“Mankind is Noodlekind” ~ Momofuku Ando
Know what would really hit the spot right about now?
A warm bowl of instant ramen. Care to join me?
I can’t even guess how many years I’ve been going from “hungry to happy” with Top Ramen and Cup Noodles. They’re pretty unbeatable (and ubiquitous) as comfort food — quick, convenient, portable, shelf stable, cheap, tasty and satisfying. It’s the kind of thing you take for granted, the food that helped you get through college. 🙂
But do you know who actually invented instant ramen?
I first heard of Taiwanese-born Momofuku Ando in an article that appeared in David Chang’s inaugural issue of the now defunct Lucky Peach magazine (2011). What a fascinating and inspirational story! Anyone who’s ever slurped up their fair share of ramen should know the who, what, when, how, and why of what the Japanese consider to be their best invention of the 20th century.
Now, thanks to Andrea Wang and Kana Urbanowicz, hungry, noodle-loving kids can read all about it in a new picture book, Magic Ramen: The Story of Momofuku Ando (little bee books, 2019). They will see that because of one man’s compassion, ingenuity, persistence, and entrepreneurial smarts, people all over the world can make their own delicious ramen “anywhere, anytime” in just a few minutes. 🙂
It all started in Osaka, Japan, about a year after WWII had ended. On his way home from work one evening, Ando spotted a long line of starving people waiting in the cold at a black market ramen stall. Much of Osaka still lay in ruins. Those who couldn’t afford to buy a bowl of ramen “ate grass and bark to survive.”
Seeing these poor people made a lasting impression on Ando, who then decided to make food his life’s work.
The world is peaceful only when everyone has enough to eat.
Over a period of ten years, he engaged in various business ventures (making salt, catching and drying fish, feeding nutritious food to sick people), all the while unable to forget the hungry people he saw that night. When one of his business deals failed, he found himself penniless.
He thought about those people again, and “dreamed about a new kind of ramen,” one that was not only nutritious, but convenient and affordable for everyone. He took to his backyard shed and set to work, experimenting with different ingredients to create just the right type of noodle — one that wasn’t “too crumbly . . . too sticky . . . or too lumpy.”
After finally discovering the right mix of noodle ingredients, Ando turned his attention to making the soup. Traditional ramen soup took hours to cook; Ando wanted something quick and easy. He wanted people to be able to pour hot water on the noodles and have the liquid turn into hot chicken soup.
He tested many different methods, failing each time with noodles that were “too brittle . . . too soft . . . or too soggy.” Then he sprinkled soup onto the noodles with a watering can. “The noodles soaked up the soup and dried.” When he added hot water to them later, it tasted like chicken soup!
But the noodles were still too tough. It wasn’t until he observed his wife Masako frying tempura one night that he had his light bulb moment; flash frying the noodles was the answer! When he fried the noodles in hot oil, the water evaporated, leaving tiny holes. When he later added hot water, it “seeped into the tiny holes and softened the noodles.” After sitting for a couple of minutes, the noodles turned “tender and chewy.” Perfect! So, after months and months of trial and error, Ando had successfully created the world’s first instant noodles!
His family helped him make enough ramen to sell. Soon he was giving demonstrations to astonished customers, who witnessed first hand the magic of Ando’s ramen. Everyone — rich, poor, young and old, ate and loved it. It made them all feel better, happier.
In 1958, Ando’s company, Nissin Foods, marketed “Chikin Ramen,” the first instant noodle product, followed by Cup Noodles in 1971. Ando never stopped inventing. At age 91 he created Space Ram, instant noodles that could be eaten in zero gravity. “Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi became the first person to eat ramen in outer space, aboard the US space shuttle Discovery.” When Ando died at age 96 in 2007, Nissin Foods had become a multi-million dollar industry with offices and factories around the world.
Kids will enjoy (and drool over) this beautifully written, perfectly paced, charmingly illustrated book. They will like knowing that instant ramen was invented by just one man in a small shed rather than a team of faceless test cooks in a sterile lab. Furthermore, they will appreciate the emotional component to this story — Ando’s motivation. He never forgot and genuinely wanted to help the poor, starving people he saw in war torn Osaka. Despite many failures, he never gave up until he succeeded in creating a product that appealed just as much to peasants as to emperors.
Peace follows from a full stomach.
Andrea’s narrative brims with carefully chosen details that will engage readers from the first page. She has a knack for serving up interesting facts in a concise, appealing way, gradually building tension as Ando tries and fails, then tries again. With every page turn, readers will be anxious to see what Ando will do next. She does a great job of balancing the scientific aspect of food experimentation with Ando’s humanitarian aspirations (peace through food). This is nonfiction flavored with heart.
Kana Urbanowicz’s digital illustrations are rendered primarily in a muted palette of browns, tans, butter yellows, buff and taupe — the delectable colors of wood, wheat, egg, flour, and soup. Full page spreads alternate with comic book panels to document each step of Ando’s journey. There are lots of wonderful pictures of the various ingredients and kitchen tools Ando used in his many experiments, and in the opening pages we get a sense of the poverty and devastation the people of Osaka faced.
I especially love how Kana draws people — a few simple lines goes a long way for a wide variety of facial expressions, from Ando’s fierce determination, frustration, and eventual elation, to everyone else’s palpable joy as they slurp, slurp, slurp his tasty noodles. 🙂
And how I love her endpapers — in front, fetching drawings of ramen ingredients and kitchen utensils; in back, the finished product.
Magic Ramen is a marvelous blend of food, culture, history, science, and diversity with generous helpings of inspiration for aspiring inventors and a good reminder for all of us to never give up when pursuing our dreams.
The only danger to reading this book is that it will make you crave a bowl of ramen on the spot. Go ahead, you deserve it — it’ll only take a few minutes to make a hearty bowl of noodle-y goodness with your favorite toppings — or, if you’re in an even bigger hurry, just boil water for Cup Noodles. Either way, think of Momofuku Ando while you’re chewing, swallowing, and smacking your lips. Pretty amazing how one man’s humble invention became one of the world’s most popular foods. Consume the magic!
MAGIC RAMEN: The Story of Momofuku Ando
written by Andrea Wang
illustrated by Kana Urbanowicz
published by little bee books, March 2019
Picture Book Biography for ages 4-8, 40 pp.
*Includes Author’s Note, Pronunciation Guide, and Afterword
**Starred Review from School Library Journal**
♥️ Check out the Magic Ramen Teacher’s Guide
♥️ Lovely Friend Friday post at Kirby Larson’s site
♥️ Don’t miss this Kidlit 411 Author Spotlight featuring Andrea Wang
♥️ Enjoy this animation video created by Kana Urbanowicz:
* Interior spreads from Magic Ramen, text copyright © 2019 Andrea Wang, illustrations © 2019 Kana Urbanowicz, published by little bee books. All rights reserved.
** Copyright © 2019 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.