Momofuku Ando

Inventor whose instant noodles became a cultural icon
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The Independent Online

Momofuku Ando, inventor and businessman: born Chiayi, Taiwan 5 March 1910; married (two sons, one daughter); died Osaka, Japan 5 January 2007.

Momofuku Ando was the inventor of instant noodles. It was 1957, and there were still food shortages in Japan. He observed a long queue of customers waiting outside a black-market noodle stall in Osaka. The queue was composed both of blue-collar construction workers and white-collar salarymen, all hungry, and all working long hours and overtime to rebuild the post-war Japanese economy.

It occurred to Ando that there must be a more efficient way to prepare the ramen than the traditional method of simmering the noodles in vats of boiling water as each order was taken, and then adding the ingredients and saucing each bowl individually. So in his garden shed he boiled a batch of noodles, drained them, then fried them in palm oil, which turned them into a small brick. Add flavourings, and the pot noodle was born - the mainstay of millions of university students and other young people in the West as well as Japan and South East Asia.

Ando had noticed that Westerners sometimes turned out their noodles into a mug, and ate them with a fork, and the real stroke of marketing genius was not the recipe, but the heat-resistant styrofoam packaging that allowed the noodles to be reconstituted in their cup with nothing but hot water.

At the time Ando was a 47-year-old food industry executive. In his 2002 autobiography, Mahou no Ramen Hatumeimogatri ("How I Invented Magic Noodles"), he says he was motivated by the food shortages and by the appalling hunger of his war-deprived fellow countrymen. But the fact is that his first product, which he called Chicken Ramen, was marketed as a luxury product: it cost 35 yen a serving at a time when the average monthly salary was 13,000 yen, and fresh noodles were six times cheaper.

The very first year his firm Nissin sold 13 million packets of ramen. By 1970, despite the continued sneering of the traditional udon and soba makers (who, correctly, viewed Ando's product as spindles of artificially flavoured flour and water, steeped in saturated fat before being boiled and slurped from a polystyrene cup), annual sales were 3.6 billion yen.

Ando was born in the then-Japanese colony of Taiwan in 1910. His parents died when he was a child, and he was brought up by his grandparents and worked in their fabric shop. He moved to Japan in 1933. It is not clear how he avoided military service in Japan's wars in the Pacific, but during the war years he sold salt, magic-lantern projectors and prefabricated houses, and even ran a school. He was evidently a bit of a chancer, and in 1948 was convicted of a public-spirited sounding tax evasion scheme involving giving scholarships, and went to jail for two years. Later he was involved in a bankruptcy in which he lost everything but his house.

However he redeemed himself by the timing of his invention. In taste terms the flavour of his magic noodles was chiefly MSG, monosodium glutamate, the prized meaty "fifth taste" identified and synthesised by the Japanese in 1908.

The artificialness of the flavouring, and the fact that an entire meal could be made simply by rehydration, fitted beautifully with the nascent Japanese admiration, even love, of anything "hi-tech", just as supermarkets began to flourish in Japan in the late 1950s, and television arrived. Ando's company marketed its product with imaginative TV ads, including campaigns in the late 1980s and early 1990s starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, particularly one where the muscular (now) Governor of California swings two enormous pots over his head.

In Japan "cup noodles" are now not merely a replacement meal, but a cultural icon. Recently Japanese consumers voted instant noodles their country's most important invention of the 20th century, ahead of karaoke, the Sony Walkman and Nintendo game consoles. And, in summer 2006, Nissin's noodles went into orbit, as the Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi took special "zero-gravity" pot noodles among his rations on the space shuttle Discovery.

The result is that Nissin Foods Company is now a $3bn multinational corporation with 29 subsidiaries in 11 countries. In Japan each consumer eats 45 portions of instant noodles annually, and worldwide pot noodles sold 85 billion packages in 2005.

Ando was still credited as chairman-founder of Nissin when he died. The firm holds on to its market leadership in Japan with a stream of new products, each more revolting-sounding than the last: pot noodles now come in flavours ranging from "picante shrimp" to "Cajun chicken", and one shudders to imagine their frozen foods, soups and puddings.

Paul Levy