If you were asked to list Japan’s biggest export concepts, what would you say? Undoubtedly consumer electronics would be there; cars too - after all, the country has made the production of complex goods into an art form, regardless of the weight of the yen.
But the reality is these goods pale into insignificance when you consider the success of one of its most simple and universally consumed concepts: the humble ramen noodles.
According to an enlightening new book, The Noodle Narratives: The Global Rise Of An Industrial Food Into The Twenty-First Century, over 100bn servings of ramen were sold last year alone across the world - equating to around 14 portions per man, woman and child on the planet.
This fact alone leads the book’s authors, anthropologists Deborah Gewertz of Amherst College, Frederick Errington of Trinity College and Tatsuro Fujikura of Kyoto University, to class the ramen phenomenon as “virtually unstoppable”.
In their book, Gewertz and her colleagues examine the history, manufacturing, marketing and consumption of the ubiquitous foodstuff and make the case that instant noodles will have an increasingly significant global role in the coming years.
What ramen lacks in nutrition it makes up for by being satisfyingly filling and tremendously cheap, which is no doubt the reason for the food’s success in developing countries like China, India and Vietnam, which are among its most prolific consumers.
“[Ramen] plays an important role in satiating hunger and in sustaining lives for many worldwide, including those hanging on under difficult circumstances,” says Gerwetz.
“As a protean food designed for quotidian consumption, instant noodles have already shown a remarkable capacity to ease themselves into diverse lives.
“We expect that the calories provided by the tasty, convenient, cheap, shelf-stable, industrially prepared instant noodles will remain important” as food becomes scarcer in the future.
By describing the biophysiology of human taste, the book provides an insight into how marketers penetrate new markets with industrial foods and analyses what it takes to feed billions of people.
The authors also examine why what they call “one of the most remarkable industrial foods ever” appeals to young and old, rich and impoverished across all countries.
“Instant noodles thus far have been virtually unstoppable—and, as such, their accomplishments are worthy of serious attention,” they observe. “They are telling in what they facilitate and reveal about global capitalist provisioning: they make a lot happen and show a lot happening.”
While the story behind the rise of instant noodles - which were invented in 1958 by Japanese businessman Momofuku Ando, who was looking for a way to industrially produce fresh ramen using surplus wheat donated by the United States after the War - and their impact on Western countries from low-income areas to university dorms is fascinating, perhaps the most revealing section of the book relates to Papua New Guinea.
Through data based on long-term fieldwork, as well as contemporary observation, interviews and studies, the authors explore the country, where instant noodles arrived in the 1980s, and provide examples of the roles of instant noodles there.
Not only do they find ramen a cheap and intriguing food option for the urban poor, who eat them for meals and while entertaining guests, and also use the included flavouring packets in other dishes.
The noodles, the authors observe, are transforming the poor into aspiring consumers of modern goods. Moreover, they have also been incorporated into rituals as solemn as honouring the dead.
But more than anything, the authors explore the growing role of “this humble form of salty, MSG-enhanced, oily, and sometimes sugary capitalist provisioning” in feeding the world’s poor as populations grow and food supplies become scarcer.
“Instant noodles will definitely not save the world, but they will continue to help a wide range of people deal with the often harsh exigencies of their lives. With some reluctance, we believe that this is for the better, not for the worse,” the authors conclude.