Only 3 years old, Leon Gustavo Davila Hinojosa is still learning to speak Spanish. But the precocious youngster already knows a bit of Japanese: "Maruchan."
That's a brand of instant ramen noodles that to him means lunch. Leon's grandmother stocks them in her tiny grocery store in this hamlet 40 miles southwest of the capital. The preschooler prefers his shrimp-flavor ramen with a dollop of liquid heat.
"With salsa!" he said exuberantly at the mention of his favorite noodle soup.
Through the centuries, Moorish spices, French pastries and Spanish citrus have left lasting impressions on Mexico's cuisine. Now Japanese fast-food noodles, first imported here in the 1980s, are filling pantries across the country.
Time-pressed school kids, construction workers and office drones have helped turn Mexicans into Latin America's largest per-capita consumers of instant ramen. Diners here slurped down 1 billion servings last year, up threefold since 1999, according to a Japanese noodle association.
Urban convenience stores do a brisk trade selling ramen "preparada," providing customers with hot water, plastic forks and packets of salsa to prepare their lunches on the spot.
People in the countryside have developed a taste for it too. As part of a food assistance program, the Mexican government distributes ramen to commissaries in some of the most remote pockets of the country, where it is supplanting rice and beans on many tables.
The product is so pervasive that a national newspaper recently dubbed Mexico "Maruchan Nation."
Purveyors say you don't have to strain your noodle to figure out why. Nearly 60% of Mexico's workforce earns less than $13 a day. Instant ramen is a hot meal that fills stomachs, typically for less than 40 cents a serving. The product doesn't need refrigeration and it's so easy to make that some here call it "sopa para flojos," or "lazy people's soup."
Sold here mainly in insulated, disposable containers that look like Styrofoam coffee cups, instant ramen starts as a clot of precooked dried noodles topped with seasoning and a few dehydrated vegetables. Boiling water turns the lump into tender strands of pasta in broth, ready to eat in three minutes.
That's a profane act for some Mexicans whose relationship with food is so sacred that their ancestors believed that humankind descended from corn.
Food here is history. It is religion. It is patrimony. Ask anyone who has savored such delights as chiles en nogada, poblano chilies stuffed with spiced pork and topped with creamy walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds to replicate the green, white and red colors of the Mexican flag.
It's also passion. In Laura Esquivel's popular novel "Like Water for Chocolate," the sensuous alchemy of Mexican cooking unleashes a family's ravenous desires.
Small wonder that defenders of the nation's cuisine, such as Gloria Lopez Morales, an official with Mexico's National Council for Culture and Arts, are appalled that Mexican palates have been seduced by this lissome ramen import.
Lopez is leading an effort to have UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, recognize Mexican food as a "patrimony of humanity" that should be nurtured and protected.
She worries that globalization is disconnecting Mexicans from their very life source, be it U.S. corn displacing ancient strains of maiz or fast food encroaching on the traditional comida, or leisurely afternoon meal.
"For Mexicans, food is basically culture. The act of eating here in Mexico is an act of enormous significance," she said. "We have entered a period of threat, of crisis."
Nutritionists likewise are alarmed that instant ramen, a dish loaded with fat, carbohydrates and sodium, has become a cornerstone of the food pyramid.
With the majority of the population now urbanized and on the go, Mexicans are embracing the convenience foods of their neighbors in the U.S. while abandoning some healthful traditions. The result is soaring levels of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, particularly among the poor.
"It's cheap energy," said Dr. Gustavo Acosta Altamirano, a nutrition expert at Juarez Hospital in Mexico City, of the nation's growing addiction to soft drinks, sugary snacks and starchy foods like ramen noodles. "But it's making us fat."
Instant ramen has its roots in aching hunger. It was invented by Momofuku Ando, a serial entrepreneur whose businesses crumbled with Japan's defeat in World War II.
Memories of shivering Japanese lined up for a bowl of noodles in bombed-out Osaka haunted Ando for years, he wrote in his autobiography, "My Resume: The Story of the Invention of Instant Ramen."
Ando, now 95, founded Nissin Food Products Co. in that city, guided by the mantra: "Peace follows from a full stomach." He figured out that frying fresh ramen was the key to preserving the noodle and making it porous, so that it could be reconstituted with boiling water into fast, cheap nourishment.
Instant ramen hit the Japanese market in 1958 and became an immediate sensation. The product is such an icon in Japan that thousands visit Nissin's ramen museum each year to see a replica of the tiny backyard workshop where Ando cooked up his invention.
The most economical version is sold in plastic-wrapped, dehydrated squares that consumers typically heat in saucepans on the stove. The average U.S. price is 14 cents per package, thanks to highly automated manufacturing in plants on American soil.
Most of Mexico's ramen is imported and served in insulated, disposable cups, which drives the price up to about 35 cents. Most of that product is manufactured in Southern California, where Japanese food giants Nissin and Tokyo-based Toyo Suisan Kaisha Ltd., maker of the Maruchan brand, have their U.S. headquarters.
