RECIPE FOR SUCCESS:Soup masters : English
By SAYAKA YAKUSHIJI:Contributing Writer
Masahiko Yamada samples his latest experiment at Nissin Food Products Co. central research center in Kusatsu, Shiga Prefecture.
Masahiko Yamada samples his latest experiment at Nissin Food Products Co. central research center in Kusatsu, Shiga Prefecture.

As instant ramen spreads around the globe, researchers in Japan continue to pursue the perfect taste. `You are not born with taste buds. It's something you build up.' MASAHIKO YAMADA Researcher of Nissin Food Products Co.

This is the fourth installment in a series on Japanese inventions and what they offer to the world in 2005.

KUSATSU, Shiga Prefecture-Inside his spotless laboratory, Masahiko Yamada carefully examines the results of his experiment. The concoction he has created could change the lives of millions around the nation.

Yamada, wearing a light green uniform, samples a glass of clear liquid scooped from the large metal pot containing two large chickens, onions, carrots, scallions, shiitake mushrooms and seaweed.

He pauses before evaluating the mixture.

``The soup's got the sweetness of the chicken,'' he says. ``They are broiler chickens, but they give their own good flavor.''

Yamada's job is to find the ultimate soup. After all, he was given the title of ``soup master'' from his company two years ago.

The title is warranted, according to those who know the 57-year-old researcher of Nissin Food Products Co. They consider Yamada a ``living god'' of instant ramen noodles.

The world's first instant noodle was created by Momofuku Ando, the founder of Nissin, in 1958.

In the 45 years after the invention, production of instant noodles expanded by 422 times and became a common part of the Japanese diet. On average, a Japanese ate 42.7 servings of instant noodles in 2003.

Easy-to-prepare ramen has also won international recognition, influencing global culinary lifestyles. World demand for instant noodles topped 65.25 billion servings in 2003, according to a survey by the International Ramen Manufacturers Association.

Researchers like Yamada are the keys in the development of the noodle products. At Nissin's central research center here, 17 soup experts toil day and night in search of new flavors.

In his more than three decades of working at the nation's leading maker of instant noodles, Yamada has been involved in creating soup seasonings for more than 100 products, including such long-selling hits as ``Demae Iccho'' and ``U.F.O.''

One of his recent achievements is ``Gyoretsu no Dekiru Mise no Ramen,'' which means ramen noodles of a shop crowded with fans.

It's not just broilers Yamada has tried out to find the perfect broth. He has tested sea bream, dried squid and soft-shelled turtles; anything that catches his eye can be a potential ingredient.

``Recently, I had a chance to go to a market in Kyoto. They had pretty good local vegetables,'' he says.

But being a soup meister is not easy. Whenever he takes a business trip, he feels obliged to check out local ramen shops, often six to seven a day. To figure out the secret of success, Yamada peeps into kitchens or

chats with the chef.

The trips can sometimes be ``just hellish.''

``Hokkaido is pretty tough. Their noodles are wide and hard. Once, I had to run to a drug store and get a laxative in between ramen shops,'' he says. ``Kyushu is easier. You can go for two or three rounds. Drinking alcohol helps, you know.''

The direct experiences are essential for Yamada's job.

``There are cookbooks written by famous cooks. But you can't recreate the same flavor by just looking at the recipe. What's really important is not in the book,'' he says.

And the competition in Japan is always close behind.

In 2003, at least 889 brands of instant noodles were marketed nationwide. With the rapid cycle of repackaging traditional brands and creating new products, about 200 flavors are developed annually by Nissin.

Coming up with the right seasoning can take several months. To prepare for the endless sampling session-researchers try out 30 to 40 soups (including noodles) in just one day-Yamada stays in shape. He recently completed a two-day marathon covering 80 kilometers.

``You are not born with taste buds. It's something you build up,'' says Yamada, who has visited hundreds of ramen shops around the nation.

Ramen, consisting of flour noodles kneaded with kansui water and served in hot soup, originated in China. Japanese packaging technology spread the ramen culture around the world.

``Chicken Ramen,'' the world's first instant noodle, was born after Nissin founder Ando witnessed people lining up at ramen stalls in war-torn Osaka. He saw a business opportunity in creating preservable noodles.

Fried noodles mixed with seasoning came handy in Japan during times of economic expansion. Busy workers wanted something quick to keep their stomachs full.

The Japanese creation proved useful in other countries, expanding to regions from Russia to Africa where ramen was not exactly part of the dietary tradition.

Nissin has also grown. It now operates 25 overseas factories in eight countries, including the United States, the Netherlands, Brazil, Indonesia and India. Seeing potential demand from the Middle East to Eastern Europe, Nissin predicts worldwide demand of instant noodles will reach 100 billion servings by 2010.

Like many other companies in the manufacturing industry, Nissin sees enormous potential in China. In 2003, 27.7 billion servings of instant noodles were consumed in China, accounting for more than 40 percent of world consumption.

Ironically, the inventor of instant noodles is struggling at the original home of ramen.

The majority of the Chinese market is currently occupied by Taiwanese and Chinese firms that can take advantage of low prices and distribution channels.

To gain a foothold, Nissin began producing its brands in the three coastal areas of Guangdong province, Shanghai and Beijing in the late 1990s. Furthermore, the company recently set up a research center in China, dispatching Japanese instant-noodle researchers to analyze and explore the needs of the local market.

Localizing flavors is essential for acceptance of the product. Nissin had earlier opened similar research centers in the United States and Europe to pinpoint the tastes of consumers there.

``For example, instead of soy sauce or miso flavor, chicken, beef, pork and seafood are the main soup seasonings in China,'' says Shinji Hiratani, manager of the international division at Nissin in charge of overseeing the Chinese region. ``Even the preferred taste of seafood is different according to the regions.''

While his colleagues are trying to figure out the ultimate soup abroad, Yamada waits patiently in front of the large pot in his lab in Kusatsu. The chickens have been cooking over a low flame for more than three hours, but Yamada says four more hours are needed before the end result is complete.

Yamada's patience and enthusiasm come from his ``belief'' in instant noodles, a dish he has adored from his college days in the 1960s. ``What's tasty is what's tasty,'' Yamada says. ``It's just that the flavor has not been in people's dietary habits.''(IHT/Asahi: January 5,2005)(IHT/Asahi: January 5,2005)