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The Noodle Narratives: The Global Rise of an Industrial Food into the Twenty-First Century

The Noodle Narratives: The Global Rise of an Industrial Food into the Twenty-First Century

by Frederick Errington, Deborah Gewertz, Tatsuro Fujikura

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Tasty, convenient, and cheap, instant noodles are one of the most remarkable industrial foods ever. Consumed around the world by millions, they appeal to young and old, affluent and impoverished alike. The authors examine the history, manufacturing, marketing, and consumption of instant noodles. By focusing on three specific markets, they reveal various ways in which


Tasty, convenient, and cheap, instant noodles are one of the most remarkable industrial foods ever. Consumed around the world by millions, they appeal to young and old, affluent and impoverished alike. The authors examine the history, manufacturing, marketing, and consumption of instant noodles. By focusing on three specific markets, they reveal various ways in which these noodles enable diverse populations to manage their lives. The first market is in Japan, where instant noodles have facilitated a major transformation of post-war society, while undergoing a seemingly endless tweaking in flavors, toppings, and packaging in order to entice consumers. The second is in the United States, where instant noodles have become important to many groups including college students, their nostalgic parents, and prison inmates. The authors also take note of "heavy users," a category of the chronically hard-pressed targeted by U.S. purveyors. The third is in Papua New Guinea, where instant noodles arrived only recently and are providing cheap food options to the urban poor, all the while transforming them into aspiring consumers. Finally, this study examines the global "Big Food" industry. As one of the food system’s singular achievements, the phenomenon of instant noodles provides insight into the pros and cons of global capitalist provisioning.

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The Noodle Narratives

The Global Rise of an Industrial Food into the Twenty-First Century

By Frederick Errington, Tatsuro Fujikura, Deborah Gewertz


Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95667-4


The Taste of Something Good

The circumstances of Ando's invention of instant noodles have circulated widely, with standardized versions of the story appearing in the instant noodle museums as well as in numerous publications, including Ando's autobiography, The Story of the Invention of Instant Ramen. Indeed, as featured in our conversations with instant noodle manufacturers, these tales have become a charter myth—a foundational noodle narrative—for a whole industry. Ando, it is said, envisioned a streamlined variant of a food already well known to his postwar countrymen from "real" ramen shops. However, unlike these "real" noodles, which required considerable time and attention to prepare, his instant noodles could provide his hard-pressed and often hungry compatriots with a quick, filling, and relatively inexpensive meal. But success did not come easily, and Ando experimented tirelessly in his backyard shack to make his product commercially viable, suitable for large-scale industrial production. As he states in his autobiography: "I set myself five objectives. First, the noodles should be tasty and palatable. Second, they should keep for a long period of time and be easy to store in the kitchen. Third, they should be easy to prepare. Fourth, the product should be inexpensive. Fifth, the noodles should be safe and sanitary since they were for human consumption." Here we describe how Ando was successful at meeting these objectives. As we shall see, instant noodles are well suited to capitalist provisioning not only because they are inexpensive to produce on an industrial scale but also because their physical properties appeal to a great many hard-wired human gustatory and olfactory pleasures. In this sense, Ando made us all collaborators in the success of his product.


Like most Japanese noodles, Ando's were made from wheat, an ingredient both familiar and inexpensive, given American food aid at the time. His primary technical challenge was to develop a method of precooking noodles so that they retained their form and were shelf stable, yet readily reconstituted and tasty. The eventual solution was to apply the "principle of tempura": to pass the noodles, already steamed and sprinkled with chicken broth, through a bath of hot oil. In this way, the residual moisture would bubble out, leaving the noodles dehydrated and porous, relatively inert and easily (instantly) rehydrated when immersed in hot water.

At least in its basic form, the technology of instant noodle production has remained relatively the same. And the variations designed to appeal to particular markets—the preferred color, firmness, seasoning, and means of delivering flavor (whether during processing, as with Ando's original method, or, more commonly today, from a flavor sachet)—can be readily incorporated into standard production setups. Instant noodle factories of at least adequate sophistication can be established throughout the developing world in places like PNG (though perhaps with the outsourcing of the flavor sachets).

