Noodle History – 4000-Year-Old Street Food Staple, Modern Takeout Hero!

by Spencer Reynolds

Noodles are a staple food for cultures around the world and have a rich and fascinating history spanning thousands of years. The most common noodles are long thin strips, but there are lots of different noodles out there. Some are cut into shapes like tubes and shells, others are folded and crimped. Some are even shaped like dinosaurs! Noodles are versatile foods that can be boiled, fried, baked, or stir-fried in oil for almost limitless flavour combinations.  

Noodles are a classic street food with a reputation for delicious takeout and delivery applications. In fact, that might be where noodles got their start! Most historians agree that the first noodles can be traced back to ancient China over 4,000 years ago. Evidence suggests that they were created as quick and easy food for soldiers to carry on their travels. They quickly became popular and spread throughout China, and eventually to other parts of Asia and the world – although noodles are known to have developed independently in multiple locations. 2nd-century Greeks are thought to have created what we now know as pasta… but don’t tell the Italians!  

A soba delivery man in Marunouchi business district in 1959. (The Asahi Shimbun)

Fast forward 4000 years and noodles have become a staple food in many cultures. In Japan, for example, noodles are a key component of many dishes, such as soba and udon. In Italy, pasta is a beloved staple with various regional variations such as spaghetti, rigatoni, and fettuccine. Tiny pasta shapes like Orzo show up in salads and soups throughout the Mediterranean. Germans eat an egg noodle variety called spaetzle, and long strands are served in a thick soup called Ash reshteh in Iran and throughout the middle east.  

We’re all familiar with noodles made from wheat and semolina, but they can also be made from less familiar ingredients like ground acorns and even kelp. There are just as many ways to make noodles as there are ways to eat them. For instance, did you know that slurping noodles is acceptable and even encouraged in China but cutting them is frowned upon? In Japan, you can pick up your noodle bowl to speed up your meal, but in Korea you cannot… unless, of course, you’re eating them on the go. 

Noodles are classic street foods and make great takeout and delivery options to this day. In Vietnam, “banh pho” noodles are made from rice flour and come in various widths and lengths, while in Indonesia, “mie goreng” is a stir-fried noodle dish that is commonly sold by street vendors. Ramen is a quintessential on-the-go food in Japan. 

Ramen’s skyrocketing popularity in North America is owed, in part, to how cheap and accessible instant noodles have become. The man responsible for that innovation is Momofuku Ando, who in 1958 revolutionized the food industry by inventing what we now know as instant ramen. Inspired by a need to feed a struggling post-war Japan with shelf stable, easy to produce foods, his technique involves pre-cooking the noodles in a flash-fryer and then drying them. It was revolutionary. 

Ando went on to invent the iconic noodle cup, which remains functionally unchanged to this day and has fed tens of thousands of starving college students, becoming a cult classic. This rapid adoption of the instant ramen noodle led to the prevalence of boutique ramen restaurants and takeout spots which now dot the landscape of major cities throughout the west.  

Pad Thai, another classic takeout noodle, also followed a unique path to ubiquity in North America. Ever wondered why there are so many great Thai restaurants in Canada? In 2002 the Thai government launched a culinary diplomacy program which sent chefs from Thailand all over the world to train restauranteurs to cook authentic, delicious Thai food. The result has been an explosion of Thai restaurants in the west and ever increasing demand for takeout noodle dishes like like Pad Thai and Pad See Ew. 

With so many delicious and unique varieties to choose from, it’s no wonder that noodles are a delivery favorite even in Canada. Whether you’re in the mood for a quick and easy bowl of udon, glass noodles, or a more elaborate pasta dish, there’s a noodle out there to suit your taste. So next time you’re craving a quick and satisfying takeout meal, why not consider trying a new noodle dish?