In a grocery store in New York’s Lower East Side, Coss Marte grabs items off the shelves. “Right now we’re looking for the Doritos, because Doritos and ramen [instant] noodle soup,” he says. “Get two bags, spice it up a bit… that’s how you make a prison burrito.” He pauses, staring at the plastic packs of noodles. “This really is survival food in prison.” Marte began dealing drugs in New York City when he was 12 years old; at 15, he was sent to prison for a year, the first of three such stints. During those stretches, he came to understand the importance of the starchy concoction dubbed the ‘prison burrito’.


In 2016, the role of instant noodles in US prisons was revealed by sociologist Michael Gibson-Light, who made the discovery while researching prison jobs. They’re coveted, and not merely as a casual snack: instant noodles have replaced cigarettes as the most traded item in many US prisons.

The United States has more known prisoners than any other country – 2.2 million at last count. It’s a huge market, and an increasingly hungry one. Prison budgets have been slashed, and most US jails now feed inmates only the minimum number of calories per day; many offer just two meals each a day on weekends.

“If you’re in prison and you want or need more food than you can get from the chow line, you have to buy it yourself,” Gibson-Light explains. “The costs of nutrition have shifted to prisoners themselves. Instant noodles are a go-to because they’re cheap.” Over time, noodles became so valuable that inmates began to use them as currency. “They’re easily stored and they’re non-perishable, so they can be kept for a very long time, and you would have almost like a bank account,” explains former prisoner Chandra Bozelko, adding that prisoners use noodles to pay each other for needful things – even, she believes, sex.

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Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise: instant noodles are both widespread and popular. Basic instant noodles are the cheapest items on sale in most prison stores, costing about US$1 for three packs. And it’s for similar reasons that, over the 60 years since their invention, instant noodles have also played a significant role in the economies of China and Japan, as well as becoming a familiar, even beloved food for anyone short on money, time or a kitchen. In their birthplace, Japan, they have repeatedly been voted the nation’s most successful invention, ahead of high-speed trains, laptops and LED lights.

Ramen became popular in Japan in the 1920s and 1930s as a working-class comfort food

The culinary ancestry of dried noodles can be traced back to an early form of ramen brought to Japan by Chinese chefs in the 1880s. In its most basic form, this dish comprised wheat noodles served in a soupy broth with slices of meat or tofu on top.

The original was eaten by the bowlful by both foreign and Japanese labourers, becoming particularly popular in the 1920s and 1930s as working-class comfort food. Over the decades, that simple recipe was continually adapted and enhanced by imaginative chefs flaunting their skills by making complex broths, perfectly textured noodles and an ever-expanding variety of toppings.

Need for noodles

The Second World War changed everything. Large tracts of urban Japan were destroyed by bombing; the US Strategic Bombing Survey estimated that 104,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped on Japanese cities between January 1944 and August 1945. The country was broken.

In August 1945, a week after atomic bombs obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese emperor Hirohito spoke directly to his people for the first time in a radio address (albeit pre-recorded) broadcast to the nation. He told his subjects that “the hardships and sufferings to which our nation is to be subjected hereafter will be certainly great”.

The broadcast’s poor quality, coupled with the formal Japanese language used by the emperor, meant that many who heard his words didn’t understand them. But even those people soon learned that their country had accepted the terms of surrender, and quickly came to understand the hardships they would face.

As the war approached its end, much Japanese infrastructure had been shattered. In the absence of a working government, the surviving population had to make do with meagre food supplies, and ramen noodles all but disappeared. Bombing had destroyed almost half of the infrastructure in Japan’s 60 largest cities, and left a large proportion of the population homeless.

People in Tokyo queue for rations of flour sent from the US in 1946
People in Tokyo queue for rations of flour sent from the US in 1946. In the years following the Second World War, Japan suffered food shortages and poor harvests (Bettmann/Getty Images

Historian John Dower noted that the surrender also came at a particularly bad time for Japan, just before the year’s rice harvest was due. Exceptionally poor weather caused the harvest to fail, with the result that even more people went hungry. Many families were forced to rely on thin gruel and watery vegetable soups. The truly desperate resorted to eating acorns, orange peel and wheat bran normally fed to livestock. The United States military formally occupied Japan from 1945 to 1952, and aid imported from the US – including wheat flour and vegetable oil – was important in keeping stomachs full at a time when rice was scarce.

Enter our unlikely hero: businessman Momofuku Ando. He had earned a fortune, first in his native Taiwan (at that time an Imperial Japanese territory) and then in Japan itself, making industrial parts during the war – but then lost it all. In 1948, he was convicted of tax evasion and went to prison for two years, though he always maintained his innocence. After his release from jail, he was head of a credit union, which also collapsed. Yet Ando was persistent: he wanted to rebuild his reputation and his fortune.

Around that time, he witnessed something that would change the course of his life. In Osaka, where he lived in the postwar years, long queues of exhausted people would wait patiently for bowls of steaming ramen noodle soup. It was an image that stuck in his mind.

Diners enjoy a late-night snack at a noodle cart in Tokyo, 1952
Diners enjoy a late-night snack at a noodle cart in Tokyo, 1952. The sight of hungry Japanese people queueing at noodle stalls in the postwar years inspired Momofuku Ando to create instant noodles (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Over a decade after the surrender, contacts in Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture told Momofuku Ando they were eager for Japanese people to eat more American wheat flour – the key component of US aid at the time. The Japanese Ministry of Health was trying to encourage citizens to eat more bread, but that campaign wasn’t working.