The wheat flour normally used is made from high-protein (10 to 12 percent) hard wheat to produce a relatively firm noodle. If the noodles are to be enriched (restoring the B vitamins lost during the milling of the wheat) or fortified (with additional nutrients, such as vitamin A, calcium, or iron), appropriate ingredients are included in the flour. The flour is thoroughly mixed with water containing salt (for white coloring, taste, and preservative qualities) and a gum (for texture) to make a dough. This dough is then dropped onto a conveyor belt and caught up in an uninterrupted process. First, it passes through a series of closely paired rollers to form a thin, continuous sheet. (In the two PNG factories Deborah and Fred visited, the rollers and therefore the sheets were about a meter wide.) This procedure manipulates the dough both to facilitate the development of the wheat's gluten (for chewiness) and to bring it to a final noodle thickness of about one millimeter. Next, the sheet passes through a pair of sharply grooved rollers that slice it into noodle-width strands, which are given a slight wiggle to create a wave that allows quicker and more even circulation of hot water when the noodles are rehydrated prior to consumption. The wavy strands are channeled into lines—each the width of a package of noodles—and conveyed through a steamer to be briefly cooked: this gelatinizes the starch, improving texture, and denatures the proteins, fixing the wave in place. Emerging from the steamer still soft, the noodles can now be cut to their final package length. At this point, the blocks (cakes or pillows) of wavy noodles are ready for the final frying and drying. Still following the principle of tempura, the blocks pass for several minutes through a bath of hot (usually palm) oil. Then they are drained of much of this oil and allowed to cool before moving in regimented rows to a mechanical packager. There, often joined by flavor sachets, they are wrapped in an airtight film. Fried, dried, and sealed, they are now shelf stable.

Ando anticipated that instant noodles would become ubiquitous. As he writes in his autobiography, "I said to myself: 'Food knows no national boundaries.' I suppose that even then I already had a gut feeling that instant ramen would one day become a global food." The fact that Ando was right owes much to the physical properties of instant noodles that he perfected through his experiments—that they would be convenient, cheap, shelf stable, and industrially produced. It also owes much to his insistence that his noodles strike a widely appreciated and basic culinary chord that can be readily elaborated in culturally specific ways.

Yet how to do this? Taste is complex. Scientists writing about gustation, or taste sensations emanating from the tongue to the brain, have long agreed that four tastes—sweet, sour, salty, and bitter—are primary or basic: these are hardwired, in that our responses to them are inborn. In fact, the psychologist Jacob Steiner has demonstrated that, with near universality, newborns exhibit the same facial expressions when presented with each of these four tastes. Some scientists have also come to accept umami (which is a perception of savory) as a fifth primary taste.

Not all substances, though, can be readily classified according to these four or five categories. Indeed, because the receptor cells for different tastes work in complex combinations, what humans experience may be less a set of discrete essences than a gradient of sensations. The sometimes ambiguous line between (for example) salty, sweet, or savory has been fostered in many cuisines. In addition, the tongue and sometimes the mouth more generally perceive other sensations, such as fattiness, dryness, texture, and temperature. To make matters even murkier, the brain registers taste that derives from taste receptor cells found in the gut as well as on the tongue. Moreover, the complexity of taste derives from "olfaction," from the huge range of sensations registered in the nose, some wafting from the upper mouth. And to all of this must be added the effect of cultural, personal, and socioeconomic associations in determining not only if something tastes good, but if it is in good taste to think that something tastes good.

Part of Ando's brilliance, as we shall see, was to choose among the myriad gustatory and olfactory options to create an undemanding, mouth- and nose-friendly product, one so inexpensive in industrial production that it could become commonplace. By combining readily available components that tapped into universal human taste preferences he provided consumers with cheap yet enjoyable calories. Indeed, his hunger killer became quickly accepted even among those lacking a noodle tradition: it was easily affordable, filled you up, and tasted good enough. It had a lot going for it.


