|It is most unlikely that any of you would have ever considered the scope and scale of instant ramen noodle sales around the world. Ramen is a Japanese dish consisting of Chinese-style wheat noodles usually served in a meat-based broth with various toppings such as sliced pork or dried seaweed and green onions. According to the record of the Yokohama Ramen Museum, ramen originated in China and came to Japan in 1859. Surprisingly, the author lived in Yokohama several years and was unaware of the ramen museum. Following World War II, the U.S. exported vast amounts of flour to address severe food shortages. The flour was secretly diverted from commercial mills to make ramen for sale in Japanese black market stalls which were under the control of the yakuza, or Japanese gangsters, like the market shown below.
In 1958, instant ramen noodles were invented by Momofuku Ando, the Taiwanese-Japanese founder and chairman of Nissin Foods. Instant ramen has been acclaimed the greatest Japanese invention of the 20th century by allowing ramen to be made by simply adding boiling water together with a flavor packet.
It is highly likely that all of us have enjoyed them as a quick meal and others relied on them for food in the early days of visits to Mongolia when the only alternative seemed to be boiled mutton. Moreover, the Mongolian motto twenty-five years ago was “Animals eat vegetables, we eat animals.” Vegetarian visitors starved to death unless they came prepared with handy instant ramen noodles.
Now comes the shocker-the Nikkei Asia Weekly recently reported that over 100 billion packets of instant ramen noodles are sold annually. In fact, there was a recent World Instant Noodles Summit hosted by the inventor, Nissin Foods, in Osaka, Japan. Whereas some 80% of the sales come from Asia, other markets are growing well with 5 billion units being sold each year in the United States. If you have not been in a Walmart located in a college town at the start of a new semester, you would be shocked at the massive instant ramen displays as well as the price. The image below was taken in Oxford, Mississippi which is home to Ole Miss in the heart of Dixie. One would not expect Asian food to be in high demand there, but the sale price indicates that a tasty noodle dish can be prepared in a matter of minutes for a cost of 16 cents.
Taiwan’s Ting Hsin International Group, which owns the Master Kong brand popular in Mainland China, is the leading seller of instant noodles worldwide with a 15% market share. Their display in a Beijing outlet is shown below.
Interestingly, the top four Japanese companies control only 20% of global market share with Japan accounting for only 6% of total consumption. The per capita chart below would be radically different if it reflected only U.S. college towns consumption.
There is plenty of criticism of the nutritional benefits of eating instant ramen. Moreover, the Japanese face a shrinking market in Japan due to a decline in the country’s population. Therefore, they are focusing on upgrading the dietary aspects of the noodles to increase fiber content and provide biodegradable packaging to be more sensitive to the environment. Nonetheless, the criticism of instant noodles centers on the sodium and MSG content and the general lack of nutrients despite a high calorie and fat component. However, if you were starving in a dorm room or on the steppe of Mongolia, they would definitely keep you going. Therefore, here is a toast of Genghis Khan vodka to Momofuku Ando, the creator of ramen instant noodles!