The memory of those queues at noodle shops resurfaced in Ando’s mind. What the Japanese needed, he thought, was a modern, speedy version of that working-class comfort food – a dish that used large amounts of vegetable oil and American wheat flour. He saw this as more than simply something to fill bellies, musing: “Peace will come to the world when the people have enough to eat.”

Instant phenomenon

And so in 1957, at the age of 47, Ando transformed himself into a food inventor. Every day for a year, he disappeared into a wooden shed in his back garden to experiment. Finally he emerged with a product almost identical in appearance to the rectangular bricks of instant noodles that are stacked on supermarket shelves around the world. He called his invention ‘Chikin Ramen’, and began to market it under the name of the new company he founded for the purpose, Nissin Foods. Other companies followed with similar creations. Instant ramen makers were savvy, turning cheap and abundant US wheat flour into product that could be sold at a mark-up in newly established supermarkets.

Instant noodles signalled Japan’s rise to becoming a modern economic powerhouse

The genesis of instant noodles marked a turning point in Japan’s history, mirroring its rise from a struggling nation to a modern economic powerhouse. And they came of age when Japanese households were filling up with new products. Electric kettles made it easy to cook instant noodles, commercials for which were broadcast into newly middle-class homes on brand-new televisions. In 1956, only one per cent of Japanese households had a TV. Four years later, almost half had one.

Effervescent advertisements from that age promoted ‘convenient’ new foods including instant coffee, frozen meals and curry flavour cubes. Some of Nissin’s first television promotions targeted mothers feeding young children, working bachelors and elderly people who were discovering the ease of consuming mass-produced food products. The Japanese diet never fully reverted back to a menu dominated by rice. Some observers have compared the proliferation of noodles in Japan to the long-term rise in popularity of pizza in many western countries.

A boy runs inside an exhibit made to look like a giant up-turned cup noodle pot at the opening of a cup noodle museum in Yokohama, suburban Tokyo, on September 17, 2011
A boy runs inside an exhibit made to look like a giant up-turned cup noodle pot at the opening of a cup noodle museum in Yokohama, suburban Tokyo, Sept 2011 (YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/Getty Images)

In 1971, Ando followed up his first invention with the product that brought him international success: the Cup Noodle. He was intent on boosting sales in the US, but American consumers at the time didn’t own the deep bowls needed for serving soupy noodles. On a return flight from the US to Japan, Ando noticed a peel-top container of macadamia nuts, and was inspired to create similar packaging for his noodles. The resulting cup noodles flew off the shelves. Demand for instant noodles grew during the 1980s, both in Asia and then in the US and Europe, with sales reaching approximately 15 billion servings annually worldwide in 1990. Today that figure is closer to 100 billion servings.

As instant noodles proliferated around the globe, marketers have taken pains to tailor them to specific markets, introducing flavours to make them seem local. In Thailand, green curry flavour is a hit. In Mexico, noodles are eaten with limes and salsa. There are interesting crossovers, too: in Japan you can try chicken-nugget-flavoured noodles; in Pakistan, pizza flavour.

A meal in minutes

For a large proportion of the planet’s population, noodles are an economic necessity. China is by far the world’s largest market for instant noodles, with demand long highest among migrant workers who left their homes in the countryside to work in the country’s factories and major cities. For some three decades, between 1978 and 2009, China’s economic growth stood at an astonishing 9.5 per cent a year, according to the World Bank. It was the fastest growth in economic history – but it relied on migrant workers with a makeshift lifestyle. If you were a worker at the bottom of the ladder in China, sleeping in a dormitory and eating canteen food, instant noodles provided a convenient, filling snack.

Today, it seems, the ‘instant noodle lifestyle’ is rapidly becoming a thing of the past in China. Sales peaked there at more than 50 billion servings a year in 2010, just after the Chinese economy reported record gains, but they have fallen every year since. Indeed, they were down 16 per cent in the past year alone.

Why? In 2011, Chinese government figures showed that half of the country’s factory workers lived in dormitories; just five years later, that figure had fallen to only 13 per cent. Some 60 per cent of those workers moved into rented housing with kitchens, enabling them to cook what they want, when they want – so they have less need for instant noodles.

Many Chinese people are also pushing to eat healthier food, echoing an increasingly global push for better nutrition. Food conglomerates are under pressure from consumers to overhaul their products, and Ando’s company Nissin is no different.

Momofuku Ando (1910-2007), founder of Nissin Food Products Co., poses next to a package of company's historic first bag of chicken ramen
Momofuku Ando (1910-2007), founder of Nissin Food Products Co., poses next to a package of company's historic first bag of chicken ramen. Recognising that US consumers didn't have noodle-friendly bowls, in 1971 he packaged his product in plastic cups (KAZUHIRO NOGI/Getty Images)

However, in a museum dedicated to Momofuku Ando and his creation in the Japanese city of Yokohama, there is little mention of the criticism that his invention has attracted in recent years. Here, a cardboard cut-out of Ando is surrounded by (and implicitly compared favourably to) famous historical figures: Beethoven, Marie Curie, Galileo. The display begs the question: does the creator of instant noodles deserve a place of honour among the world’s greatest figures?

Whatever the answer, it remains the case that instant noodles have become the global convenience food – the hot snack that’s always on hand for those short on money or time. Is there better food? Quite possibly. Even so, there’s a reason why the popularity of Momofuku Ando’s invention has endured for 60 years. As long as there are people living in dormitories, or shopping in convenience stores, or concocting meals in prisons, instant noodles will be there.

Celia Hatton is a BBC news correspondent, previously based in Beijing. Her BBC Radio 4 programme The Eternal Life of the Instant Noodle is available on iPlayer


This article was taken from issue 13 of BBC World Histories magazine