Photo/IllutrationNissin Food Products Co.’s Japanese Space Food ramen consists of bite-size bundles of noodle. (Provided by Nissin Food Products Co.)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Japanese astronauts craving for a taste of home can now tuck into ramen and rice balls on the International Space Station (ISS), but that's just an appetizer.

Food firms are now chomping at the bit for the chance to tout their chow as food that can be served on Earth and in space.

To do so, manufacturers apply to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to register their products as Japanese Space Food, which means that astronauts can pop it into their "bento" lunchbox before rocketing into orbit.

“I once shared my curry with a non-Japanese crew member. They were delighted and we bonded," said astronaut Kimiya Yui, referring to his own experience.

Some Japanese Space Food was displayed recently at an event held by JAXA in Yokohama with visitors getting a chance to sample it.

Astronauts are provided with three meals daily on the ISS, and they are also allowed to personalize their diet with food and snacks from their own countries.

JAXA in 2006 initiated a designation system to certify products that meet certain standards as Japanese Space Food. To date, 31 items from 15 food companies have been registered.

While only foodstuffs that can be stored for at least 18 months at normal temperatures are eligible for Japanese Space Food status, firms also have to make further improvements and meet other basic criteria so their products can withstand temperature fluctuations. In addition, they need to make sure so the broth and other ingredients do not fly off and splatter over the equipment in the gravity-free conditions.

Kikkoman Corp. took four years to develop a soy sauce product that passed muster, according to officials.

The soy sauce was recognized as Japanese Space Food as its double-walled bottle, which is also used for Kikkoman’s commercially available products, helps keep its content fresh and enables users to pour exactly the right amount.

“We can promote it (the soy sauce) saying, ‘this tasty product on Earth is also available in space,’” said a Kikkoman official.

Kikkoman is considering putting the Japanese Space Food logo on its commercially available products to promote them.

Nissin Food Products Co.’s ramen was one of the first designated Japanese Space Food items.

“Space is full of dreams, and (the development of space food) is in line with our company image,” said a Nissin publicity official.

Nissin has also proposed yakitori-style char-broiled chicken and the "okonomiyaki” Japanese pancake by using its technology to dry ingredients.

Based in Sumoto, Hyogo Prefecture, and with only 10 or so employees, Ajikikko Co. is among companies that have applied for Japanese Space Food designation.

Its Cooked Brown Rice and 4 Grains, which uses a special heating method and is now being screened, passes the test of still being tasty fodder after 18 months.

“Its long shelf life will be an advantage, such as when the product is sold as emergency food,” said Yuji Uotani, head of Ajikikko’s research and development department. “We will use the designation as a starting point to bolster exports.”

Kumiko Mori, a JAXA official, said the growing number of companies vying to cook up new space food will only improve the lives of astronauts on the ISS.

“If shelves at stores are lined with many products bearing our designation logo and the logo is deemed as prestigious as the famous Monde Selection label, food makers will be more actively involved in the development (of space food), giving astronauts a wide menu to choose from,” said Mori.