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Food as a lifeline: a rich history of instant noodles

The Japanese invention, which once saved the post-war country, after years became the best friend of students and currency in prisons.

Visitors to the Japanese Museum of instant noodles. Photos of Japan Times

In 2017, more than one hundred billion instant noodles were eaten all over the world. These are 13 servings per inhabitant of the planet. The product was created as a lifeline for starving post-war Japan, but over time became an integral part of the culture of student life due to its simplicity and low cost.

These qualities have allowed instant noodles to gain popularity in American prisons, where it competes with cigarettes for the status of the most popular currency of correctional institutions. The history of the “rise” of instant noodles was told by the BBC edition.

The main food product of post-war Japan

Laptop , high-speed trains , karaoke and VHS cassettes are just a few inventions that were created in Japan in the 20th century. A large role among them is played by instant noodles, which still controls about 5% of the global sales market. At home, dishes are served about 5.5 billion times annually, and noodles are most popular in China and Indonesia.

You can track the appearance of wheat noodles in Japan until 1880, when Chinese manufacturers brought ramen to the country. This dish is a noodle with broth and small pieces of meat or tofu. Over the years, the recipe has changed, entrenched in Japanese culture. Everything changed during the Second World War, when most of the road infrastructure in Japan was destroyed by bombing – the country was seized by famine.

As time has shown, a humanitarian catastrophe has made a hero out of a failed businessman, Momofuku Ando. A native of Taiwan under the rule of Japan, he made millions by selling spare parts during the war, and then lost everything. In 1948, he was sent to prison for two years for fraud, and then he stood at the head of the bank, which later collapsed. Ando did not retreat – he decided to return the lost funds and restore the reputation.

Momofuku Ando (center) in the later years of life at the Osaka Museum of Instant Noodles. Getty Photos

Ten years after the end of the war, the future inventor was asked to fulfill a government order. The authorities did not know how to push the Japanese to eat more food with the addition of wheat flour – a key product that the US supplied to the country as part of humanitarian aid.

Ando remembered the hungry war years and gigantic lines of exhausted people who were taking their modest portions of ramen. The businessman realized that Japan needed a modern and fast analogue of this product for the working class with the content of American wheat flour. In search of a solution, the 48-year-old Ando locked himself up daily in a wooden hut in the backyard of his house for a year.

Returning to civilization, the businessman presented something similar to that kind of instant noodles, which can be found in almost every store around the world. Initially, only well-off citizens could afford the product, but then it gained widespread popularity. Since then, three museums dedicated to instant noodles have been built in Japan. The largest and most recent company in Yokohama was Nissin, founded by Ando.

The exhibition at the Japanese Museum of instant noodles. Getty Photos

As Ando soon realized, the advantage of his invention was not only speed, but also versatility. Dozens of additional ingredients can be added to the dish to attract the attention of foreign buyers. Somewhere prefer noodles with basil and olive flavor, and residents of another country want seafood. For example, in Mexico, noodles are eaten with traditional salsa sauce and a slice of lime.

“Products have a very short lifespan, because the buyer always strives for the new. Therefore, we need to be very resourceful, ”says Nissin spokesman Katsura Suzuki (Kasura Suzuki). According to her, up to his death at 96, Ando came up with new types of his dishes, including taking part in the creation of “space” instant noodles. “He wanted to go beyond the atmosphere and bring his invention into space,” continues Katsura.

Two views on one dish

In Japan, a large community has formed around the invention of Ando, ​​and, like every community, it has stellar participants. Toshio Yamamoto, better known to fans as Ton Tan Tin, is considered the most famous observer of instant noodles at home. A fan of dishes from childhood, he worked as an engineer, but at some point his blog began to generate income and allowed him to quit his permanent job.

As Yamamoto says, he reviewed more than 6,200 kinds of instant noodles. Many manufacturing companies, including foreign ones, turn to it with a request to test new types of dishes. At the end of the reviews, the Japanese product charges from one to five points, where five points mean “perfect noodles.” According to Yamamots, he has not yet found a product of such quality. “Noodles should be perfect. The broth must be of perfect quality, and the seasonings are perfectly balanced to create harmony, ”says Yamamota.