In his autobiography, Ando explains why he decided that his first commercial venture would be "Chikin Ramen," instant noodles flavored with chicken broth:

In those days, we raised some chickens beside the research hut in the backyard. Every now and then we had one of these chickens for lunch or dinner. Once, while a chicken was being dressed, it suddenly jumped violently. This came as a terrible shock to my son, Koki, who was watching the scene. After that he would not eat chicken, not even chicken rice, which had been his favorite dish, until one day when my mother-in-law prepared some ramen in a broth made from chicken bones. Not knowing it was chicken, my son ate it heartily. This gave me the idea of using chicken soup as the flavoring of instant noodles.

Come to think of it, chicken soup has been a basic culinary feature in both East and West for centuries [although likely not in Japan until the nineteenth century]. In retrospect, I think my decision at the time to use chicken broth stands to reason. By using chicken soup, instant ramen managed to circumvent religious taboos when it was introduced in different countries around the world. Hindus may not eat beef and Muslims may not eat pork, but there is not a single culture, religion, or country that forbids the eating of chicken.

To be sure, Ando may have slightly overstated his case, because there are those who eschew eating chicken and other meat for cultural, religious, and personal reasons. A frequently asked Internet search question is from vegetarians wishing to know whether actual meat is used in chicken-flavored instant noodles. The answer is that some brands use the real thing while others, as we shall see below, use artificial facsimiles. However, aside from the instant noodles explicitly manufactured for vegetarians, the usual goal is to make the meat flavors believable, since most humans enjoy the taste of meat and have evidently done so for much of their evolution. And, as Ando aptly realized, chicken is a popular meat flavor.

Chickens have long been widely appreciated (likely spreading in domesticated form from northeast Thailand before 6000 B.C.E.). According to the Firefly Encyclopedia of Birds, chickens are among the most prevalent of domestic animals, with an estimated twenty-four billion found worldwide in 2003. They are easy to keep in backyards or villages, stay fairly close to home, and can forage for themselves, without much human assistance. Though sometimes a mild underfoot nuisance, they are not threatening when full grown. Recurrently for their eggs and eventually for their meat, they provide protein in family-useful portions throughout their lives. Readily caught (at least by fleet-footed kids), they can be easily dispatched on occasion to provide meal-sized portions. In addition, they lend themselves to household production as well as to industrial production, where—often under less-than-humane conditions—they efficiently convert grain into protein. They thus provide a familiar and welcome taste to most people worldwide, especially when given local inflections with specialized seasonings. Although there are many other flavorings for instant noodles, chicken remains the most popular.

Moreover, chicken-flavored instant noodles do not only deliver a familiar taste and aroma. They also evoke, especially for many in the developing world, a widespread and fundamentally domestic culinary form: a hot soup as a one-pot meal. Even the meat and bones of aged chickens, when simmered with whatever is at hand, make a thoroughly cooked and flavorful concoction. All ingredients remain within the pot—an enclosed vessel symbolically appropriate for a group of immediate kin. Nothing is fancy, nothing is lost, and nothing is wasted as food is prepared for family commensalism. Convenience merges with frugality and informality. Indeed, in PNG, chicken-flavored instant noodles both suggest the image of such pots and become constituents of such pots as they and their flavorings are cheap extenders of whatever else the pots contain. And even if bowls or cups of instant noodles that are eaten in dorm rooms or at office desks in the United States and Japan do not evoke the chicken soup of one's mother or Koki Ando's grandmother, they may still carry with them some of the comforts of this soup: the ease when convenience, informality, and frugality are all mutually reinforcing.

