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Commentary by our President, Hitoshi Shirai
Momofuku Ando, the founder of Nissin Foods who is also known as the developer of the brand’s “Chicken Ramen” and “Cup Noodle,” went on a journey in the later years of his life after retiring from his president’s position to explore the roots of noodles in the Eurasian continent.
Diverse varieties of food cultures have been transmitted between the East and the West via the Silk Road since more than 2,000 years ago. Having visited the famous noodle-producing regions and tasted many different types of noodles which exceeded 300 in China alone, Ando named these regions the “Noodle Road,” which extends from China to the Silk Road in the West.
About 6,000 to 7,000 years ago, wheat was introduced from Mesopotamia into China through the Silk Road. It was said that noodles made of wheat were first produced in China, and the noodle culture spread to the West during the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th century. Today, we still see unique noodle cultures existing in the regions heading towards the route from China to the Silk Road. Let us use the famous hand-pulled noodles made with brine water as an example. If we were to name some starting from east to west, there are the Fushan damian noodles of Fushan (west of Yantai in Shandong Province), yubei noodles of Zhengzhou (the capital of Henan Province), biang biang noodles of Xianyang in Shaanxi Province (the capital city during the Qin Dynasty), and Lanzhou beef noodles of the Hui people (ethnic minority who are Muslims) residing in Lanzhou of Gansu Province. Upon entering the Silk Road, we can find the lagman noodles in the Islamic regions including the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region as well as Uzbekistan of Central Asia that is further ahead.
In the history of communication between the East and the West on the Silk Road, noodles originated from China have probably spread along the oases from people to people and kitchen to kitchen for as long as several hundred years. While many aspects concerning the origin of pasta in Italy still remain unknown, there is a possibility that the noodle culture of China might have spread via Islamic regions such as Central Asia to Italy, where a unique noodle culture different from the East was developed, such as spaghetti, lasagna and macaroni.
Ramen, too, is a unique noodle culture of Japan that is thought to have evolved by adapting noodles that spread from China to suit the taste of the Japanese. Meanwhile, the Cup Noodle products that were developed by Ando in Japan are now widely accepted in China and have formed a new food culture in today’s world.
Not long after Xi Jinping assumed the presidency of China, the land-based “Silk Road Economic Belt” and the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” were announced in 2013 as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, which is also referred to as the modern-day Silk Road. Underlying this are the political intentions to rectify the economic disparity in China through infrastructure building, expand economic interests to Central Asia, West Asia and Europe, and secure new infrastructure-related markets due to excess supply in China in industries such as iron and steel, cement and construction. From the viewpoint of security, it is also important for China to develop westward where there is relatively less threat. This is to make provision for any possible attack on the coastal areas of China where the core political, economic and industrial functions of the country are concentrated.
At the same time, a well-defined greater cause has also been assigned to the Belt and Road Initiative in order for it to gain worldwide acceptance as the modern Silk Road. While people on the ancient Eurasian continent suffered hardships due to the frequent wars, the Silk Road has always remained a symbol of cooperation, friendship and cultural heritage. Having inherited the spirit of the traditional Silk Road, no country would express disagreement against the greater cause of peace and economic development. Also, China’s establishment of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and assumption of a heavy responsibility in funding reminds one of the Marshall Plan, which was implemented by the U.S. on western countries after the World War II and contributed significantly to the recovery of the global economy.
The U.S. established its hegemony in the international community during the post-war years by advocating freedom and democracy, as well as economic development through deregulation of investments and trading. However, it seems like the country’s confidence in the greater cause that it has set itself is now shaken. A look back into history reveals that straining the relations with its allies excessively would undermine the position of the hegemon. While there are concerns about the rapid growth in the economic and military power of China in recent years, what is most worthy of attention is probably the “conceptual power” of China, which represents the greater cause to move the world in the political and diplomatic arenas.
Chicken Ramen and Cup Noodles are registered trademarks of Nissin Foods Holdings Co., Ltd.
“The Cultural History of Noodles” by Naomichi Ishige (Kodansha, 2006)
“Journey across the Noodle Road” by Momofuku Ando (Kodansha, 1988)
“The Unknown Ramen Road of China” by Kazutoshi Sakamoto (Shogakukan, 2008)