In the year 2000, a polling firm asked Japanese citizens what they thought was the country's greatest invention of the 20th century. Their answer? Not the digital camera, the Walkman, the bullet train, or the Prius hybrid car. They chose instant noodles.
Not many foods can be considered "inventions," but ramen innovator Momofuku Ando was very proud of his creation. It took him months of scientific tinkering to invent noodles that cooked almost instantly.
He mastered this modern ramen in an attempt to feed his countrymen. After World War II, Japan experienced intense food shortages. The government imported bread from the United States, which Mr. Ando found odd. Why not ramp up production of noodles, a more traditional Japanese dish? Officials told him that, since the war, the Japanese noodle industry couldn't handle the demand.
This didn't sit well with Ando. "Peace will come to the world when all its people have enough to eat," he later said. So Ando sat down and started experimenting.
He spent months testing out flash-frying, a process by which you cook with very hot oil for short amounts of time. Ando thought this would better preserve the noodles, which it did, but it also opened the door for instant cooking.
After being boiled, flavored, and dried, the noodles were deep-fried in oil for two minutes at 320 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the Japanese news outlet Nippon. This flash-frying boils away the water inside the noodles so quickly that it leaves lots of tiny holes. These holes are the secret. When you're ready to eat the noodles and you mix in hot water, the water rushes into these small pockets, permeating the noodles much faster than normal.
As already mentioned, flash-frying ramen also greatly extends its shelf live. Once that extra water is boiled out, the noodles are much less likely to spoil, often lasting six months without any refrigeration.
Most instant noodles today still go through this flash-frying process. Scientists have improved the procedure over the years – for example, American manufacturers often prefer using hot air instead of hot oil. The American "blow-dry" method, which exposes the noodles to 176-degree air for 30 to 60 minutes, offers a lower-calorie alternative.
When Ando debuted his instant noodles in 1958, they were not a cheap snack. The original Chikin Ramen hit the market as a luxury item, priced six times higher than traditional noodles at the time. Costs came down over time, creating the easy comfort food that we love today.