By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Travel & Life Editor
This is the first in a series of Rafu Shimpo articles on attractions and destinations in the Kansai region of central Japan, which will appear in print and online over the next several weeks.
IKEDA CITY, Japan.–Practically anyone who has been to college in the past four decades is intimately familiar with the subject of a bright, airy museum in the Osaka Prefecture city of Ikeda. For many of us, those late-night study sessions were often fueled by that old standby, instant ramen.
What’s less commonly known is how the advent of the flash-fried noodles with freeze-dried veggies essentially revolutionized the instant food landscape.
Opened in 1999, the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum is both a tribute to the inventor of the cheap, quick meal, as well as a workshop that lets visitors take part in the creation of their own versions of the food.
It was in the post-World War II chaos that Ando, who had earned a college degree in economics and was working in textiles, was struck by the long lines of impoverished villagers waiting to buy hot ramen – at inflated prices – via the black market that flourished in the vacuum left by a disheveled and reorganizing central government. Nearly bankrupt himself, Ando built a cook shack in his backyard in Ikeda, with the philosophy that “people can only be content when there is enough food.”
His goal was to create a food that would meet five criteria: its taste must have wide appeal and it must be easy to prepare, safe in the processing of its ingredients, easily stored for extended periods, and affordable to the masses.
Inspired by the crispy and durable texture of fried tempura batter, he set about experimenting with ramen noodles. He found that flash-frying them in very hot oil effectively pushed all the water out of the noodles, leaving them porous and easily reconstituted in hot water. According to the museum, it was Aug. 25, 1958, when the 48-year-old Ando got it just right.
The first product, Chikin Ramen, packaged with its instant soup base, was hailed by consumers as “magic ramen” and was, well, an instant hit. While freeze-dried liquids such as coffee and soup had been widely available for some time, it is believed that Ando’s ramen was the first solid food to be made shelf-stable through his process, marking a major development in the global packaged food industry. The company Ando formed to distribute the product was called Nissin Foods, with the Chinese characters used in its name meaning “daily pure foods.”
Nissin established a U.S. subsidiary in 1970, selling its products under the Top Ramen name. A year later, Cup Noodles was made available, with its self-contained noodle soup and freeze-dried vegetables and meat or seafood. It made a quick, easy meal as close as the nearest source of hot water.
The museum features a faithful recreation of Ando’s backyard cook shack, replete with many of the actual utensils and pots he used to develop his product. There is also wall adorned with most of the instant noodle products Nissin has created over the years, including a package of the original Chikin Ramen.
The museum puts the total global consumption of Nissin instant ramen at some 98 billion packages per year, with China taking over 42 billion servings. Indonesia is second at 14.5 billion, and Japan third at 5.5 billion. The U.S. consumes around four billion packages annually.
While many of the products have enjoyed enduring popularity – the chicken Cup Noodles chief among them – the company has also had its missteps. Super Boil, introduced in 1989, was packaged in a “revolutionary” canister that was lined with metal and limestone. When cold water was added, the natural reaction of the minerals created heat that in turn boiled the water and cooked the noodles and veggies inside. Unfortunately, there were several incidents of the Super Boil container reaching excessive and dangerous temperatures. It was also relatively expensive – 500 yen ($5.35), as compared to the 160 yen ($1.70) for the standard version. Super Boil was pulled from the market after about a month.
Perhaps the most enjoyable of the museum’s attractions is the My Cup Noodles Factory. For 300 yen ($3.20), visitors can personalize their own container and choose from a wide variety of flavorings and toppings. The ramen is packaged, sealed, shrink-wrapped and comes with a protective, inflatable carrier. For kids and adults alike, this hands-on experience is a simple but potent joy.
There is also a Chicken Ramen Factory, in which patrons create the product, from mixing the flour and steaming the noodles all the way to flavoring and finishing the dried ramen. While admission to the museum is free, the Chicken Ramen Factory requires reservations and a fee of 500 yen for adults and 300 yen for students.
In 2011, Nissin opened another ramen-themed visitor attraction, The Cupnoodles Museum, in Yokohama’s Minatomirai district.
The Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum is located at 8-25 Masumi-cho in Ikeda City, Osaka Prefecture. Phone (072) 752-3484 or visit www.instantramen-museum.jp for reservations or information.