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  • Writer's pictureGeopolitics.Λsia

Convenience Reigns Supreme: The Rise of Instant Noodles in Asia

Noodles have been a staple in Chinese cuisine for centuries, with evidence of the first iteration of the beloved dish dating back to ancient China. It is said that during the Qing Dynasty, a chef stumbled upon the now-popular dish of boiled and then fried noodles served in a soup, similar to Yi noodle, by accident. The story goes that the chef, in a moment of culinary misfortune, had accidentally overcooked a batch of egg noodles and, in a bid to salvage the dish, decided to fry them in hot oil and serve them in a soup. This fortuitous accident gave birth to the delicious dish that we know and love today. According to the Journal of Ethnic Foods, early instant noodle packaging was even labeled as "Yi noodles," a nod to the dish's storied history.

Source: Image by jcomp on Freepik

The Origins

The invention of instant noodles, a culinary innovation that has had a profound impact on global cuisine, is credited to the Japanese inventor, Momofuku Ando. On the 25th of August, 1958, Ando's company, Nissin, first marketed instant noodles under the brand name Chikin Ramen. Ando's creation was the result of his tireless experimentation with the process of noodle-making, steaming, seasoning, and dehydrating in oil heat. The end result was an instant noodle that was flash-fried, dried, and pre-seasoned, giving it a longer shelf life than even frozen noodles. Each noodle block was sold at a price of 35 yen and could be ready to eat in just two minutes by adding boiling water. At the time of its launch, Chikin Ramen was considered a luxury item due to its price and novelty, as Japanese grocery stores typically sold fresh noodles at a sixth of the price. Despite this, instant noodles eventually gained immense popularity, especially after being promoted by Mitsubishi Corporation. The dish quickly gained popularity across East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, where it has now become a firmly embedded part of local cultures. From there, it spread and gained popularity across most other parts of the world, making instant noodles a truly global phenomenon.

Traditional Lanzhou beef noodles

The origin story of instant noodles is one that is steeped in controversy and conflicting claims. While the invention of instant noodles is widely attributed to the Japanese inventor Momofuku Ando, there is another claim of origin that hails from Pingtung County in Taiwan. According to this account, a local resident, Zhang Guowen, filed a patent for instant noodles in 1956. On the 16th of August, 1961, it is said that Zhang transferred the patent to Momofuku Ando for a sum of 23 million yen. While the veracity of this claim is a matter of debate, it serves as a reminder of the rich and diverse cultural heritage that informs the global cuisine we know and love today.

As the popularity of instant noodles grew, manufacturers began to focus on improving the taste and quality of the dish. One of the ways they achieved this was by adding flavoring powder in a separate packet, allowing for greater control over the taste and seasoning of the noodles. In 1971, Nissin, the company founded by Momofuku Ando, introduced a revolutionary innovation in the form of Nissin Cup Noodles. This cup noodle, to which boiling water is added to cook the noodles, was a game-changer in the instant noodle industry. Building on this success, a further innovation was added in the form of dried vegetables to the cup, creating a complete instant soup dish, making it even more convenient and satisfying for consumers.

This innovation combined the functions of packaging material, container for boiling water, and a bowl to eat the noodles from, all in one. In recent times, with the rise in health consciousness, many manufacturers have also launched instant noodles with various healthy recipes, such as noodles with dietary fiber and collagen, low-calorie noodles, and low-sodium noodles. This allows consumers to indulge in their beloved instant noodle dish without compromising on their health and nutritional needs.

In the year 2000, a Japanese poll revealed that the nation believed instant noodles to be their greatest invention of the twentieth century. Fast forward to 2021 and it is evident that this sentiment is shared globally, as 118 billion servings of the beloved dish are consumed annually worldwide.

Asian Main Stream

Leading the charge in instant noodle consumption is China, devouring a staggering 43.9 billion packages per year. Indonesia, Vietnam, India, and Japan also have a notable appetite for the convenient food, consuming 13.2 billion, 8.5 billion, 7.5 billion, and 5.8 billion packages respectively.

But it's not just quantity that counts, as the nations that lead in per-capita consumption are truly noteworthy. Vietnam, for instance, boasts an impressive 87 servings per person per year, followed closely by South Korea and Nepal, where 73 and 55 servings are consumed per person respectively. These statistics demonstrate a deep appreciation and love for instant noodles, and the role it plays in daily life.

t's clear that instant noodles have become a cultural staple, satisfying cravings and providing convenience to people all over the world.

Prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, the popularity of Korean instant noodles had been on the rise, largely due to the influence of K-pop culture. The products were often tied in with popular Korean dramas and other forms of media, resulting in a surge of intentional purchases.

This business model caught the attention of Chinese companies, many of whom began to emulate the strategies employed by their Korean counterparts. With a population so vast, it was no surprise that the followers of C-pop artists were just as impressed and enamored with the genre.

This has made it relatively easy for companies to sell their products, particularly when an artist's image is featured on the packaging. The K-pop and C-pop industries have been intertwined, and with the growing popularity of these genres, it is no wonder that sales of instant noodles have also risen. The instant noodles have become not only a food, but also a cultural representation of the K-pop and C-pop culture.

The Korean instant noodle industry has seen tremendous growth in recent years, thanks in large part to their innovative approach to the product. One of the key differences between Korean instant noodles and those from other Asian countries is the thickness of the noodle itself. The Korean variety is typically thicker and more substantial, providing a more satisfying meal experience.

