in Italy.

Many of you may be familiar with Japanese instant noodles brands. For instance one of the most famous and pioneer in a way is ‘Nissin’. The first invention that had a global success started from Osaka in Japan. Momofuku Ando the founder of ‘Nissin’ company, in 1958, invented "Chicken Ramen" in a tiny shed in Ikeda, Osaka. His goal was simple: quick home-made ramen with hot water. After a year of relentless work, his "magic ramen" took the world by storm.

Many people may wonder, why Nissin’s founder chose the flavor of chicken for his first tribute to the world. Ando chose chicken flavor for a specific reason. Once, his son, who loved chickens and even they even kept them in garden, witnessed them panic while being cooked. This traumatic experience made him swear off eating chicken. However, when his mother prepared chicken bone soup, he couldn't resist it. Observing this, Ando was inspired to develop chicken-flavored ramen. Chicken is universally accepted; Hindus avoid beef, Muslims avoid pork, but nearly every culture consumes chicken. This universal appeal proved advantageous when Nissin Foods went global.


When Ando introduced Chicken Ramen at the Hankyu Department Store in Umeda, Osaka, each 85g bag cost 35 yen. This was a high price considering a udon ball was only 6 yen and regular dry noodles were 25 yen. However, the promise of "Ramen ready in 2 minutes with hot water" intrigued many housewives. The 500 sample meals sold out immediately, and Ando was encouraged by the positive feedback.

Chicken Ramen initially faced skepticism from wholesalers, primarily due to concerns about the high price. Despite this, Ando insisted on cash payments from wholesalers. He argued, "We don't give rice on credit. Ramen is also staple food, so it should be paid for upfront." Thanks to his conviction, Nakatani Shoten, an Osaka food wholesaler, agreed to stock Chicken Ramen. The official launch date was August 25, 1958. At first, Chicken Ramen's availability was limited. But soon, wholesalers were calling Ando to place large orders, saying it was selling like ‘hotcakes’. Contrary to some initial doubts, Chicken Ramen quickly won consumers over. They praised its taste and convenience. Before long, it earned the nickname “Magic Ramen”.

Back then, Chicken Ramen was made in a modest factory set up in a repurposed warehouse, with a production capacity of just 6,000 cases daily. Trucks would queue up outside the factory, waiting to transport the coveted product. Due to the overwhelming demand and limited supply, the payment terms with wholesalers shifted from cash-on-delivery to advance payments. This was an unexpected turn of events, even for Ando. He realized, "We need more advanced factories and better distribution systems." With that in mind, Ando set up a more expansive factory in Takatsuki City, Osaka. This new facility could churn out over 100,000 meals each day, yet it still couldn't meet the soaring demand. The sales were so robust that the funds for the factory's location were recouped in just a month's worth of sales.

Another reason for their popularity was that Chicken Ramen's were traded from the top three major trading companies, including Mitsubishi Corporation. Nationwide, there were about 3,000 dedicated wholesalers, and beneath them was a vast network of retail stores.

So, what made Chicken Ramen so successful?

1. Strategic Distribution: The year Chicken Ramen hit the shelves, 1958, was the same year Daiei( Japanese brand of supermarkets) started expanding supermarkets. This western-style distribution method began to take root, paving the way for bulk product sales across Japan. Notably, Chicken Ramen, often bundled with eggs, became a frequent discount item in Daiei's food section.

2. Changing Lifestyles: Japan's rapid economic development was reshaping everyday lives. Many housewives, now juggling work and leisure, sought efficiency in domestic tasks. Instant foods like ramen and instant coffee emerged as iconic solutions to this societal shift.

3. Media Exposure: Nissin Foods didn't just rely on word of mouth; they capitalized on the advertising potential of emerging media. While they began with newspaper ads a year after Chicken Ramen's debut, Ando saw the rising influence of television. Nissin sponsored various programs appealing to a broad audience, such as "Igaguri-kun," "Beaver-chan," and "Olympic Show: Earth's Greatest Quiz." These efforts undoubtedly boosted Chicken Ramen's popularity.

