Economic woes spark boom time for instant ramen

Justin McCurry Tokyo





Spicy tomato, seafood, teriyaki chicken, Korean barbecue, cheese curry. Or for those with a gargantuan appetite, an “American breakfast” – all served in a pot along with a block of air-dried noodles. When Momofuku Ando invented insutanto ramen in his back-yard shed in Osaka 65 years ago, he could have had little inkling that the simple, starchy convenience food would become a global staple. Ando, who died in 2007 aged 96, lived long enough to see the firm he founded, Nissin Foods, make successful forays into the international market with versions that cater to people with religious dietary requirements and incorporate local tastes. After the growth of a global appetite for regular ramen – seen in the spread of famous Japanese chains to the streets of New York and London, and the long queues of tourists outside shops in Tokyo – its pre-packaged cousin is now at the forefront of a second ramen boom. In 2022, consumers in more than 50 countries slurped their way through a record 121.2bn servings of instant noodles, according to the Osaka-based World Instant Noodles Association. In Mexico, demand soared by 17.2% in 2021 – when many people turned to instant noodles during Covid-19 restrictions – but still rose by more than 10% last year. The US, too, has embraced instant noodles, in part to relieve pressure on household finances from the cost of living crisis. “Middle-class consumers who did not eat instant noodles before are now incorporating them into their daily lives,” Nissin Foods said, according to the Nikkei business newspaper. As a result, Nissin and its rival Toyo Suisan recently announced the construction of production facilities in the US by 2025 to meet soaring demand there and in Mexico. “The number of consumers who regularly eat instant noodles is going up, and we will increase our variety of flavours,” Toyo Suisan said in a statement to the Nikkei. Nissin said this month it would spend $228m (£180m) on expanding its presence in the US, including a new factory in South Carolina to add to its existing plants in California and Pennsylvania. According to the Nissin group philosophy as handed down by Ando, peace will come to the world when there is enough food. Peace has proved elusive, but more of the world is tucking into his invention. The result of Ando’s eureka moment first appeared on the market in August 1958 as Chikin (chicken) Ramen and was sold in a cellophane pack. The noodles were cooked, then “watered” with chicken soup, seasoned and deepfried in palm oil to dehydrate them. Although they initially cost more than the fresh variety, they could be cooked in just three minutes and eaten at home. After a successful year of gauging consumer reaction in the Osaka area, Ando unleashed Chikin Ramen on noodle lovers nationwide. Decades later, they have become a genuine “global food”, according to Ichiro Yamato, an instant ramen expert who sells a wide range of noodles at his shop in Osaka. “If you look at postwar history, it’s clear that when the workforce expands, consumption of instant noodles also rises,” said Yamato, who eats instant ramen once a day. “It happened in Japan during the postwar economic miracle, when the workforce grew and baby boomers started eating instant ramen and giving them to their children.” On a recent afternoon, parties of schoolchildren and tourists learned about instant ramen’s evolution at the Cupnoodles Museum in the Osaka suburb of Ikeda, the food’s birthplace. Packages spanning more than six decades adorn the walls and ceilings, while the museum’s 900,000 annual visitors can make their own bespoke versions of Nissin’s signature Cup Noodle, more than 50bn units of which have been sold worldwide since its launch in the early 1970s. Yamato attributes the global appetite for what was once a go-to snack for hard-up students to manufacturers’ focus on local culinary tastes, whether it is the halal versions sold in Indonesia and other countries with large Muslim populations, or the addition of familiar flavours, such as nam pla fish sauce in Thailand or garam masala in India. While manufacturers continue to expand overseas, Japan will remain a lucrative base, said Yamato. “We’re seeing a move towards retro packaging that makes people feel nostalgic,” he said, noting that designs featuring Japanese kanji characters had proved a hit. “Worldwide, instant noodles can only get bigger, led by India and countries in Africa and Asia with young, growing populations.” He has developed a taste for a new range of thicker instant noodles, which he eats with fresh vegetables. The American breakfast variety, however, is unlikely to “come home” to Japan from the US, where it went on sale this year. “It’s a mixture of maple syrup, pancakes, sausages and egg,” said Yamato, who tried the concoction during a recent visit to the US. “I have to say, they weren’t really for me.”