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Ramen museum an instant hit

By Hiroko Ihara
Staff Writer

Tuesday, Dec. 7, 1999

Mainichi Daily News

Visitors try their hand at making instant noodles at the chicken ramen workshop.

In a recent questionnaire on typical foods of the 20th century conducted by Tokyo-based JMA Research Institute, instant ramen noodles ranked first, far surpassing hamburgers and other pre-packed foods. In an effort to further familiarize people with instant ramen and to extensively explore the noodle culture that originated 2,000 years ago in China, The Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum was opened on Nov. 21 in Ikeda, Osaka Prefecture.

So far, it has attracted up to 1,500 visitors a day. "I hope young people, especially elementary school children, will learn about venture spirit and think and invent on their own," says Momofuku Ando, 89, founder and chairman of the instant ramen giant Nissin Food Products, at a recent news conference. "If you try very hard for five years, anybody can achieve something."

Embodying his views, the museum houses a reproduction of the laboratory where the "father of ramen," as Ando is known, succeeded in inventing Chicken Ramen, the world's first Chinese-style instant noodles, in 1958. He was 48. From concept to production took three years.

The noodle, which requires only hot water and a three-minute wait, was dubbed "magic ramen" and became an instant hit. Utensils he used while he was laboring to create it are on display in the lab on the first floor. "The idea was turned down by the academic circles. So I worked alone from dawn to midnight every day to discover an effective way to quickly dry noodles, while keeping quality."

After considerable trial and error, he found out that, like tempura, deep-frying boiled noodles in very hot oil can remove water from them. Before they are eaten, numerous small holes on the surface allow the added hot water to quickly penetrate and return the noodles to their original condition. Also on display are various memorabilia illustrating the history of the revolutionary food.

On the second floor, visitors are treated to a workshop in which they can actually make Chicken Ramen - they knead and spread dough using a rolling pin and a rolling machine. The dough is then cut into fine strips, steamed, mixed with soup and finally deep-fried. The activity plus the finished ramen is free for elementary school children and younger, and costs 300 yen for high school students and older.

'I'd appreciate if visitors were interested in how I recovered after I lost everything," says Ando. When the credit bank in which he was the managing director went bankrupt, he, extremely distressed, remembered a scene during difficult postwar times - a long line of hungry people patiently waiting for a bowl of ramen at a shop behind JR Osaka Station.

"I realized at the time how important eating is for us. We can't live in peace without sufficient food. So I decided to start a business to produce safe, tasty and inexpensive food like mother's cooking, especially something that would quickly and easily sate hunger."

His decision at the time led to Nissin's 300 billion yen in annual sales now. Another innovation came in 1971 - use of polystyrene containers that enabled Nissin to sell noodles as a complete package.

"In 1966, when we were promoting our products in the United States, I saw American buyers sampling them using a paper cup and a fork. I thought, 'that's it!' " says Ando. With their convenient container, 6.6 million Cup Noodles are produced a day in Japan.

In 1992, the third invention occurred - the creation of long-life fresh noodles including Rao ramen, Spa-O spaghetti and Gonbuto udon. Meanwhile, frozen noodles for the microwave oven are the company's "fourth generation" products.

According to its annual report, Nissin has established an international network including 25 factories in eight countries. About 40 billion instant ramen a year sell in over 100 countries, securing a share of over 40 percent of this competitive market. Products sold in each country are designed to meet the tastes of local people. In the United States, for example, the length of noodles is shorter than in Japan. In Brazil, 75 percent of products are soup-type. Masala-flavored products sell well in India. The factory in The Netherlands tries to meet the demand of each country across Europe.

In spring 1998, the media reported that polystyrene containers used for cup-type noodles may release environmental hormones and the reports affected the company sales. "These containers' safety has been proven by the Health and Welfare Ministry, the Environmental Agency and at a JAS public hearing," says Nissin President Koki Ando.

"There are various standards and ideas about safety, but we need to set up proper and fair safety guidelines. I'm afraid people these days subjectively think that what they believe and feel is good. Such a trend reflects distrust in science. Safety should be proven by scientific studies."

The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily except on Tuesdays and from Dec. 28 to Jan. 5. Admission is free. Reservations are necessary for the ramen-making workshop (available from Wednesday to Sunday) a week in advance or earlier. It is seven minutes' walk south of Hankyu Ikeda Station. Tel: 0727-52-0825.

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