In 2003, sales of Chicken Ramen saw a significant spike, largely credited to the introduction of the "Egg Pocket"—touted as the "great invention of the 45th year." This innovation resonated with many consumers who enjoyed their ramen topped with an egg. Prior to this, if the noodles were skewed in the bowl, the egg would often slip into the soup. But with the Egg Pocket, the egg would comfortably nestle in the center. A pro tip for perfectly poached eggs: preheat the bowl and pour boiling water in a manner that it directly hits the egg white. Source

Source: Amazon Japan

Momofuku's second brainchild was “CUP NOODLES”. During a research trip to the U.S., he noticed supermarket managers crushing Chicken Ramen noodles, placing them in a cup, adding hot water, and enjoying the meal with a fork. This observation led Momofuku to an epiphany: challenging traditional eating habits was crucial for turning instant ramen into a worldwide phenomenon. With a combination of diverse insights and inventive strategies, CUP NOODLES evolved the “made in Japan” instant ramen into a global staple.


Additionally, fueled by his dream of crafting ramen for space, Momofuku embarked on the journey to produce Space Ramen. This project blended techniques designed for zero-gravity consumption and the innovative hot oil drying method he established in 1958. Thanks to Space Ramen, Momofuku's groundbreaking thinking not only broke terrestrial boundaries but also paved the way for culinary delights suitable for space voyages


Emergency relief food

Instant noodles have been crucial during emergencies due to their food preservation technology. For instance, in February 2023, the World Instant Noodles Association (WINA), alongside its member company OBAMIE NOODLE, donated 100,000 servings of OBAMIE NOODLE as aid to earthquake victims in Turkey and Syria.

The longevity and safety of instant noodles are achieved through:

1. Dehydration: This process ensures noodles, seasoning, and garnishes have low moisture, inhibiting microbial growth. Liquid soups or moist garnishes undergo high-temperature treatments pre and post-packaging to prevent spoilage.

2. Fat Antioxidants: Oils and fats are chosen for their oxidative stability. Overheating is avoided during processing. Antioxidants like vitamin E are added to prevent quality deterioration from fat oxidation.

3. Bacteriostatic Effects: Some liquid components undergo high-temperature treatments, condensation, or are mixed with preservatives like salt or sugar to reduce water activity and improve shelf life. Additionally, pH control and alcohol can be used for their bacteriostatic effects.

4. Packaging Material Selection: Packaging plays a pivotal role. Materials chosen for instant noodles effectively block humidity, oxygen, and light, ensuring the product remains fresh.

Such preservation measures not only make instant noodles a convenient meal but also a reliable food source during crises. Source

Nutritional Concerns

Instant noodles, while convenient and beloved by many around the world, have indeed faced criticism primarily due to their nutritional profile. Here's a deeper dive into these concerns:

1. High Sodium Content: One of the most common critiques of instant noodles is their high sodium (or salt) content. Consuming foods high in sodium can lead to high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke. The WHO recommends a salt intake of below 5 grams per day, but this is challenging given Japan’s food culture. A single serving of instant noodles can often contain more than half of an individual's daily recommended intake.

2. Lack of Nutrients: Instant noodles provide calories, but they often lack significant amounts of essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and protein.

3. Fats: Some instant noodles are fried, leading to a higher saturated and trans fat content, which are detrimental to heart health when consumed in excess.

While enjoying instant noodles occasionally as part of a varied diet is generally fine, it's essential to balance this with foods rich in nutrients, lean proteins, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Those concerned about the sodium content can opt for reduced-sodium versions or use less of the provided seasoning packet. Additionally, enhancing instant noodles with fresh vegetables, lean meats, or tofu can make them more nutritious.

I’m excited on the future of instant noodles, wondering what the next innovation will be?!

Reference used for this article: (in Japanese) (in Japanese)

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#noodles#cup noodles#chicken ramen#japan
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