The surprising origin story of the iconic Cup Noodles

See a container of Cup Noodles at a comfort retailer and also you may suppose of dorm rooms and low cost energy.

However there was a time when consuming from the product’s iconic packaging exuded cosmopolitanism, when the on-the-go meal symbolized risk, a Japanese industrial meals with an American aptitude.

Cup Noodles, first marketed in Japan 50 years in the past, on September 18, 1971, with an English identify (the “s” left off as a result of of a translation mistake), is moveable on the spot ramen eaten with a fork straight from its white, pink, and gold cup.

I research how products move between America and Japan, creating new practices in the course of. To me, Cup Noodles tells a story of crossing cultures, and its transpacific journey reveals how Japan has considered America since World Warfare II.

A flash of inspiration

It’s a story broadly instructed in Japan: Cup Noodles was created by the similar one who invented on the spot ramen, Momofuku Ando, who based Nissin Meals in 1948.

Ando was born in Japan-occupied Taiwan and moved to Osaka in 1933. In war-torn Japan, he watched folks line as much as buy low cost bowls of noodles from stands in black markets. The noodles had been made out of wheat flour donated by the United States to make bread, a food more filling but less common in the Japanese diet.


Ando wished to make noodles that folks may simply eat at residence, so he constructed a laboratory shed in his backyard.

After a number of failed makes an attempt, inspiration struck in 1958. Whereas observing his spouse, Masako, frying tempura, he seen that oil eliminated the moisture.

He then realized that fried and dried noodles could be remoisturized when boiled. Seasoning powder and dehydrated toppings may very well be added, making numerous taste mixtures potential. Ando selected hen for the first taste as a result of hen soup appeared wealthy, nutritious, and American.

As a result of Ando’s “Chikin Ramen” cost six times the price of a bowl of fresh noodles, he had bother attracting buyers. His answer was to take his product on to the public by way of tasting occasions. Chikin Ramen caught on and later grew to become one of the most prevalent meals in postwar Japan.

In the mid-Sixties, Japanese gross sales of his Chikin Ramen—and spin-off merchandise like “Spagheny,” an on the spot spaghetti created in 1964—declined, partially, as a result of of market saturation. Ando then sought a brand new marketplace for on the spot ramen: the United States.


In the U.S. at the moment, Japanese meals like sukiyaki—beef and greens cooked in a hotpot—had been in vogue as a result of they appeared unique but match the basic American palate. Ando believed on the spot ramen may do the similar.

So in 1966 he traveled to the U.S. to advertise Chikin Ramen. He was stunned to see People break packs of dried noodles into items, put them into cups, and pour boiling water over them, fairly than put together Chikin Ramen in a pot and then serve it in a bowl.

However in Japan, consuming whereas strolling is taken into account impolite. It’s additionally tough to do with chopsticks. So Nissin determined to alter how folks eat. Every Cup Noodle got here with a small plastic fork.

Nissin held tasting occasions in Japan to advertise Cup Noodle and educate folks learn how to eat it. The most profitable was held on November 21, 1971, in Tokyo’s Ginza procuring district. It focused younger adults strolling the “Pedestrian Paradise,” Japan’s most fashionable street.

Greater than 20,000 Cup Noodle units offered in 4 hours.

Nissin additionally pitched the product to employees on the transfer, like the Japan Self-Protection Forces. Cup Noodle acquired an unintended media increase when protection of a hostage disaster known as the Asama-Sansō Incident confirmed law enforcement officials consuming Cup Noodle to remain heat.

Media protection of the Asama-Sansō Incident depicted law enforcement officials consuming from Cup Noodle containers. [Photo: Shotaaa/Wiki Commons]

Greater than a modern meals

Cup Noodle epitomized the dominant perception in postwar Japan that a greater life may very well be achieved by way of comfort and luxury, whether or not it was by way of home equipment like fridges and televisions or take-out meals.

Japan’s first comfort shops opened in 1969 and have become major entrepreneurs of Cup Noodle. Notably, Nissin held its Ginza Cup Noodle occasion in entrance of Japan’s first McDonald’s, which had opened on the Pedestrian Paradise 4 months earlier, on July 20, 1971. Cup Noodle was one of the first meals offered in merchandising machines in Japan, with the first Cup Noodle vending machine put in close to the Tokyo workplaces of the Nihon Keizai monetary newspaper in November 1971.

Over time, the manufacturing course of improved and costs dropped, and on the spot ramen grew to become a go-to meals for economically precarious populations.

Cup Noodle has deployed a number of profitable Japanese advertising and marketing methods. They embody releasing a gentle stream of new flavors—from Japanese consolation meals like hen teriyaki to unique fare like curries—together with attention-grabbing limited-edition flavors like “Cheechili Curmato” (chili, tomato, and European cheese curry, anybody?).

Entrepreneurs tapped into nostalgia and fan collaborations to assist promote the product. Nissin additionally adopted the fashionable Japanese promoting apply of hiring American celebrities to pitch its merchandise, with James Brown singing about miso-flavored Cup Noodle to the tune of “Get on Up” in a memorable 1992 television ad.

Cup Noodles hides its Japanese roots

None of these methods was used to promote Cup Noodle in the United States, nevertheless.

The product took a unique path in the U.S. by downplaying foreignness and vogue and by changing into an extraordinary American meals.

Cup Noodle was first offered in the U.S. in November 1973 at a time when Japanese merchandise like Toyota cars had been designed to be completely different from these made in America but simple for People to grasp, pronounce, and settle for.

In the U.S., a neon 60-foot Cup Noodles advert hung in New York’s Occasions Sq. from 1996 to 2006, a symbol of Nissin’s global reach. It represented the concept—widespread in Japan—that making it huge in America is the key to enterprise success.

In America, nevertheless, Cup Noodles has succeeded by hiding its Japanese roots.

Alisa Freedman is a professor of Japanese literature, cultural research, and gender at the University of Oregon.


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