Hungry? Just grab a cup of instant noodles and pour hot water into it. After waiting three minutes, the ramen is ready to eat.
This September marks the 45th anniversary of Cup Noodles, the “magic” instant food that has had a dramatic impact on food culture.
Since its debut in 1971, more than 40 billion packages of the popular instant ramen had been sold as of May, according to Cup Noodles manufacturer Nissin Food Products Co. The product is now sold in more than 80 countries, with sales outside Japan occupying roughly 70 percent of the total in 2015 in terms of volume.
Here are some factoids about Cup Noodles, the world’s favorite Japan-made instant food:
Who invented Cup Noodles?
Taiwan-born inventor Momofuku Ando, the founder of Nissin, came up with the idea of creating easy-to-cook ramen when he saw starving people lined up in front of Osaka’s black market noodle stalls in after the war.
Ando, then 48, came up with chicken-flavored, deep-fried noodles that could be quickly rehydrated in a bowl, naming the product Chikin Ramen, the world’s first instant noodles, in 1958.
Later during a demonstration in the United States to promote the product, Ando was surprised to see buyers at local supermarkets break the noodles up, put them in paper cups, add hot water and eat them with a fork. This experience made him realize the need to shed past concepts of how to eat noodles.
After years of trial and error, the first Cup Noodles debuted in 1971 with the familiar soy sauce-based flavor and red and gold package. The logo was designed by a Takeshi Otaka, who also created a logo for the Osaka Expo in 1970.
In Japan, the name is written in the singular, as opposed to the plural form more prevalent overseas.
How popular is the product?
Today, instant ramen has become so popular that some people regard it as the national food of Japan.
According to a survey in 2000 by Fuji Research Institute Corp. (now known as Mizuho Information and Research Institute Inc.), instant ramen topped the list of Japan’s best inventions of the 20th century, outranking karaoke, stereo headphones, CDs, video games, Pokemon and sushi.
In September 2011, Nissin built the Cup Noodles Museum in Yokohama’s Minatomirai waterfront district to display a wall comprising more than 3,000 packages of instant noodles, including foreign brands.
The museum conveys the history of instant noodles and of Ando, who died in 2007 at the age of 96. It also has a section where visitors can create Cup Noodles variations of their own by choosing the flavors and ingredients.
What drives its popularity?
When the original Cup Noodles debuted in September 1971, many people doubted it would take off because it was priced at ¥100 — or about four times more than packaged instant noodles. Also, some worried the product would lead people to adopt the “bad habit” of eating while standing up.
Given its low popularity with retailers, Nissin started distributing the product to such institutions as the police and the Self-Defense Forces. It even invented a vending machine that automatically heated them.
In November 1971, Nissin started selling the product on the street in front of the Mitsukoshi department store in Tokyo’s Ginza shopping district on Sundays, when its main street is closed to vehicular traffic. The place was attracting public attention because the nation’s first McDonald’s had opened inside it four months earlier.
Perhaps what boosted awareness of Cup Noodles the most was the February 1972 Asama-Sanso hostage incident perpetrated by the Japanese United Red Army, an armed revolutionary group, at a mountain lodge in Nagano Prefecture.
During the over 10 hours of live broadcasting of the crisis, which was watched by 89.7 percent of TV viewers at peak time, TV cameras repeatedly showed riot squad members slurping Cup Noodles near the lodge in the freezing cold.
The instant ramen also became famous for its unique but sometimes controversial TV commercials.
One commercial released in 2005 featured a boy holding a rifle on a beach. At the end, it showed the smiling boy and a girl eating Cup Noodles together with a message asking: “There are more than 300,000 child soldiers around the world. What can we do for them?”
The commercial was withdrawn later after viewers complained about its strong political message.
Are Cup Noodles healthy?
Nissin has been working to shed the product’s unhealthy image.
In 2009, Nissin marketed a low-calorie version of Cup Noodles to lure dieters, reducing it to 198 kilocalories — about 60 percent of the original — by using fiber-rich noodles and air-drying technology to dehydrate them without deep-frying.
In January, it released a veggie-rich, pork-flavored version and sold it at farmer’s produce stands in western Tokyo alongside their vegetables, claiming farmers deemed the new version to be “almost a vegetable.”