Korean Innovation

But the innovations don't stop there. Korean instant noodle manufacturers have also introduced the use of machines and disposable aluminum foil food containers, allowing consumers to easily cook their noodles at home or in shops. This has made instant noodles an even more convenient and accessible option for busy individuals and families.

This forward-thinking approach has helped the Korean instant noodle industry expand its empire, capturing a larger share of the market and solidifying its place as a leading player in the world of instant noodles. The Korean instant noodles have become a new way of experiencing traditional Korean cuisine with a modern twist.

The instant noodle market has seen a plethora of advancements in recent years, offering consumers a wide range of options to suit their needs and preferences. Today, there are three main types of instant noodle packaging available:

1. Noodle Pack - These types of instant noodles are typically boiled or cooked in the microwave. They offer a traditional approach to preparing instant noodles and are perfect for those who prefer a more substantial texture.

2. Cup Noodles - These noodles require nothing more than hot water to prepare, making them a convenient option for those on the go. They are a perfect solution for those who are looking for a quick, easy, and tasty meal.

3. Self-heating Instant Noodles - The newest innovation in the instant noodle market, these types of noodles do not require any boiling or microwaving. Instead, they contain a packet of quicklime at the bottom of the tray which releases sufficient heat for cooking the ingredients, providing a convenient and easy-to-prepare meal. These types of noodles are perfect for those who are looking for a meal option that is both easy to prepare and delicious.

These different types of instant noodle packaging offer consumers a wide range of options to suit their needs and preferences, whether they prefer a traditional boiling or microwave method, or the convenience of self-heating instant noodles. It is clear that the instant noodle market is constantly evolving, catering to the diverse needs of consumers around the world.

The instant noodle industry, like many others, is constantly affected by fluctuations in the global market. One major factor that can impact the cost of instant noodles is a shortage of wheat, resulting in a rise in prices. This can be seen in recent events, such as the Ukrainian-Soviet war, where the export of wheat has been heavily impacted.

Russia, as the world's largest wheat exporter, and Ukraine, as the world's seventh-largest wheat producer and projected to be the fifth-largest exporter for the 2021/22 marketing year, play a significant role in the global wheat market. The interruption in the wheat supply from these countries can have a ripple effect on the instant noodle industry, resulting in increased prices for consumers.

In India, the situation is further complicated by the government's decision to ban the export of wheat itself in mid-May 2022, due to a heatwave that curtailed output and drove domestic prices to record highs. This ban, however, had an unexpected effect on the market, boosting the demand for Indian wheat flour and resulting in a 200% increase in exports between April and July, compared to the previous year.

This situation highlights the complex and ever-changing nature of the global market and the impact it can have on the instant noodle industry. As the world's second-largest instant noodle market, India's decision to ban the export of wheat has a significant impact on the industry, but it also presents an opportunity for other countries to move up in the ranks and take advantage of the shortage.

As the world's population continues to grow, so too does the demand for staple foods such as wheat. Unfortunately, a shortage of this crucial ingredient is looming on the horizon, posing a significant challenge for manufacturers around the globe. The inevitable consequence of this shortage will be a marked increase in the price of wheat-based products, with the cost of a humble bowl of noodles set to soar to unprecedented heights. As consumers, we may soon be forced to confront the sobering reality of just how essential this versatile grain truly is to our daily lives.

Not anymore low-cost

It is a common misconception among many Europeans and Americans that the consumption of instant noodles is a reliable indicator of the Thai economy and its reliance on GDP. The reasoning behind this belief is that as the financial situation of a society deteriorates, its citizens turn to cheaper options such as instant noodles. However, the reality is that the working class still consumes traditional noodles at a cost of 7 Baht (USD 0.21), while the newer generation, particularly teenagers, now have a wider variety of options from countries such as Korea and China, with prices ranging from 20 to 140 Baht (USD 0.61 to 4.26) They have no qualms about spending more for their preferred noodle choices.

In the world of instant noodles, there are two main types of noodles available: fried and non-fried.

The majority of instant noodles on the market, approximately 80%, are fried. This is because the process of frying creates more evenly dried noodles than hot-air drying. This can result in a more desirable texture and also takes less time to cook.

On the other hand, non-fried noodles are made using a steam-cooked and air-dried process. This method preserves the taste and texture of the noodles while also reducing the amount of oil used in the process.

But it's not just the preparation method that differs, the seasoning also varies across countries. In some countries, MSG is not used as a seasoning, instead, cost-cutting measures are implemented by using salt as the main ingredient. Salt is cheaper than MSG, but it can alter the taste of the noodles.

This highlights the diversity in the instant noodle industry, where different countries have their own unique way of preparing and seasoning the noodles. This diversity not only adds to the global appeal of instant noodles but also allows for an array of flavors and textures for consumers to savor and enjoy.

In conclusion, instant noodles come in various shapes and forms, each with their own unique characteristics and flavors. Understanding the different types of instant noodles, their preparation methods, and the seasonings used can greatly impact the taste, texture, and nutritional value of the dish. The evolution of instant noodles has been fascinating, with renowned chefs and artists treating it with the same innovative approach as a luxury cosmetic product. The global market for instant noodles is becoming increasingly diverse, with a plethora of new flavors, noodle types, and seasonings that are constantly being tested and proven by consumer demand. It's a culinary research of sorts, aimed at finding the perfect match for the most discerning palates and making



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