nissin cup noodle: the original gangsta
Begin at the beginning, and so I shall. If Chikin Ramen is the granddaddy of ‘em all, then Momofuku Ando’s second son, Nissin Cup Noodle, is surely your great uncle with the railroad company and the deep pockets, the one who built the house your parents raised you in.
Devised in 1971 when the venerable founding father of instant ramen noticed American office workers breaking cakes of his beloved product into styrofoam cups and then cooking them with boiling water from coffee makers, Cup Noodle was initially marketed to the United States as a quick, take-anywhere meal for people on the go. I still remember clearly those early television commercials promoting the concept - koto music played as an animated ukiyo-e painting of a samurai sprung to life. The slurping ronin then morphed into an American dad at a baseball game, hungrily scarfing down his Nissin Cup Noodle from the bleachers.
As a marketing concept, it was inadvertently more effective than the Got Milk? campaign, as an entire generation of slackers and college students soon took to ingesting Cup Noodle (yes, it’s “Noodle” in the singular) by the palletful, too lazy even to wash the single pot and bowl required for properly cooking packaged Top Ramen.
As an innovation, Cup Noodle, like Chikin Ramen, was nothing short of brilliant, spawning thousands of styrofoam-encased noodle products over the years. We’ll get to those another day. Just north of it’s 35th birthday, it’s the original gangsta we’ll be considering here.
First off, let me clarify. You can walk into any supermarket or convenience store in America and pick up some Cup Noodle Beef Flavor for less than the price of a gatchagatcha capsule toy. Despite cosmetic similarities (both sport a red logo scrawl), today’s featured item is not that one. Rather, it is the version simply called “Cup Noodle,” rarely found outside of Japanese supermarkets and conbini, and it could hardly be more different. Instead of small cubes of dehydrated beef, there are large chunks of dehydrated pork and shrimp. There are bits of egg. There is an oily, distinctly “porky” shoyu soup that is closer to the mysterious “Oriental flavor” of Top Ramen than to the unidirectional, briny juice of Cup Noodle Beef Flavor. It’s a soup that goes down smoother; the MSG hits you less hard as thirty minutes later, you probably won’t find yourself thirsting for a quart of water.
Although Cup Noodle routinely ranks among the top flavors of instant ramen within Japan, is it worth the extra buck or quid or two if you’re buying it on import elsewhere? I definitely think so, and I have friends who likewise ingest the stuff on a regular basis. Give it a try; at most you’ll be out a few more capsule toys from the dispensers by the door.