It is on record that Momofuku Ando (above) of Osaka, the founder of the giant food concern Nissin Food Products, invented instant noodles in 1958. What is almost never mentioned is that Ando, now 98, was born a Chinese named Wu Bai-fu.
Wu was born in Tainan, south of Taiwan, in 1910. He was the youngest of four children, preceded by two older brothers and a sister. Both his parents died soon after his birth and the Wu kids were brought up by their grandparents.
Bai-fu first learnt about business working in his grandfather’s cloth shop. He became a librarian after graduating from the local secondary school. At age 22, he persuaded his grandfather to give him his share of the inheritance and went North to set up a small firm importing goods from Japan. Two years later he went to Tokyo for his undergraduate studies and, while in Japan, helped to set up the first Chinatown business association in Osaka.
Little is known about Bai-fu during WWII. By 1948 he had married and had two sons, and started a food business in Osaka, the predecessor of Nissin. He changed his name to Momofuku Ando and integrated into the local community.
A decade later Ando perfected the technique of flash frying noodles then preserving them in a bag for future consumption. Instant noodles were born.
The product, ridiculed by other food makers, became an instant success in postwar Japan where it was difficult to prepare food in the traditional way. Almost immediately a dozen companies came out with rival products, but Nissin managed to stay far ahead on the strength of Ando’s innovations.
By 1971 Ando had invented cup noodles, or instant noodles in a cup. It was to become the single best selling food product in the world. Today billions are consumed every year from the military academy of West Point in the US to the construction sites in Israel to just about every country in Asia.
Ando, widely acknowledged as the father of instant noodles, made light of his revolutionary invention. With modesty typical of the Japanese, he attributed his success to a desire to be of service to mankind.
"I decided to devote myself to the food business when I saw people starving to death amid a post-war food shortage. I was sure the world could be peaceful only after having enough food. I invented instant noodles... because I could imagine how happy people would be if I delivered to households ramen they could eat any time, anywhere and safely. It was as simple as that," he said in an interview decades after the introduction of instant noodles.
For this, the Japanese owe a huge debt to Taiwan, for it was at the street side stores of Tainan where a young Wu Bai-fu gobbled down bowl after bowl of shredded chicken noodles that the mature Momofuku Ando eventually got the idea of turning noodles into instant food.
Despite his close links with Taiwan, Nissin had found it difficult to work with the Taiwanese. A high profile joint venture between Nissin and Uni-President, Taiwan’s largest food group and a major maker of instant noodles, was announced in early 2003 and dissolved scant months later.
Nissin, which was hoping to piggyback on Uni-President’s connections to penetrate the Chinese market, now has no choice but to venture into mainland China on its own.