Icon of the Month: Instant Noodles | icon 046 | April 2007

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words Charles Holland

So, farewell then Momofuku Ando (1910-2007), inventor of one of the world’s most incredible products: the instant noodle.

In 1958, after a largely unsuccessful business career including a period in prison for fraud, Ando developed the first instant noodle meal: dried noodles in a packet, complete with their own sauce sachet, which you could simply pour hot water over and eat. In 1971 he went one further and launched the cup noodle, where the packaging also formed the saucepan and the serving bowl, making it an entirely transportable meal. Both these have proved extraordinarily and globally successful. Ando’s company, Nissin Food, sold 28 billion servings of Cup Noodles alone in 2006.

Go into a high street grocer or supermarket almost anywhere in the world and you will see teetering piles of instant noodle packets. When Japanese astronauts went into space in the shuttle Discovery they took instant noodles with them. Forget the Futurist Cookbook, this is food as the ultimate Fordist dream. Could there be a better symbol of mass-produced, transportable, efficient, international modernity than the instant noodle?

Despite their staggering ubiquity, Ando’s noodles occupy a problematic place in our food culture. In fact it’s doubtful whether many of us would actually class them as a food at all. Instant noodles are most definitely a “product” and, these days, food’s cultural value lies in its claims to naturalness. Strange things are happening to how we buy and consume food, especially in the UK. The shopping habits of the urban middle classes, concerned by issues of health and ecology, have adopted a kind of bogus rusticity. Londoners now frequent the kind of specialist cheese emporiums and retro butchers that used to occur in our villages. Farmers’ markets fill vacant plots of the city like a cross between Archigram’s Instant City and the Archers. Urbanites stroll around at the weekends like ironic country squires plugged into Californian software, picking the greenfly off Bramleys and the mud off Maris Pipers. Back at home they order Abel and Cole organic boxes online. Meanwhile, out in the sticks, everyone is off to Tesco.

Despite this, somebody, somewhere, is still eating a lot of noodles. In the UK Unilever sells four pots of its very English version of cup noodles – Pot Noodle – every second. Its slickly ironic marketing campaign plays relentlessly on its negative connotations, celebrating both its artificiality and lack of sophistication. Look at the styling of the super-hot curry flavour, Bombay Bad Boy: a black pot with flames on it, the sides moulded to form purposeful-looking cooling fins – it looks like the business end of a hot rod. No tasteful use of tartan or “I’m home-made and good for you” schtick here.

Instant noodles flaunt their inauthenticity, revelling in their status as pure product, made in a factory and boxed by the millions. They are derided as symbols of a wasteful, over-packaged, over-sanitised, under-nourished culture. Removed from the source of our food, lost to the land, indifferent to the changing seasons, instant noodles are the ultimate enemy of the Slow Food movement, the Room 101 choice of celebrity chefs.

So, this is our contemporary version of modernity. A society complex enough to embrace the giddying effects of digital technology and to want its vegetables with the mud still on. And to eat 80 billion servings of instant noodles a year on the sly.

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