How ramen became instant lunchtime hit in Japan

How ramen became instant lunchtime hit in Japan

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Japan

It’s lunchtime and you’re looking for something quick and cheap to eat. But you have your eyes and mind set on either a big bowl of noodles, a hamburger, or curry and rice. Not to worry, you’re in Japan and all of these meals can be made instantly at the fraction of the cost of a regular meal.

Instant foods cover a wide range. Everyone knows about the noodles, but there is a variety of other foods. Recent improvements in freeze dried technology enables high-quality coffee, tea, skim milk, cocoa, juices and various soups to be processed into powder. Just add water when you’re ready to drink or eat.

Vacuum-packed technology preserves curry, soup, stew or even ingredients for various other dishes. And quick-freezing technology preserves shumai, gyoza, fried rice, pizza and French fries, along with various fishes and vegetables, in wonderful shape.

But, of course, when folks talk about instant foods, noodles are at the tip of the tongue.

“Instant noodles greatly help me hold down my meal expenses,” said Kohei Suzuki, a 40-year-old salary man from Tokyo. “I bought instant noodles for around 60 yen (54 cents) at a supermarket and cooked it at home, along with an egg and frozen vegetables. It cost less than 100 yen (90 cents).”

Suzuki serves instant noodles for weekend lunches almost every week.

“I have two kids,” he said. “Instant noodles for lunch is very helpful.”

Suzuki said he changes up the flavor of the instant noodles - soy sauce, miso and tonkotsu (pork bones) - so family members won’t get tired of a particular taste.

“I frequently eat a cup of noodles for lunch at the office,” said Chihiro Ito, 46, vice director of a Tokyo company. “When I need to work at the office during lunch, I go buy a cup of noodles and eat it while doing my work. I feel it helps me to save money.”

In fact, instant noodles is an inexpensive food. As of June 2019, the average retail price of noodles in a bag was 111 yen, and Cup Noodles was 193 yen, according to the Japan Instant Food Industry Association.

Suzuki and Ito both agreed that instant food helped keep the family spending down. But Ito said instant food does more than save money, it save lives.

 “I think instant foods sustain the lives of poor young people who are living alone and too busy working or studying to fix food,” Ito said. “Although eating only instant foods may hurt their health, the foods are saving their lives as long as they keep eating them.”
Although that might be a bit of an exaggeration, instant foods are a staple in many people’s lives.

Kunihiko Ishii, 57, an agency temp in Kanagawa Prefecture, admitted he’s lived on various cheap instant foods throughout his life. “With me repeatedly quitting and starting different jobs, instant foods helped me stay alive,” Ishii said.

Actually, the Japanese-Taiwanese inventor of the instant noodle, Momofuku Ando, invented the instant noodle to help feed the poverty-stricken in the post war chaos.

“I think the instant noodle is the most significant invention in the Japanese food industry in the post war period,” says Hidetoshi Hasuo, Secretary-General of the Japan Instant Food Industry Association. “There is no other Japanese food that has had such international popularity.”

Today, there are 5.72 billion servings of instant noodles consumed in Japan every year, according to Hasuo’s association. So, technically, on average, a Japanese person eats 45.2 servings of instant noodles every year.

Worldwide, 103.6 billion servings of instant ramen are eaten in one year.

The country that consumed the most instant noodles was China with 40.25 billion servings, the 2nd was Indonesia, the 3rd was India and the 4th was Japan. Can you guess how the U.S. ranked? It was 6th place with 4.4 billion servings, according to data from 2019 that was provided by the International Ramen Manufacturers Association.

In the States, instant noodles are often associated with young students.  According to Hasuo, in Japan, male bachelors in their 20s or 30s are considered the main users of cup of noodles, while the noodles in a bag are mainly enjoyed by children (cooked by their mother) for a snack.

“Mostly, cup of noodles are eaten at night, often after drinking,” says Jun Oikawa, 49, an employee at a ramen shop in Tokyo. “Although I don’t eat them much, I reserve a couple cup of noodles at home for when I’ve been drinking at night.”

 “In terms of instant food, countless variations of miso soup are also impressive,” says Yuko Endo, 52, a housewife and mother for three children. “In a supermarket, you will see at least 10 different miso soups in red or white flavor on a shelf. Just like me, I think most housewives use them to make the daily dinner for their family.

“Without instant foods, I can’t make my kids lunch boxes every day,” Endo added, confessing that she sometimes makes her kid’s lunch boxes using only instant foods.

I think it’s safe to say that she’s not the only one.

The father of instant noodles

Instant noodles were invented by Taiwanese-Japanese inventor Momofuku Ando and put into market under the name of “Chikin Ramen” in Japan in 1958.

