How Ramen Changed My World (and Yours)

by guest contributor Matt Gross, originally published at Tripmaster Monkey

ramen momofuku andoI remember well the moment when I began to understand the awesome power of ramen. It was during college, and I was sharing a dim dorm room with Steve C. Liu, a towering Trekkie whom everyone called “The Admiral.” Steve was a bit weird (I’m thinking of his obsession with Disney heroines), but he was blessed with a Taiwanese mother who regularly delivered him an endless supply of Asian snacks: odd concoctions of dried tofu, vast Tupperware containers of sticky rice, and stack upon stack of dried ramen.

One night, Steve invited me to join him. He boiled some water, dumped dry noodles in a pair of bowls and a few minutes later we were slurping up gorgeously black-pepper-flavored ramen. I think the brand name was, believe it or not, Kung Fu.

From that point on, my life was changed. I stocked up on ramen at nearby Asian grocery stores, buying spicy kimchi ramen from the Koreans and vacuum-packed udon from the Japanese. I learned to crack an egg into the still-bubbling liquid, to shred scallions into the mix, to sprinkle on toasted sesame seeds. I bought bowls specifically designed to hold noodles, and I watched the movie “Tampopo,” a Japanese comedy about the wacky world of noodle-makers, again and again. (My girlfriend eventually named her pet kitten Tampopo.)

My story, of course, is far from unique. You, too, probably first encountered ramen in college, where it kept your belly full for as little as 25 cents a meal. You’ve probably added all sorts of condiments to a basic bowl of broth. But on the occasion of the death of Momofuku Ando, the founder of Nissin and inventor of instant noodles, it’s worth taking a look at his creation’s far-reaching cultural influence.

First, a quick history (culled from Ando’s obits): In 1958, the nearly broke Ando observed that fried noodles reabsorbed liquid very easily, and began experimenting with flash-frying techniques. Soon, he had Chikin Ramen—which sold for six times the price of fresh ramen! The product’s popularity quickly brought the cost down, and soon instant ramen was fulfilling Ando’s greatest wish: “Peace will come to the world when the people have enough to eat.” (Okay, maybe not quite.)

In the 1970s, ramen arrived in the U.S., and by the next decade became shorthand for the impoverished-student experience. Def Leppard released a song called “Pour Some Sugar on Me” that heard-of-hearing stoners misunderstood as “Pour Some Shook-up Ramen.” Cathay Pacific began serving Cup Noodle on long-haul flights. Technology progressed, too: I recently found a tiny, magically hinged plastic spork in a packet of instant pho.

And perhaps most surprising of all, instant ramen paved the way for the hifalutin noodle bars that are the biggest trend in New York dining today (the most popular is, fittingly, named Momofuku). From hunger-killing substitute to gourmet delight—that’s quite a journey in 50 years.

But this week, forgo the fancy, get on down to your local Asian grocery and pick up some tom yum noodles, miso-flavored ramen, or even just plain old chicken Cup Noodles. As the New York Times wrote, “They attain a state of grace through a marriage with nothing but hot water,” so break out the kettle and prepare to slurp-slurp-slurp your way to heaven—where you will, without a doubt, find one very happy Mr. Momofuku Ando.