Every year, tens of billions of instant ramen noodles are enjoyed – a simple meal that only needs the addition of boiling water. Veronique Greenwood looks at the invention of a food revolution.

There was a time in my life when I ate a bowl of instant ramen every single day. When you're a moody 13-year-old, sources of reliable satisfaction are in short supply, and when I wrote about it, I learned that I was not alone in relying on ramen to keep me afloat. Many readers wrote that it's a comfort food for them too – easy to make, consistent, and surprisingly delicious.

At the International Museum of Ramen in Osaka, hordes of people come each year to pay homage. A free-to-enter chamber of commerce for Nissin Foods, the makers of Cup Noodles and Top Ramen, the museum features a timeline of hundreds of Nissin products, from Chikin Ramen to Spagheny to Cheese Curry Cup Noodles. Ramen-related ephemera and tributes are also placed around the exhibit space on the way to the main attraction, an enormous hall where you can design and purchase your own Cup Noodles. My favorite oddity is a sculpture depicting—embedded in stone so as to suggest future archaeology—fossils, a cell phone, and a brilliantly colored Cup Noodles open and ready to eat, its noodles already held aloft by a plastic fork. A placard gives the sculpture's title: “Eternal.”

Instant ramen can seem so elemental that it's almost surprising to learn that it required inventing. But coming up with a shelf-stable, quick-cooking noodle soup was far from simple, or intuitive. The oft-told story of Momofuku Ando suggests it was difficult: the struggling Osaka businessman experimented for months in his backyard shed before launching Nissin in 1958.

The catalysing insight was flash-frying the noodles after they had been boiled, seasoned, and dried. Frying them zaps away any remaining water, increasing their shelf life. But it also leaves the noodles threaded with a warren of empty space. When they're tossed into boiling water again, the water rushes in, cooking them quickly and thoroughly in a few minutes. Contrary to the modern version, however, the first instant ramen noodles were not cheap. When Ando's Chikin Ramen hit the market, it cost more than getting fresh noodles at a restaurant.

Ando was a colourful character, a middle-aged tinkerer who had recently served two years in prison for tax evasion, and he gradually became a sort of legend, even as the price of instant ramen came down to more budget-friendly levels. “Ando promoted his product with a nearly religious zeal, as though he were on a crusade to feed the world – to end hunger with ramen,” wrote Karen Leibowitz in an essay about Ando for Lucky Peach. In 2000, when a Tokyo think tank put out a light-hearted poll for the most important Japanese innovation of the 20th Century, instant ramen won the title. (Pokemon was number eight, if you’re curious.)

You can get vegan instant noodles now, and there are flavours catering especially to the Mexican market

Traditional Japanese cuisine is in many ways the polar opposite of instant noodles. At an old-fashioned inn in Kyoto I stayed at recently, dinner was nine small dishes brought out one-by-one, beginning with a tiny collage of octopus suckers and red beans. Slippery jellies, exquisitely fresh seafood, and crisply grilled fish followed. It was delicious, and could not have been farther from the ramen of my youth. But despite this, the convenient noodles are a national symbol.

They have blossomed abroad as well, with nearly 98 billion packages consumed globally in 2015, according to the World Instant Noodles Association. For years, Top Ramen, Maruchan Ramen, and Cup Noodles were almost the only varieties available in many Western markets, but that has changed. Blogger Hans Lienesch has been rating instant noodles since 2002 at The Ramen Rater. He has seen an explosion in the types of noodles available in supermarkets and Asian groceries, which he attributes in part to companies meeting specific customer desires – you can get vegan instant noodles now, and there are flavours catering especially to the Mexican market. (Check out this Serious Eats article about the 10 weirdest, grossest noodles he's reviewed, including a gift sent to him by a British fan: Batchelor's Super Noodles, Bacon Flavour.)

One of the biggest changes Lienesch has seen, however, has been a move beyond the simple flavouring sachet tucked in alongside the noodles. In 2013, Prima Taste, a Singaporean company, sent him some samples to try.

“Their Laksa and Curry La Mian varieties were unlike anything I'd tried before,” he writes in an email. “Thick and chewy noodles as well as huge sachets of paste and coconut powder. They made the top of my annual The Ramen Rater's Top Ten Instant Noodles Of All Time 2013 Edition and blew me away. I remember talking to some people in the industry and telling them to get some to try – that this stuff was a real game-changer. It seems that since then, I've seen a lot of varieties including pastes, which makes the broths extremely rich and flavourful.”

Of course, some old habits die hard. At the museum in Osaka, thousands of people queue up to plop a brick of noodles into a styrofoam cup, choose their own broth powder and dried toppings – everything from beef cubes, peas, carrots and dried fried onions  – and have the whole thing sealed up to eat later. While no one would mistake it for high cuisine, it hits all those old, comforting notes—peculiarly satisfying.

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