COAMILPA, Mexico — 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.