I’ve been talking about writing this blog for a long time, and thinking about it for even longer. Well thanks to a recent trip to Tokyo and some extra time on my hands, it’s time to finally put my noodles where my mouth is.
Japan is infinitely inspiring and stimulating for noodle enthusiasts like myself. Whereas people in Toronto are all like, “huh? what? a whole blog JUST about noodles?”, people in Tokyo were all like “but which kind of noodle are you interested in?” In a land that is known for cultivating subcultures and fandom as well as taking great pride and care in its local cuisine, my trip to Japan kinda felt like a pilgrimage – a journey to one of the great noodle homelands where my devotion would be embraced and encouraged. As a case in point, where else would I be able to visit not one but TWO noodle museums?!
The Cupnoodles Museum in Yokohama was, for me, the coolest place ever. It was opened by Nissin in 2011 to pay homage to the company’s infamous instant cup noodles – you know, that one that used to be displayed on a giant billboard in Times Square. It’s basically a 3-floor noodle shrine. The first floor is dedicated to teaching about the invention and history of istant noodles. First, there’s a room called the Instant Noodles History Cube – a 3D timeline chronicling, in plastic package form, the historical development of instant noodles, from the very first package of chicken flavoured noodles, created in Japan in 1958, to the endless variety (I think it was actually in the range of 3000) of instant noodles across the world in the present. Beyond its design appeal, the display was actually successful in making me think about the social significance of cup noodles – they’re portable and cheap and one can have a full belly by simply adding hot water. Although perhaps not the healthiest, cup noodles are an accessible meal to many people.
After the history cube, there was the Momofuku Theater, where visitors watch an animated film about Momofuku Ando, the Japanese inventor of instant noodles. I’m guessing New York’s Momofuku is named after this guy. On that note, I’m sure you heard that Momofuku is expanding its empire to Toronto this summer, right? I’ve never actually been to any of their restaurants – not even noodle bar! – so am really looking forward to trying it – if it will ever be possible to get a reservation there.
Anyways, the film was adorable (so kawaii!) and informative. It was all about Momofuku’s toils in developing instant noodles, which took him about 30 years or something. First he had to figure out how to dry and preserve noodles (answer: flash-fry), which led to the first ever package of chicken flavoured instant noodles (it was called chikin ramen). But then, after a visit to the US, he was inspired to package his noodles in a heat-retaining styrofoam cup so that eating noodles would be as simple as peeling back the lid and adding hot water. Apparently it took a really long time to figure out the whole noodles in cup thing (the block of noodles always ended up crooked in the cup and could not be sealed), but eventually he did it (the key was dropping the cup inversely onto the noodles). And the results were obviously massively successful. The movie, and the entire museum actually, was quite endearing in its emphasis on perseverance, innovation and creativity as the keys to success.
After the movie, there was a bunch of cute interactive exhibits about the whole invention process and some cool visual displays. Like these:
The next floor of the museum was My Cupnoodles Factory where you get to make your own personalized cup noodles. First, you design the styrofoam cup with coloured markers. Then you choose your soup base flavour as well as the ingredients to accompany your dried noodles. You watch them assemble it all in the factory, and then they package it in this adorable inflatable bubble bag with strap to wear around your shoulder. Unfortunately, by the time I had arrived at the museum that day, all the tickets to the factory were already sold out so I missed out on the chance to make my own noodles 😦 It looked like all the kiddies were having a really good time. So jealous. Further along on that floor there was also the Chicken Ramen Factory where you get to actually make ramen noodles from scratch – but apparently that’s booked up months in advance.
THEN, on the third floor of the museum, there was the Noodle Bazaar where vendors sell eight different types of noodles from around the world (apparently inspired by the kind of noodles Momofuku Ando encountered during his travels in search of the origins of ramen). Pinch me! I couldn’t believe my eyes! Noodle fantasy come true! The noodle offerings were as follows: Pasta alla amatriciana from Italy (wheat pasta with a guanciale, pecorino and tomato sauce); Lagman from Kazakhstan (wheat noodles with lamb in a soupy tomato, pepper and paprika sauce); Lanzhou style beef noodle soup from China; Naengmyeon from Korea (cold buckwheat noodles in a sweet and spicy red pepper-based sauce); Beef pho from Vietnam (rice noodles in a flavourful beef broth that has been seasoned with various ingredients such as star anise, cinnamon, ginger, garlic and coriander seed, and often garnished with basil, bean sprouts and lime); Tom yum goong from Thailand (rice noodles in a spicy and sour broth that’s usually made with lemongrass, lime, galangal, fish sauce and chilis); Laksa from Malaysia (usually rice noodles, although sometimes, as here, served with yellow egg noodles – mee – in a coconut milk-based curry broth with tofu puffs, bean sprouts and hard-boiled egg); and Mie Goreng from Indonesia (egg noodles fried with garlic, shallots, cabbage, chicken and shrimp).
In order to get yourself some noodles, you had to first purchase a ticket from a vending machine and then pass it to the vendor who would cook up your meal. Ordering through vending machines is actually quite common at noodle shops and curry houses in Japan. Thankfully, there was the option for a half-portion so that you could sample several different dishes. I opted for three – Laksa, Mie Goreng and Lagman, since I had never tried any of them before. Despite Toronto’s diverse and abundant food offerings, there are not many/easily accessible Singapore, Malay or Kazakh places around. However, part of the purpose of this blog for me is to seek them out, so stay tuned!
To be honest, none of the dishes at the noodle bazaar were particularly delicious. They all lacked flavour, depth and proper noodle texture (shame!) and seemed to be toned down versions of the original dish.I suppose I shouldn’t have expected too much from a kid-focused noodle wonderland (btw, I forgot to mention that further along on that floor there was actually a noodle theme park with interactive games where kids get to see noodle production from the perspective of the noodles – ha). Regardless, it was still fun to try them all out.
Finally, after filling yourself with noodles, the last stop at this noodle Graceland was, of course, the gift shop. Lots and lots and lots of noodle-themed memorabilia, and all sorts of things with the Cupnoodle Museum’s red and white graphic logo, which kinda looks like three exclamation marks but I think is actually borrowed from the design band on the Cupnoodles cups. I bought myself some noodle coasters, a box of fancy instant noodles, glittery ramen stickers (why not?) and a Cupnoodles Museum umbrella since it started to rain as I was leaving. Still a little bummed that it didn’t fit into my suitcase to bring home. Here’s a smattering of some of the other noodle-themed gifts on offer:
And that was my trip to noodle land! Despite the mediocre noodles they serve, the museum itself was so much fun, really well designed and inspired some future noodle quests in Toronto.