West Eats East
Instant noodles are one of the greatest food innovations in the world and have been consumed all over for lunch, dinner, snack and hiking-mountain outings, as well as for emergency uses. A Nobel Peace Prize for food development should be awarded, I personally recommend. Many in our mainstream market have seen them at regular supermarkets but do not eat them much. Let’s see its significance and potential future in this blending market.
Its original Chinese noodle soup style, which is called Ramen in Japan, was innovated by a Taiwanese living in Japan in 1958. Flash-frying or air-drying made a pre-cooked state of noodle starch, which reduced boiling time for cooking noodles. Noodle soup flavors in forms of powder or paste were packed in a separate packet, which was dissolved in hot water to make up soup. Ramen cooking took a matter of minutes, which enabled it to be called “an instant” noodle. A small pot was still required, though. In 1971 a further, greater innovation took place with instant noodles. The complete materials of dried noodles, flavor and other ingredients came into a single polystyrofoam cup. It was a matter of adding very hot water and waiting with an aluminum lid. In three minutes a hot ramen meal would become ready to eat. It can be called a revolution of the food preparation, with all edible matters and serving container included, no worrying about clean-hygiene of the food container, no washing after the meal, and a matter of discarding the cup and lid. Only boiling water and three minutes were needed. One more thing needed: utensils, chopsticks for Asians or disposable forks for others. One more further step for convenience: an aluminum portion of the lid is eliminated, which results in being microwavable. Though one of the major manufacturers, Nissin, says do not microwave, while Maruchan says it’s alright.
It spread all over Asia, where Chinese food culture is rooted. According to statistics, 95 billion servings of instant noodle products are annually consumed in the world. Among them, 44% are in China, which has about 20% of the global population. The number one per capita consumption is 69% by Koreans. Japan and the States eat 4~5 billion servings. You may see Nissin or Maruchan in cups or Sapporo Ichiban even at Costco. Here it is consumed by many students and low income people. In Mexico, it is consumed mostly as a snack and it is almost synonymous to Maruchan, another major manufacturer. We may see instant noodle products with Spanish labels in California. Two major manufacturers, Nissin and Maruchan, have instant noodle plants in Southern California. We are eating their made-in-USA instant noodles.
This technology is not limited to instant noodles only, but has been applied to other style noodle foods like Udon Japanese traditional wheat flour noodles, Soba Japanese buckwheat noodles, or some spaghetti-pasta products. Many come in cups with diversified flavors and ingredients, again enabling easy meal preparation and eating. You may be able to buy tempura udon or soba in a cup, soba with fried tofu age, and many more. All of them are imported from Japan. I remind you that sushi occasionally goes well with such instant Japanese-style instant noodles, which we can buy at one stop at a Japanese ethnic grocery store.
There is always a tendency to look down at instant foods as not-real stuff, too careless or having too much food additives. What is wrong with instant noodles? It is very convenient, time-saving, easy cooking for everyone, available at many locations, and stomach filling. A very positive contribution is its being lightweight and easy to carry in hiking or mountain outings. Many mountain or expedition teams carry them. Besides, it is an excellent emergency food in natural or man-made disasters, as it is light to carry, needs only hot water, no worries about food hygiene in shipping, and provides minimal satisfaction for the time being. Such an emergency food is often consumed prior to distributing local food supplies like wheat flour or rice. It may not be an emergency matter, though, but serious eating which we may eventually face in the future. It can be food for seniors, particularly those who live alone or with minimal assistance. Such an instant noodle can be a handy lunch or snack or even occasional dinner for seniors who do not cook or go out to eat. It can be stored without refrigeration for good duration. I know it may not be a favorable matter and everyday meal, but seniors may not have many other options. Let’s think that an instant noodle food can be a part of our eating for occasions requiring little time or effort.