Asian nations remain the world's top consumers. The Chinese alone ate nearly 30.5 billion servings last year. Outside that region, only the United States, Russia and Brazil gobbled more instant ramen than Mexico. But in Latin America, Mexico is the noodle champ. Its consumers ate an average of 9.4 servings in 2004 compared with slightly more than six bowls for those in runner-up Brazil, according to the Japan-based International Ramen Manufacturers Assn.
The most popular brand here is Maruchan, whose logo of a cheerful, round-faced boy peeps out from stores shelves nationwide.
Maruchan executives declined to be interviewed. "They like to keep a low profile," said Mark Horikawa, a spokesman for the company's U.S. headquarters in Irvine.
But with a Mexican market share estimated at about 85%, the brand is impossible to ignore. Like Band-Aid bandages and Kleenex tissues in the United States, Maruchan has become the generic term for ramen noodles in Mexico.
That's clearly an irritation to Nissin, which is running a distant second here. "We call them copycats," Takayuki Naruto, president of Nissin Foods (USA) Co., said in an interview at the company's U.S. headquarters in Gardena.
But the firm that invented instant ramen grudgingly acknowledges that it has learned from its imitator.
Naruto said that Maruchan won cost-conscious customers by "lowering the grade" of ramen, allowing it to undercut Nissin's price. He said Maruchan also handled Mexico's mid-1990s peso crisis more deftly than its competitors. While other brands pulled out or hiked their prices significantly to compensate for the devalued currency, Naruto said Maruchan hung tough, increasing its share of the market.
Nissin ultimately cut back on the vegetables and other ingredients in its soups and lowered its prices. "People still ask us where the egg went," said Masa Takada, Nissin's marketing manager.
Naruto said he considered the Mexican market "critically important" and that the company had only begun to fight. The ramen maker has an extensive product research and development unit where food scientists experiment with new flavors catering to regional preferences.
For Latinos, Nissin has created goat-meat flavored ramen, a zesty chicken flavor derived from Mexican tlalpeno soup, and picante shrimp, beef and chicken varieties.
Takato "Tim" Shimizu, a serious man in light blue coveralls, is Nissin's top taster in Gardena. Shimizu said he tried to tune his Japanese palate to spicy cadences of Latin America. For confirmation, he routinely pulls Mexican-born workers off the packing line to try out his latest recipe.
But no matter how hard Shimizu works to fine-tune the seasoning, he said his tasters insisted on cranking it up a notch.
"I am surprised at the amount of lime and hot sauce they add," he said.
Tastes are changing in the Mexican countryside as well.
In a giant warehouse of Diconsa, a government agency that distributes food to the rural poor, cases of Maruchan are stacked on pallets, along with staples such as powdered milk, flour and cooking oil. The agency began stocking the noodles about five years ago after managers of government-subsidized country stores reported that their customers were clamoring for them. Diconsa purchased about 5.5 million pounds of Maruchan last year, nearly triple what it bought in 2000.
Miguel Angel Ansareo Mogollon, manager of the central warehouse located outside Mexico City, said rural women busy with children and chores were influenced by television advertising.
A cup of instant ramen costs 4 pesos, or about 37 cents in Diconsa-affiliated shops. A serving of beans costs pennies in comparison. Still, the average Mexican's consumption of frijoles has dropped by more than half since 1995, according to an agriculture trade group. Per capita consumption of tortillas has declined precipitously as well.
"Traditions are changing fast, even up in the mountains and in the countryside," Ansareo said. "You can spend days cooking beans. Maruchan is ready in three minutes. All the mother has to do is boil the water and throw in the chilies."
But back in Coamilpa, Leon's grandmother, shopkeeper Nohemi Moreno Vasquez, boasted that she has lived 70 years without tasting instant ramen and doesn't plan to start now.
Moreno is proud of Mexican cuisine and its traditions of fresh ingredients, slow-cooked sauces and hand-worked doughs.
She sees no benefit in feeding her grandson instant noodles, even if his parents are exhausted and have little time to cook after working at the local auto plant.
"Our food is our heritage. There are riches on our tables," Moreno said.
"If we don't partake out of laziness, shame on us."
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Nutritional-value comparison of one 85-gram package of ramen noodles versus one 85-gram portion of rice and beans*
*--* Rice and beans Ramen noodles (with butter) Calories 385.0 145.0 Total fat (grams) 14.5 4.4 Cholesterol (mg) 0.0 11.0 Sodium (mg) 986.0 277.0 Carbohydrates (grams) 56.0 21.8 Dietary fiber (grams) 2.0 3.8 Protein (grams) 8.0 4.7
*40 grams white long-grain rice, enriched, with salt, plus 40 grams boiled pinto beans, with salt, and 5 grams of butter.
Source: USDA National Nutrient Database