Food shows Japan’s punk rock soul

By JOHN LEICESTER
Associated press

A Cup Noodle ice cream, made with the powdered Cup Noodle soup and topped with freeze-dried shrimp, onions, eggs and meat, is prepared for consumption at the Cup Noodles Museum in Yokohama, Japan. Sold only at the Yokohama Museum, the ice cream embodies a spirit of adventure in Japanese food. (AP Photo/John Leicester)

YOKOHAMA, Japan (AP) — Countries’ foods are also windows to their souls.

Take burgers. Hand-held, quick to assemble and tear down, they embody a quintessentially American idea that Founding Father Benjamin Franklin put to paper in 1748 and still excites ambitious people on Wall Street and beyond. “Remember,” Franklin wrote, “time is money.”

In China, food is so pervasive in the national psyche that people greet each other with the phrase “chi fan le ma?” ” – have you eaten ? And French food snobbery prompted famed omnivorous President Jacques Chirac once to say nastily to Britons: “You can’t trust people whose cooking is so bad.”

Which brings us to the Cup Noodles Museum in Yokohama, Japan.
Yes, there is such a place. And, yes, instant noodles have a lot to say about the Japanese traits of inventiveness, risk-taking, and openness to adapting and upgrading foreign influences that helped Japan recover from the World War II to become an economic, cultural and gastronomic titan.

Some of those same traits have also helped Japan pull off the unlikely feat – or madness, the jury is out – of hosting the Olympics amid the pandemic. Allowing 11,000 athletes to come from all over the world, some bringing the coronavirus with them, has been a testament to Japanese resilience, hospitality and flexibility.

Now back to ramen, with – excuse the pun – a pot story.

Japanese noodles originated in neighboring China, where they are called “lamian”. Over the years, Japanese chefs have elevated ramen to art, a mind-boggling array of flavors, textures, and choices.

In short, Japan absorbed foreign influence and improved it. It will be the same later with automobiles, gadgets and, for fans of “Demon Slayer”, “One Piece” and other manga, anime, to name a few.

Back to the noodles, though. Horrified by the food shortages that plagued post-war Japan, impoverished former credit union worker Momofuku Ando came up with the idea of ​​turning surplus American wheat into ramen that starving people could make with just hot water and a few minutes.

Ando’s eureka moment came while watching his wife fry some tempura.

This gave rise to the idea of ​​frying the noodles to dehydrate them.

Ando’s first instant noodles were launched in 1958.

Cup Noodles followed in 1971. The brainchild of this idea came during a study trip Ando took to the United States in 1966, when he saw consumers of his instant noodles rehydrating and eat them in paper cups. This according to Nissin Foods, the company founded by Ando. Cumulative global sales of Cup Noodles surpassed the 40 billion mark in 2016.

Ando died in 2007, aged 96. But his inventive spirit lives on in what must be considered one of the world’s most unique taste experiences: Cup Noodle ice cream.

Served only at the Cup Noodles Museum, in its fourth-floor cafeteria, it’s made with the same powdered soup and freeze-dried toppings—onion, shrimp, egg pieces, and meat—as used in Cup Noodles.

Museum visitor Noriyuki Sato, who tried it, described it as “salty-sweet”, neither here nor there. “I’m not sure that word has any meaning for foreigners,” he said. “It’s not sweet and it’s not salty either.”

But it’s a monument to out-of-the-box thinking and the Japanese talent for merging seemingly incompatible things into brand new ones. It’s hard to imagine an Italian ice cream parlor going so boldly off the beaten track.

Nissin Foods spokesman Kahara Suzuki said the ice cream – after tasting it one hesitates to call it a dessert – embodies “what I would call a punk rock spirit that a lot of Japanese people have” .

“Who would have ever had such an idea? I mean it’s very unique,” ​​Suzuki said. “You can see this punk rock spirit in every aspect of Japanese life.”

Definitely on Japanese plates. Some other examples include fruit sandwiches sold at convenience stores and popular rice burgers. Since May, they have been joined by rice pizzas, developed by Sachie Oyama, chief innovation officer and head of the menu innovation department at Domino’s Pizza Japan Inc.

Domino’s Deluxe version is, in effect, a pizza built on a base layer of compressed, pre-cooked Japanese-grown white rice, instead of a usual pizza dough base. The rice base is then covered with a rich tomato sauce and topped with traditional pizza ingredients: mozzarella cheese, onions, peppers, pepperoni and Italian sausage. Domino’s sells the product line only in Japan. Oyama calls it “a pizza you can eat on your own,” rather than sharing slices.

“The Japanese are good at rearranging things,” she said. “A combination with pizza and rice is not a strange thing at all.”

Maybe not. But foods like this help explain why Japan never seems to stop. After all, there are always new tastes to invent.

Diana J. Carleton