A package of instant noodles usually reveals whether its flavors come from real chicken or an artificial facsimile. If real, the package's ingredient list will mention, for instance, "chicken powder." If artificial, the ingredient list will make no mention of chicken. To create chicken-flavored broth without chicken requires the specialized skills of food scientists known as "flavorists." They use a palette of various ingredients, including inexpensive vegetable proteins that substitute for more expensive animal ones. Often derived from soy and wheat (which should be mentioned in the ingredient list), these proteins are broken down ("hydrolyzed") on an industrial scale into short chains of amino acids. Blended, mixed, and seasoned according to a usually proprietary formula, these chains come to approximate the animal proteins found in chicken. (A similar alchemy is at work, for instance, in beef-flavored instant noodles.)

Since consumers rarely do direct taste tests to compare a bowl of homemade chicken noodle soup (or beef soup) to one of chicken-flavored (or beef-flavored) instant noodles (whether using real chicken or not), the taste and appearance need only be good enough—delivering value proportionate to the inexpensive price. Packages often deliver flavor prompts. For instance, packages of Nestlé-owned, PNG-produced Maggi instant noodles feature cartoons of cheerful chickens and benign bovines. More generally, the sensation of a chicken (or beef) broth is fostered by the appearance of the noodles: the flavor sachet of beef produces a darker color.

Verisimilitude in taste and appearance varies depending on cost. So, too, does inflection for particular tastes. Accordingly, the website of a Chinese company that creates flavor sachets for instant noodle companies claims competence in research and development and offers "chicken flavor ... chili chicken flavor, chili beef flavor, tomato flavor, mushroom flavor, onion flavor, shrimp flavor, seafood flavor, etc. (as [per] your requirements)."

Instant noodles (whether chicken, beef, seafood, or vegetarian in flavoring; whether spicy or bland in seasoning; whether firm or soft in texture) can thus be readily tailored for local audiences. These variations, though, depart little from Ando's initial formulation, which was designed for worldwide success. In this regard, the PNG-produced Maggi instant noodles can be regarded as typical in their components. Although the package advises that the soup be divided into two portions, the nutritional information is for the entire 80-gram package: the 520 grams of soup (which include the water) deliver 360 calories; 1,400 milligrams of sodium; 15 grams of fat (including 6.8 grams of saturated fat), primarily from the cooking oil; 45.2 grams of carbohydrates; and 8.4 grams of protein, primarily from the wheat. There is also MSG (listed as "Flavour Enhancer 621" in countries using the "European E" numbering system) and, in most cases (though not in PNG-produced Maggi noodles), sugar, which sometimes rivals salt as the first or second ingredient.

Ando tweaked culinarily acceptable (if bland) and generally inexpensive refined wheat flour to make a tasty, palatable, and moderately filling meal or snack—one that proved appealing to a broad range of people. Without salt, MSG, oil (especially palm oil), and sugar, instant noodles, as we show in some detail, would never have become so universally appealing, so great a moneymaker for instant noodle companies.


Though sodium is required for cells to function properly, high rates of consumption are linked to high blood pressure and increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease. In the United States, the recommended daily allowance (RDA) is no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium (just about a teaspoon of salt). Americans, though, consume at least 50 percent more than the amount recommended by U.S. authorities, and the Japanese consume almost 22 percent more than the (more lenient) amount recommended by Japanese authorities. A package of chicken-flavored instant noodle soup, for instance, would provide Americans with over 60 percent of their RDA for salt. Certainly part of the appeal (at least to some) of instant noodles is that they are salty. According to the psychologist Linda Bartoshuk, "humans love salt." Indeed, "many (but not all) who become deficient in salt crave it." An extreme case of salt craving concerns a boy who went so far as to consume salt directly from shakers. When hospitalized to discover what was wrong, the boy was unable to augment his diet with extra salt and died. He was eventually found to have an adrenal disease that made it impossible for his kidneys to retain sodium.


Excerpted from The Noodle Narratives by Frederick Errington, Tatsuro Fujikura, Deborah Gewertz. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Frederick Errington is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut. Deborah Gewertz is G. Henry Whitcomb 1874 Professor of Anthropology at Amherst College. Tatsuro Fujikura is Professor at the Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies at Kyoto University.

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