What's the deal with ramen noodles?
Dear Straight Dope:
I just made myself a cup of instant ramen and something occurred to me: there are so many different companies that provide a few billion people with ramen via the market, but it all seems to be the same. I assume there's some sort of machine that creates these odd cubes of noodles. What does it look like and how does it work? Who invented it and are they amazingly rich now? Concerned noodle slurpers want to know.
SDStaff Jillgat replies:
The ubiquitous ramen we all lived on in college (also sometimes called gakusei ryori or "student cuisine" in Japan) was invented in 1958 by Nissin Foods founder Momofuku Ando. Now 89, Momofuku was in his late 40s when he had the brainstorm of feeding the post-war masses with instant noodles.
"I think this guy should get together with Joey Buttafuoco and open a collection agency. You get a dunning letter from Momofuku & Buttafuoco, you know you're going to put a check in the return mail," says Ed Zotti, whose name probably means "pervert" in Japanese.
Nissin Foods still brings in 300 billion yen ($2.7 billion U.S.) a year with their original "Top Ramen" noodles. Add all the competing ramen clones made in Japan, Korea, Europe, the U.S., China, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia and you have an estimated annual world market of $10 billion U.S. Pretty good for a product with a wholesale price of twelve and a half cents.
Instant ramen wasn't a big hit right away. In fact when it was first introduced in Japan, it was considered a luxury item, six times more expensive than the homemade noodles available in Japanese grocery stores. Wouldn't you hate to be the guy who said, "This will never sell"? Momofuku's ramen arrived on the east coast of the U.S. in 1972 as "Oodles of Noodles." The next year came "Nissin Cup Noodles" in the convenient styrofoam cup, and soon hundreds of knock-offs.
The Chinese were eating noodles almost two thousand years ago. Some time later they were imported by the Japanese along with Buddhism and a few other handy ideas. "Ramen" is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters lo mein, which means "boiled noodles." Ramen was popularized in Japan by a 17th century samurai named Mito Komon. You can see Mito's actual ramen bowl and a reproduction of his favorite meal in the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum in Osaka, Japan. The museum that attracts 1500 visitors a day — more than Japan's national art museum. At this three-story museum and theme park (leave it to the Japanese) you will also see a reproduction of Momofuku's first ramen laboratory with original machine and tools, an assortment of ramen bowls and utensils, and a row of shops each selling a different ramen specialty. You can watch ramen being made and even make it yourself with a little handcranked machine. Here's more info on Momofuku Ando and his museum, and a picture of visitors making ramen.
Some people think that each package of ramen contains one incredibly long noodle curled and coiled into a solid block. Not so, according to The Book of Ramen: Low Cost Gourmet Meals Using Instant Ramen Noodles by Ron Konzak (Turtleback Books). A man of scientific bent, Ron selected a package of ramen noodles, boiled it and carefully took it apart. "I found that the package contained eighty strands of curly noodles 5/64" (2 mm) diameter that, when straightened out, measured approximately 16" (40 cm.) in length. This would indicate that the noodle dough was extruded through eighty nipples into continuous rows, and cut into uniform lengths. The eighty curly noodles, cut to length, were then folded over once before being dropped into a mold, lightly fried, dried, and packaged with a flavor packet insert. Each package, when boiled, stretched out and laid end to end contains about 100 linear feet of noodles." Good work, Ron! This book also contains ramen trivia and a number of creative recipes for ramen, if you ever get tired of using the little flavor packet.
Ramen noodles unfortunately are not very good for you. Each package contains about 1560 mg of sodium. To remove the water and form them into blocks, they are deep fried in palm oil which is about the most saturated fat there is. Look in your local Asian food store, though, and you may find some that are baked or freeze dried without the oil. Check the ingredients — about 720 different varieties/flavors of ramen are available. For what it's worth, the average Japanese eats about 45 packages a year and, other than sumo wrestlers, ain't too many of them chubby.