Instant noodles are ubiquitous in Asia, in offices and at home. It is a multi-billion industry but few know that its origin lay with the charitable work of a humble Italian priest: John (Giovanni) Romaniello, who was thus nicknamed ‘The Noodle Priest.’
Giovanni Romaniello was born in Avigliana, near Turin, on September 11, 1900.
His parents, poor farmers, like those of Pope Francis, emigrated to the USA when Giovanni was still a child. They settled in New Rochelle, New York State.
Romaniello was ordained a Catholic priest in 1928 and then took his vows two years later, deciding to become a missionary in China. He was first assigned to Kweiling, where he arrived in 1935 and there he remained until he was forced out in 1951, after having narrowly escaped death during the war.
First he was recalled to Rome but in 1956 he managed to join the Catholic Relief Services in Hong Kong, a post he had sought in the vain hope of getting back in China to see his old parishioners. But that proved impossible and in the meantime he was moved to other countries where is optimism and energy were in great demand: he spent some time in the Philippines and in Korea, and briefly also in Portugal.
While in Hong Kong he came up with a simple idea about building a machine to produce…noodles! It was for this reason that he became known as ‘The Noodle Priest’ a nickname which made him immensely proud so much so that he had his personal letter-heads engraved with such title. Here is how his brilliant idea came about.
For a period of time he was put in charge of the distribution of food to squatters who had been able to slip into the British Territory from China. He was giving out for free 5 pounds bags of rice flour and milk powder, but because of the dampness of the place most of it turned quickly bad since the squatters had no mean to cook it or keep it into a fridge. But one day he spotted a young girl collecting her bags of flour and then quickly exchanging them with some packets of noodles. Romaniello asked her why she was doing that and the girl answered that her mom could cook the noodle on a small stove while they could not do much with the flour and, besides that, noodles could withstand humidity better than flour. ‘Brilliant point!’ he must have thought for with the help of some parishioners and using a small engine of a aircraft he built a mixer for flour and milk powder and then processed them in a steel tank, thus extruding the noodles from a plate with small perforated holes. Once dried he gave the noddles around receiving enthusiastic responses from his customers: they told him that they tasted better than rice! He quickly set up more processing centres, and some of those in the New Territories of Hong Kong are still in operation today on a larger scale. Then he exported his idea to Vietnam, Japan and Korea.
An enthusiastic Maryknoller to the end, the ‘Noodle Priest’ received several international awards but he loved to describe himself as a ‘modern Don Quixote.’ He died and was buried in Hong Kong in 1985 after a short illness.