He then developed “Cup Noodles”, a dried noodle block in a polystyrene cup for the world’s first cup-type noodle product in 1972. Those inventions brought a revolution in the culinary world.

According to Ando, ever since the end of World War II, which left much of the world reeling under food shortages, he wanted to create a product that could be eaten anywhere at any time.

Surprisingly, when Ando’s invention was put onto store shelves, people initially saw it as a luxury product as it priced 35 yen, slightly more expensive than a serving of local ramen shop. But consumers quickly embraced the convenience of making ramen at home, and sales took off. Instant ramen became a staple food in Japan, and other companies joined the market.

Time Magazine featured him in its ‘60 years of Asian heroes’ in 2006.

Ando passed away in 2007 at the age of 96.


Award Winning Recipes

The Japan Convenience Foods Industry Association holds an instant noodle recipe of contest every year. For the 2015 contest held in February, there were 1,305 entries. After intense examinations, 12 finalists stepped forward for final competition in Tokyo.

Nana Shibuya, 17, a high school student from Fukushima Prefecture, won the championship Takumi Wada, 15, another high school student from Mie Prefecture, took second.

“Fukushima’s blessed koduyu ankake ramen”

Nana Shibuya said she made the recipe to highlight Fukushima Prefecture’s local delicacy koduyu soup. Her hometown, Koriyama City, consumes a lot of bonito flakes, so her recipes calls for a lot of that. “By combining the nutritious bonito flake, taro (potato), traditional green shiso flavored miso, I feel I could make a refreshing and somewhat nostalgic tasting noodle dish,” Shibuya said.

Ingredients (two servings)

  • One pack of instant noodle (salt flavor)
  • “Koduyu-an (thick sauce)”
  • 30 grams of carrots
  • 40 grams of konjak
  • 30 grams of lotus roots
  • 40 grams of frozen shiitake mushrooms
  • 20 grams of frozen cloud ear mushrooms
  • 20 grams of kidney beans
  • Ginkgo
  • Tofu
  • 30 gram of frozen shellfish adductor
  • Soy sauce and salt
  • Starch powder
  • Water
  • 160 grams of bonito flake
  • 120 grams of taro
  • Kelp dashi broth
  • Wafer
  • Green shiso miso
  • Yuzu (orange)
  • Japanese honewort
  • Fruit of the matrimony vine


 “Making Koduyu-an (thick sauce)”

  1. Dice up a carrot, konjak, lotus root, defrosted shiitake, defrosted cloud-ear and kidney beans into bite-size pieces and boil with ginkgo. Put tofu into water. Put defrosted shellfish adductor and shiitake into 200 cc of water. Mix half of soup paste that comes with the instant noodles with the water of shellfish and shiitake and make a thick sauce by adding starch powder.
  2. Bring to boil and add bonito flake, grinded taro, kelp dashi broth and the remaining half of the attached soup paste. 
  3. Boil noodle, cut finely and mix it with green shiso miso.
  4. Spread 2 on plastic wrap, put 3 and wafer-wrapped green shiso miso. Heat in microwave for 2 minutes and half in 600 w.
  5. Put 4 into a bowl, then pour 1. Finally, put yuzu, Japanese honewort and fruit of the matrimony vine

"Sakutto ankake sushi”

A unique fried roll sushi dressed by thickened “ankake” sauce containing various vegetables. 

Ingredients (two servings)

  • One pack of instant noodle (salt flavor)
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 asparagus
  • 3 shiitake mushrooms
  • 120 grams of fine sliced meat
  • 30 cc of sake, 15 cc of soy sauce, 80 gram of sugar (a)
  • 6 grams of sliced onions
  • 1500 cc of dashi broth
  • 80 cc of soy sauce
  • 1 sheet of nori (seaweed)
  • 200 grams of tempura powder
  • 40 grams of starch powder
  • 1 lemon


  1. Make 3 plum blossom shaped carrots; thinly slice remaining carrot (15 cm long). Using peeler, peel the asparagus and cut into size same as the carrot. Boil thinly sliced carrot and asparagus till soft. Then strain. Slice shiitake and put into dashi broth to boil. Add soy sauce and sugar.
  2. Wrap the thinly sliced carrot, asparagus and shiitake with thinly sliced meat. Skew it and broil. 
  3. Boil the plum-shaped carrot.
  4. Flavor 2 with (a)
  5. Cut welsh onion into round slices
  6. Boil noodle and move onto strainer.
  7. Mix attached soup paste with dashi broth and soy sauce, then boil.
  8. Wrap 6 and 4 with nori (seaweed). Skew it, cover with tempura powder and fry.
  9. Put starch powder into 7. 
  10. Put 8 and 3 into a bowl. Decorate it with slices of lemon peel. Pour 9 onto it, then sprinkle 5.

– Japan Convenience Foods Industry Association

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