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How Momofuku Ando invented instant ramen — and transformed Japanese cuisine

Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

Momofuku Ando, who invented ramen instant noodles, has become an unlikely hero to foodies everywhere. In addition to inspiring hip restaurants (and Google Doodles), he's earned the adoration of a nation. In a 2000 poll, Japanese respondents said instant ramen was the country's top invention of the 20th century. This month marks the 45th anniversary of the release of Cup Noodles in 1971.

Ando died at 96 in January 2007, but his legacy endures — not least due to the widespread popularity of his most famous invention.

How Momofuku Ando invented instant ramen in his 40s

Momofuku Ando was born as Wu Baifu in Taiwan in 1910, and after World War II he emigrated to Japan and took his new name. There, he pursued a medley of jobs — including sock sales and making salt — while tinkering with recipes.

But it wasn't until he was in his 40s that ramen inspiration struck. Ando provided a mythical origin story for his middle-aged dabbling in food, as Karen Leibowitz explains at Gizmodo. In his biography, Ando claimed he was struck by inspiration when he saw people huddled around a ramen stall in postwar Osaka. With food shortages rampant, he believed noodles could cure world hunger.

Of course, there are cracks in the corporate origin story — Ando didn't found Nissin until 1958, well into the postwar period. The product also got its start as a relatively luxurious convenience food, since the first "Chikin Ramen" sold in Japan cost more than fresh noodles did. (Ando's background as businessman wasn't as blameless as the corporate myth implies, either — in 1948, he went to jail for tax evasion, though he claimed it was for providing scholarships for students.)

Regardless of how altruistic instant noodles were, the story remains inspiring. They were the product of a 48-year-old tinkerer who invented flash-frying noodles so they could be quickly cooked in boiling water. Ando followed that with the 1971 invention of Cup Noodles, which were inspired by customers who reused coffee cups as ramen bowls. Instant noodles took off, and competitors like Maruchan built off the innovation.

Ando's philosophical take on running an instant-noodle company

Momofuku Ando at the Ramen museum in Osaka.

Momofuku Ando at the ramen museum in Osaka. (Kazuhiro Nogi/Getty Images)

Even though Ando was head of a big business that recorded $300 million in profits at the time of his death in 2007, he still enjoyed being an instant-noodle sage in between cups of ramen and rounds of golf. Occasionally, he enlightened employees by shouting, "What are you doing now?" at random intervals, but he also had a more serene approach to management.

His quotes, collected in an employee handbook, sound more like Zen koan than MBA-speak:

  • "The fundamental misunderstanding of humanity is believing that we can achieve all our desires without limitation."
  • "Peace will come when people have food."
  • "Eating wisely will enhance beauty and health."

But his most enduring quote, as loosely translated by Momofuku superfan Andy Raskin, may be the best to end with.

Mankind is noodlekind

What does it mean? Who knows. But it sounds delicious.

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