The Secret Payments Life Of Ramen Noodles

Ramen noodles — specifically, the instant kind beloved of college students and people with hangovers everywhere — probably doesn’t strike you as a product with a rich and glorious history. To look at the hard bricks of noodles and their little spice packets, it is likely hard to imagine that there could be all that much to say about them in their native form.

Sure, the nation’s major cities are increasingly populated by foodie types who’ve found ways to elevate the classic pack of ramen with all sorts of fancy flourishes. And if one is of a mind to pay $16 for a bowl, it seems likely enough that you could probably hear a doubtlessly gripping story of the brave chef who realized the future of food was incorporating cheap simple ingredients like ramen.

But other than the history of the specific bowl of ramen one happens to be eating right now, it’s not like those little packs of instant noodles have a long and glorious history of fighting the Cold War, comforting people through the worst disasters in history or revolutionizing commerce in prisons.

Actually, yes, ramen has done — or is doing — all of those things.


A Brief History Of Instant Ramen

Ramen noodles — though credited to Japan — are of Chinese origin. They were a food type common among Chinese laborers who traveled to Japan in the 19th century.

Instant ramen noodles, on the other hand, are of a distinctly Japanese origin, even if they kept the original Chinese name. They exist because the United States wanted to halt the spread of communism after World War II, particularly into Japan, and there was a lot of styrofoam available for cheap. The anti-communism thing mattered because the U.S. figured out that the best inoculation against communism worldwide was sending food to the hungry. The problem with food is that perishables don’t ship very well — and did even worse in the middle of the 20th century — so Japan, like many nations that were the recipients of U.S. aid during the 50s and 60s, got a lot of grain in the form of flour.

The problem in Japan was that white wheat flour was not a staple of a traditonal Japanese diet at the time, meaning they didn’t now what do with all that wheat. In 1958, Taiwanese-Japanese entrepreneur Momofuku Ando solved the problem by inventing instant ramen noodles. His Japan-based company Nissin packaged said noodles in the cheap available styrofoam and had them on grocery shelves in Japan shortly thereafter. By 1976, the American version, Cup Noodles, was for sale.

And if the Cold War birthed ramen, disasters nurtured it. Ramen went from popular food stuff to national phenomenon in Japan during a hostage crisis in the dead of winter during the early 1980s. The police negotiating said crisis were seen live on television eating steaming instant ramen in the midst of tragedy, which somehow made viewers want ramen. Soon, the brand had a global reputation for being a stable, transportable and basically pretty tasty food to have around in case of an emergency, whether that emergency was an act of God, man or self-inflicted stupidity.

And given instant ramen’s long and glorious history as part-food, part-practical solution, its newest evolution into currency is not all that surprising.


Ramen: Keeping The Wheels Of Prison Commerce Spinning 

When you think of things used for money in prison, your first thought is likely cigarettes, since they are sort of the iconic alternative currency of the incarcerated.

But you’d be wrong — for a couple of reasons.

The first is that prisoners have less need of ersatz currencies than they used to. The advent of smartphones, bitcoin and prepaid cards means that prisoners with sufficient outside connections (i.e., professional-grade criminals, as opposed to addicts or people with poor impulse control) can do a an awful lot of transacting with real currency.

Prison does need a physical currency, of course. Bitcoin doesn’t trade well on the block, and inmates don’t have Square readers. So, prisoners need “cash,” but smokes have been suffering from deflation of late. Fewer inmates smoke. As it turns out, anti-smoking education can be effective, even on people for whom anti-murder education was not; plus, many prisons and jails have banned smoking. The net effect is that cigarettes aren’t as useful for trade purposes as they once were.

Food, on the other hand, is much more valuable in an incarceration context because, as The Washington Post reports, nationally, we’ve started feeding prisoners a lot less. Jail used to be a guarantee of “three hots and a cot;” these days, it is more likely to be two hots, a sandwich and a cot.

“It got to the point where some people would rather have a decent meal than a stogie, especially the way they’re feeding us in prison,” Gustavo “Goose” Alvarez, co-author of “Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars,” told the Post. “Times have changed to cut a buck.”

When rations are cut, food of all kind becomes more valuable, and in a prison context, that means packets of ramen — known as “soups” — become money. People bet with them in games, trade them for favors, write their families to get access to more.

“It’s gold. It’s literally gold,” Alvarez told the Post. “People will actually — and I hate to say this but — they’ll kill for it, believe it or not.”

And it is a good with a value that has been climbing the slimmer the pickings in jail cafeterias have become. Alverez said “soups” were worth about $0.20 a packet when he first went to jail. During his last stint a couple of years ago, the price was up in the $1–$2 range, depending on time of year.

What will soups buy? Anything it seems — other food items, razors, shampoo, “services” or as a way to pay off debts. If you would use money for it on the outside, odds seem good you can use it as a currency on the inside.

And while that is a marvel of creativity, the reasons underneath, as expressed by the inmate, are a bit disturbing.

“It’s ’cause people are hungry. You can tell how good a man’s doing [financially] by how many soups he’s got in his locker. ‘Twenty soups? Oh, that guy’s doing good!'” one inmate noted. “People will pay more for an envelope when they need to write home to get more soups! Prison is like the streets. You use currency for everything. In here, it’s soups.”


Ramen is a humble-looking product that — some recent, high-end interest notwithstanding — seems pretty simple. But ramen and its relationship to the world is actually as complicated as its ingredient list is simple. Which is pretty cool for a packet of noodles you can make in the microwave in five minutes or less.