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You’d be hard-pressed to find a college student or an office worker who hasn’t enjoyed a quick, easy, and tasty meal in instant ramen noodles. This inexpensive and incredibly convenient food product was the brainchild of Taiwanese inventor and entrepreneur Momofuku Ando, who introduced these noodles to the world for the first time in 1958.
Ando was born on March 5, 1910, in Kagi, which is now Chiayi, Taiwan, when the country was under Japanese occupation. He was raised by his grandparents after his parents died when he was a child and grew up in Tainan, Taiwan, where his grandparents owned a textiles store. When he was 22, he started his own textile business and traveled to Osaka; shortly thereafter he became a Japanese citizen and entered Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto.
While he was a student, Ando founded a merchandising firm with money he had inherited from his family. In 1948, he was sent to prison for tax evasion and lost his company due to bankruptcy, but in an effort to rebuild his life he founded a new business in Ikeda, Osaka, Japan. The company produced salt.
By this time, World War II had ended and Japan was suffering from a food shortage; many people were forced to stand in long lines in the cold to get a bite to eat. Ando was surprised when he heard the Japanese Ministry of Health encouraging people to eat bread made by United States-supplied wheat flour. Noodles were more familiar to the Japanese; the Ministry of Health, however, insisted that the nation’s noodle companies were too small to supply what the country needed. Ando seized upon an opportunity; he set out to develop a production process for noodles himself that he hoped would help solve the problem.
Ando began experimenting with noodle-making on his own; he sought to make them delicious, inexpensive and easy to prepare. He finally came up with a method of making and moistening noodles, then drying and flash-frying them. Ready to eat in minutes after being covered with boiling water, these were the world’s first pre-cooked, instant noodles. Ando decided to flavor the noodles with a chicken broth which he believed would have mass appeal; he unveiled his instant "Chikin Ramen" to the world in 1958; that year he also changed the name of his company to Nissin Food Products Co., Ltd. Before long he had earned the moniker “Mr. Noodle.”
At first, Nissin noodles were pricey and considered a luxury item. Sales skyrocketed, however, after Mitsubishi Corp., Japan's top general trading house, helped promote the product in 1959 as part of an effort to get Japan back on its feet during the nation’s dynamic, post-war industrialization period. Ando, meanwhile, founded the Instant Food Industry Association in 1964, to help promote the instant noodle industry and to set guidelines for quality and fair competition. He came up with his most successful product, Cup Noodles, in 1971, which were distributed inside a waterproof, polystyrene container people could eat them out of. That’s when the popularity of instant ramen noodles exploded overseas. As production volume increased, prices steadily dropped. By 2004, annual servings sold worldwide topped 70 billion and Nissin’s noodles were selling at prices comparable to the cheapest bowls of noodles available in restaurants in Japan.
Ando opened numerous overseas operations, including his first, in California, in 1970, and expanded product offerings to include a wide variety of flavors. In 1999, he opened the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum in Ikeda, Osaka. He remained chairman of Nissin Foods until 2005; he passed away in 2006 at the age of 96.
He was honored by the Japanese government with several medals including The Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star, Second Class, in 2002. In 2005, he realized a dream when he sent vacuum packed instant noodles to space with Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi aboard the U.S. space shuttle Discovery.