Someone had to feed Asia's economic miracle. All those construction workers with 10 minutes between shifts and those salarymen hunched over their desks at midnight needed something cheap, something filling and, most of all, something fast. In 1958, Momofuku Ando, an unassuming entrepreneur living in Osaka, created the instant noodle and a continent has been feasting on his invention ever since.
Ando's instant noodles debuted in a Japan still reeling from World War II. Chikin Ramen, as the deep-fried pasta was first called, was viewed as a luxurious novelty item, akin to astronaut ice cream or pre-swirled PB&J. Who would choose a slab of dehydrated noodles over the then-cheaper fresh stuff? The answer was many millions of time-pressed individuals. As Japan sprinted into the high-tech age, instant, it turned out, was just the right speed. In 2005, 85.7 billion packs of instant noodles were slurped down worldwide.
Last year, Ando resigned as chairman of Nissin Food Products Co., the firm he founded. He was a mere 95 years old upon his retirement. Having invented Chikin Ramen at age 48 and the cup noodle at 61, Ando admits he was a late bloomer. Before he began experimenting with a vat of oil and oodles of noodles in the 1950s, Ando had dabbled unsuccessfully in business ventures ranging from salt to prefab houses. Then came two years in jail for tax evasion. Invention may not normally spring from an ex-con's backyard laboratory, but postwar Japan was a forgiving and hungry place. Companies implicated in wartime activity were reborn as purveyors of sleek electronic gadgets, while even the Emperor in whose name millions of soldiers had perished was given a makeover.
Ando was born in 1910 in Taiwan, then a Japanese colony. He returned as a small child to Japan after his parents died. The country he arrived in was an imperial power, busily fashioning the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere out of a weakened continent. By the time Ando cooked up his backyard noodles, both he and the nation had endured humiliation. His instant-noodle recipe included not only flour, palm oil and MSG, but metaphorically, at least a sprinkling of hope, too. After all, it is that midnight bowl of noodles that so many count on to keep going a little longer, a little later, in pursuit of the Asian dream.