How Cup Noodles Became Instant Ramen For Americans Innovation

The original Japanese packaging emphasized English characters over Japanese characters.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

See a container of Cup Noodles at a convenience store and you might think of dorms and cheap calories.

But there was a time when eating in the product’s iconic packaging exuded cosmopolitanism, where the take-out symbolized possibility – Japanese industrial food with an American twist.

Cup Noodles – first released in Japan 50 years ago on September 18, 1971, with an English name, the “s” omitted due to a translation error – are portable instant ramen eaten with a fork. straight from their white, red and gold cups.

I research how products move between America and Japan, creating new practices in the process. To me, Cup Noodles tells a story of crossing cultures, and their trans-Pacific journey reveals how Japan has seen America since WWII.

A flash of inspiration

It’s a story widely told in Japan: Cup Noodles were created by the same person who invented instant ramen, Ando Momofuku, who in 1948 founded Nissin Foods.

Ando was born in Japanese-occupied Taiwan and moved to Osaka in 1933. In war-torn Japan, Ando watched people line up to buy cheap noodle bowls from stalls in black markets. The noodles were made from wheat flour donated by the United States for bread, a larger food but less common in the Japanese diet.

Ando wanted to make noodles that people could easily eat at home, so he built a lab shed in his backyard.

After several unsuccessful attempts, inspiration struck in 1958. Watching his wife, Masako, frying tempura, he noticed that the oil removed the moisture.

He then realized that fried and dried noodles could be rehydrated when boiled. Seasoning powder and dehydrated toppings could be added, allowing for countless flavor combinations. Ando chose chicken for the first flavor because the chicken soup seemed rich, nutritious, and American.

Since Ando’s “Chikin Ramen” cost six times the price of a bowl of fresh noodles, he struggled to attract investors. His solution was to present his product directly to the public through tasting events. Chikin Ramen caught on and later became one of the most popular foods in post-war Japan.

By the mid-1960s, Japanese sales of its Chikin Ramen – and derivative products like “Spagheny,” an instant spaghetti created in 1964 – declined, in part due to market saturation. Ando then looked for a new market for instant ramen: the United States.

In the United States at this time, Japanese foods like sukiyaki – beef and vegetables cooked in a pot – were in vogue because they looked exotic yet suited the American palate in general. Ando believed instant ramen could do the same.

So in 1966 he went to the United States to promote Chikin Ramen. He was surprised to see Americans breaking packets of dried noodles into pieces, putting them in cups and pouring boiling water over them, rather than making Chikin Ramen in a saucepan and then serving them in a bowl.

Upon his return to Japan, Ando set about making a new product inspired by this American preparation technique for sale in Japan.

On the go becomes fashionable

After much trial and error, the Nissin team devised a way to wrap a plastic foam cup around the center-placed dried noodles for easy expansion. Different flavors have been placed on the noodles to help them cook better and make them look like a fuller meal. The mug had a retractable lid inspired by a container of macadamia nuts that Ando had eaten on his trans-Pacific flight.

How cup noodles became instant ramen for Americans

Momofuku Ando

Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP via Getty Images

Otaka Takeshi, who created the logo for the Osaka World’s Fair in 1970, designed the mug to be cosmopolitan and avant-garde, with big English words in a red psychedelic font above small words. Japanese and with gold bands inspired by expensive plates. Cup Noodle included roughly the same amount of ramen as the dried wrappers, but cost four times as much because it was more expensive to make. The award made Cup Noodle look luxurious.

But in Japan, eating while walking is considered rude. It is also difficult to do with chopsticks. So Nissin decided to change the way people eat. Each Cup Noodle comes with a small plastic fork.

Nissin held tastings in Japan to promote Cup Noodles and teach people how to eat them. The most successful took place on November 21, 1971, in Tokyo’s Ginza shopping district. It targeted young adults strolling through “Pedestrian Paradise”, Japan’s most fashionable street.

Over 20,000 Cup Noodle units sold in four hours.

Nissin also introduced the product to workers on the move, such as the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. Cup Noodle received an unintentional media boost when coverage of a hostage crisis called the Asama-Sansō Incident showed police officers were eating Cup Noodle to keep warm.

How cup noodles became instant ramen for Americans

Media coverage of the Asama-Sansō incident showed police officers eating from Cup Noodle containers.

Shotaaa / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

More than a trendy food

Cup Noodle embodied the dominant belief in post-war Japan that a better life could be achieved through convenience and comfort, whether through appliances such as refrigerators and televisions or take out food.

The first convenience stores in Japan opened in 1969 and have become the main distributors of Cup Noodle. Notably, Nissin held his Ginza Cup Noodle event in front of Japan’s first McDonald’s, which had opened in pedestrian paradise four months earlier, on July 20, 1971. Cup Noodle was one of the first foods sold in vending machines. in Japan, with the first Cup Noodle vending machine installed near the Tokyo offices of the financial newspaper Nihon Keizai in November 1971.

Over time, the manufacturing process improved and prices dropped, and instant ramen became a staple food for economically precarious populations.

How cup noodles became instant ramen for Americans

People drive a mini steam locomotive through a Cup Noodle snow tunnel in Hokkaido, Japan in 2020.

Charly Triballeau / AFP via Getty Images

Cup Noodle has deployed several successful Japanese marketing strategies. They include the release of a constant stream of new flavors – from Japanese comfort foods like chicken teriyaki to exotic dishes like curries – as well as limited edition catchy flavors like “Cheechili Curmato” (chili, tomato and cheese curry. European, do you like it?).

Marketers have tapped into nostalgia and fan collaborations to help sell the product. Nissin also embraced the popular Japanese advertising practice of hiring American celebrities to showcase their products, with James Brown singing about Miso Taste Cup Noodle to the tune of “Get On Up” in a memorable 1992 TV commercial. .

Cup Noodles hides its Japanese roots

However, none of these strategies were used to sell Cup Noodle in the United States.

The product has taken a different path in the United States by downplaying weirdness and fashion and becoming regular American food.

Cup Noodle was first sold in the United States in November 1973 at a time when Japanese products like Toyota cars were designed to be different from those made in America, but easy for people to understand, pronounce and accept. Americans.

Americanized as “Cup O’Noodles” – and later renamed “Cup Noodles” with an “s” in 1993 – it contained shorter noodles that could be eaten with a spoon and less flavor than those offered in Japan. .

Nissin’s first overseas factory opened in 1973 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Today, in 2021, Cup Noodles is made in 80 countries and territories, each with their own local variations. For example, you can eat Masala Cup Noodles in India and Mushroom Cup Noodles in Germany. As of May 2021, 50 billion units of Nissin’s Cup Noodles had been sold worldwide.

In Japan, Cup Noodles now represent a mix of trend and nostalgia. Visitors to Japan’s Cup Noodles Museums can make their own personalized Cup Noodles. Popular characters like Yoda and Hello Kitty have sold Cup Noodles in Japan.

In the United States, a 60-foot Cup Noodles neon advertisement hung in Times Square in New York City from 1996 to 2006 – a symbol of Nissin’s global reach. It represented the idea – common in Japan – that becoming big in the United States is the key to business success.

In America, however, Cup Noodles has managed to hide its Japanese roots.

Alisa Freedman is Professor of Japanese Literature, Cultural and Gender Studies at the University of Oregon.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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