While this is something that is supposed to be about a new Asian experience, I have to admit that instant noodles are an old and familiar friend. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert in the area by any stretch, but I have consumed a good few bowls in my day. If the last post was supposed to be purely experience based – documenting epiphanies with the cultural product, than this post will hopefully provide some context.
In last week’s blog I wrote about my encounter with ‘Shin Ramyun’, the kind of gold standard for instant noodles in the Korean/ Japanese style (and the best for breakfast according to this post). They were great! Everything you would want in a quick and easy snack; affordability, accessibility, little preparation, and of course they are bloody tasty.
To better understand the phenomenon that is these little bricks of fried noodles it is important to understand their origins and the role they played in places like Japan in the post-war period. While instant noodles have become an obvious staple in the diets of hungry and frugal (#broke) university students, you would be remiss in thinking that was their original purpose. Rather, instant noodles have a proud history in helping prevent famine in Japan following WWII. The post-war period saw a battered Japan face a horrific shortage of food. To help combat this, the United States was kind enough to send over something but luckily this time is was in the form of flour and not atomic bombs. The US encouraged the Japanese to make bread, but noodles had always been a more essential part of Japanese cuisine. With this, inventor Momofuku Ando went about creating a ramen that would be longer lasting than traditional noodles. It needed to tasty, non-perishable, and most importantly easy to replicate on a grand scale. And he did it, instant noodles were a massive success with packets being sold in the 50’s and ‘Cup Noodle’ developed in the late 70’s. This video by Big Great Story gives a nice visual to the journey.
With this week’s post I really wanted to look more closely into how instant noodles are consumed around the world. In the west, there is the prevailing feeling that instant noodles are cheap, lazy, and the only time to eat them is when you’re stuck with no other choice. Now this perception has changed slightly with influences from Asia becoming more and more apparent. We have even seen instant noodle burger buns and various “ramen hacks” throughout social media, and with this a greater variety and acceptance.
Across Asia however, they don’t really hold the same college stigma. Noodles are a staple in places like Japan and Korea, and are taken very seriously. Japan boasts an estimated 50,000 ramen so you can expect they know what they want in the instant version.
Convenience stores can be found all across Japan with chains like 7-Eleven having nearly 20,000 locations. It’s in these convenience stores that instant noodles are mostly bought and consumed. Places like 7-Eleven are such an integral part of the instant noodles experience in Japan that one of only two Michelin Star ramen restaurants ‘Tsuta’s’ collaborated on an instant version of their much beloved product. In places like Indonesia where the Mi Goreng style of a broth-less instant noodle is more popular I’ve heard that children eat them for breakfast. Instant noodles are considered proper meals as opposed to the view of them being a ‘snack’ product in Australia. So I think that has to make you wonder why there is this dissonance between the east and west about the role that instant noodles play. I suspect that it is purely a thing of noodles being a staple carb in many of those cultures and only being introduced to the west much later (with the exception of pasta).
One curious thing I did find the other day is that in the aisle of my local Woolworths where they have what would be the familiar brands like Maggi, Suiman and Fantastic noodles there is also the “Asian” food section. In this section they have the brands like Shin and Nissin, the original and most well-loved across Asia. It just seems as though they should be showcased with the others for all to enjoy.
If you’re in Japan don’t forget to visit the Cup Noodle Museum in Osaka.
For more information abou the history of instant noodles take a look at the World Instant Noodles Association.
Moving forward with this assignment, I’m not quite sure how to tackle the Digital Artefact side of it. I don’t think noodles will translate particularly well to a podcast or blog post type thing, so I guess video will be the best option. I’m thinking a taste test or showcase type deal, but if anyone has an suggestions I would love to hear them.