The lowest score, 0.1 points, received noodles of the British brand Pot Noodle. Yamamota criticized all parts of the dish, ranging from broth and ending with seasonings. At home, this brand is the most popular among students and people of small income. Portions of Russian noodles with beef brand “Rollton” Japanese put 1.5 points.

Review of Rollton instant noodles

Of the 100 billion servings of instant noodles that were purchased in 2017, 38 billion are in China. Unlike Japan, the dish in the country is not immortalized, but there are dozens of passengers on the trains, clutching noodles in their hands. “This is a crap meal. Everyone knows that it is bad for health. I don’t like it, but it’s convenient to eat, ”said a young passenger from the Beijing train. Many representatives of the working class in China hold a similar opinion.

This is partly due to the living conditions in Chinese cities – in search of work in the megalopolises come millions of people looking for prospects. Not everyone has enough money to afford comfortable accommodation, so they stay in rooms in dormitories with a shared kitchen. In such conditions, standard cooking requires much more time and patience, so many turn to instant noodles, and then just as quickly get ready for work.

Despite the overwhelming popularity, the invention of Ando is gradually losing its audience. In 2017, global sales of instant noodles fell by 16%, including due to social changes in China. According to a researcher in the field of bromatology (food science) Meng Suhe, the decline in the popularity of noodles reflects the internal changes of its main consumer.

In 2011, when product sales grew, about half of the representatives of the Chinese working class lived in dormitories. Five years later, these left 13%, while many rented apartments with a private kitchen. “In addition, the Chinese have become less interested in convenience foods,” explains Maine.

Book in exchange for ten servings of noodles

Once the British, Kieran Dooley (Kieran Dooley) conducted an experiment to find out what happens to the body with constant use of instant noodles. He filmed his experience on camera, in 30 days dropping 11 kilograms. As the student recalled, he regularly experienced mood swings and was irritated. During this time, he tried not to use anything other than noodles, but once he allowed himself to miss three glasses of beer in a pub.

Thanks to the experiment, Dooley won the university competition (not specified exactly which) in documentary films. He almost does not speak about the results of the project, but he is convinced of one thing: “A person cannot live on one noodle. That is, he may try, but it will be more an existence than a life. ”

“But this food is really necessary to survive in prison,” said former prisoner of the New York prison Coss Marte, taking instant noodles from the counter. His words are supported by the study of Michael Gibson-Light, from which it follows that noodles practically replaced cigarettes as the main currency in US prisons.

Release of the prison life show, which tells about ten dishes using instant noodles

This trend occurred after cuts in the federal budget of correctional institutions: more than 2.2 million inmates in US prisons (a record number in all countries of the world) to one degree or another faced a decrease in daily rations. The quality of products suffered by convicts have long suffered. In their search for a solution, many turned to instant noodles sold in prison cafes.

“It’s easy to store and doesn’t spoil for a long time,” said former prisoner Chandra Bozelko. These qualities allowed noodles to seriously shake the status of cigarettes as the main prison currency. For example, Bozelko could exchange ten servings for the book she needed. According to her, some inmates paid for sex in this way.

In Russian prisons, prisoners can also buy instant noodles at local cafes. This option is popular, as many convicts complain about the poor quality of the main food. However, sometimes “food advantage” leads to conflicts between those sentenced.

Koss Marthe told how he saw killings of prisoners because of debts expressed in instant noodles. “It’s not about the thirty cents that this noodle costs. The point is in the principles. This is the currency within the system. ” Bozelko said she had forever refused this dish, but for Martha it plays a role. Once a year, he buys a product and mixes it with other ingredients like cheese or ketchup, and then he watches a TV show about life in prison.

The rest of the time, Marta is watching the diet. During one of the prison examinations, doctors told him that because of the critically high cholesterol level, he risks dying of a heart attack for five years. The man was sentenced to seven years in prison, so he refused junk food and went in for sports. After liberation, Martha opened the gym.

There are no names in the prison cemetery, only numbers. I did not want to die inside the system. I saw others die. This is pretty sad. Often, relatives do not even come [to the grave].

Koss Marthe
former prisoner of an American prison
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