Imperialism and colonialism in the food industry in East Asia: focusing on instant Ramen

One event of profound influence on the food cultures of Korea, Taiwan, and Japan after World War II was the supply of surplus wheat by the United States in the form of grants or on credit. In 1953 and 1954, American farms yielded an extremely bountiful wheat harvest. From the position of the US government, it was a surplus product. In the early post-war years, American surplus agricultural produce was given as aid to the countries of Western Europe. However, as the productive capacity of European agricultural industries quickly recovered, they no longer needed American surplus products. In this situation, Washington turned its focus towards Japan, Korea, and Taiwan as potential destinations for its excess farm commodities. The three countries shared important similarities: all of them suffered from shortages in staple foods and all three were under the political, economic, and military umbrella of the United States.

In 1945–1953, during the periods of the United States Military Government and the Korean War, the United States supplied a substantial amount of foodstuffs to Korea under the Military Defense Assistance Act (MDAA). For instance, between 15 December 1948 and 31 December 1949, the grant-type food assistance amounted to US$ 13million. From 1953 to 1961, surplus agricultural produce was supplied along with military aid under the Mutual Security Act (MSA). In 1954, the Foreign Operations Administration (FOA), which was in charge of planning American overseas assistance, shipped to Korea barley worth US$ 1.785 million, wheat worth US$ 2.007 million, and beans worth US$ 0.691 million. Korea received even more aid in accordance with the 1956 revised Public Law 480 (PL480). Barley alone amounted to US$ 13.863 million.

The circumstances in Taiwan and Japan were not much different. Inflow of American surplus wheat to Japan would eventually lead to the invention of instant ramen in the country. The historical reason making such an invention possible was Taiwan’s experience of Japanese colonial rule. Japan’s first instant ramen was developed by the founder of Nissin Food Products Co., Ltd., Momofuku Ando (1910–2007). Born in Taiwan, he started his own business in Osaka in 1933, married a Japanese, and was naturalized in Japan. There is a good chance Ando’s Chikin Ramen (chicken ramen) was inspired by jī sī miàn (鷄絲麵, shredded chicken noodles) of the southern region of China. In this way, the occupation of Taiwan by the Japanese Empire and naturalization of a Taiwanese as a Japanese citizen prompted the invention of instant ramen. According to Ando’s biography, he came upon a 20–30 meter queue in front of a black market food stall on a cold winter’s night; they were all waiting to buy a bowl of ramen. “The faces of the people who were slurping warm ramen looked happy. The Japanese really like noodles. Looking at the line in front of the stall, Ando got a feeling that there was a big demand hiding there. The sight printed a proto-image of ramen in his mind.”

Momofuku Ando developed his chicken ramen against the background of a surplus supply of wheat from the United States after the war. The Japanese government of the time actively encouraged the Japanese to eat bread made with that wheat. Critical of the policy, Ando said in 1947 to Kunidaro Arimoto, who worked for the Health Ministry, “With bread, you need toppings or side dishes. But the Japanese are eating it only with tea. It is not good for their nutritional balance. In the East, there is a long tradition of eating noodles. Why not also promote noodles, which the Japanese already enjoy, as a flour-based food?” To his bold question, Kunidaro replied, “Why don’t you solve this problem?” Ten years later, in 1957, Ando purchased a second-hand noodle-making machine, Chinese pot, 18 kg of wheat flour, cooking oil, and other ingredients, and embarked on a study of noodles that one can easily make, at his home in Osaka. Instant ramen under the trademark ‘Chikin Ramen’ came into being and entered Japanese stores the following year, in 1958.

In Korea, Samyang Ramen was first produced in 1965. The founder of Samyang Foods Co., Ltd., Jung-yun Jeon (1919–2014) had been interested in the Japanese ramen industry since 1965. He adopted the instant ramen technology of a Japanese company which, unlike Nissin Food Products, had the soup separated from noodles in the product, and put the ramen business into orbit with the surplus wheat imported from the United States. Making noodles for ramen once he had a noodle-making machine was not a difficult problem. The manufacturing process was relatively simple: he poured the water mixed with salt and soy sauce on wheat flour, kneaded the dough, spread it thinly, and drew noodle strips from the machine. The problem, however, lay in the quality of the flour. From 1955, the US government provided aid mostly with non-processed wheat, explaining the change as being due to the large stock of wheat in the United States. Milling it with Korean domestic technology of the time meant that the quality of flour was inconsistent. Consequently, it was hard to make uniform dough, and the noodle strips were often deformed or snapped. The noodles would then have to be fried in edible beef tallow or lard. To do so, Samyang Industrial Corporation processed the green oil obtained from slaughterhouses in-house or used soybean oil provided to the military. In the end, Jeon requested the assistance of the Korean government and was able to import edible beef tallow and lard from the United States.

In the case of Taiwan, American excess farm commodities were brought in from 1945. Wheat turned out to be highly efficient in resolving the food shortages. It was the main ingredient for staple foods to many Han Chinese who migrated from China’s mainland. Accustomed to noodles, the Taiwanese imported Chikin Ramen from Japan ten years after it was invented. Taiwan’s Uni-President Enterprises in cooperation with Japan’s Nissin Food Products released a ramen product with separate seasoning in 1970.

However, Uni-President’s ramen failed to attract consumers’ attention at first. There already were different kinds of noodles on the market and the locals who moved from the mainland after the 18th century consumed them as a staple food. It was only after Uni-President developed Tǒngyī-miàn (統一麵, Uni’s noodles)—a variety of ramen similar to yóu-miàn (油麵, oil noodles) which had a long history in Tainan—and coordinated its launch with a television commercial campaign in 1971 that people noticed the company’s ramen. To cook the product, one had to put the noodles into a bowl, sprinkle the seasoning over the noodles, and add hot water.

Momofuku Ando’s son and current president of Nissin Food Products, Koki Ando (b. 1947) posed the question of how instant ramen, a processed food product, could become a global hit. His own answer? “In every country, there is a cook who did his best to recreate [in ramen] the taste inherited in that country for generations. The product itself is convenient and easy to localize. In this way, ramen swiftly penetrated into the everyday life of people in every corner of the world.” Koki Ando considered localization the main reason for the popularity of ramen with five spices in China and ramen with tom yam soup in Thailand. When discussing Korea, he pointed out the spicy flavor of kimchi, selected by Nongshim Co., Ltd. for its Shin Ramyun, as a typical example. He said, “It is not simply spicy, as many Japanese would assume. We have tried several times, but it is very difficult for a Japanese to achieve such a savory spiciness.”

Thereby, every country has adopted the Japanese technology for making instant ramen and given the product its own flavor. However, instant ramen derives its basic production technique, marketing strategy, and distribution method from the Japanese modern food industry, which emerged in the late 19th century. The addition of American surplus wheat made the invention of instant ramen and its expansion possible. Furthermore, during the colonial period in Korea and Taiwan, the Japanese modern food industry acquired the image of being advanced, and this contributed to the rapid dissemination of instant ramen in those markets.

In short, it is no exaggeration to say that the combination of ‘old imperialism’ symbolized by Japan and the ‘new imperialism’ represented by the United States gave birth to instant ramen. Even though the colonial period was formally over, the flavors of food products spread by an empire in its colonies were continuously reproduced in their localized forms by the former colonial peoples after liberation.

Professor Young-ha JOO, Graduate School of Korean Studies, Academy of Korean Studies (duruju@aks.ac.kr).

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