In a year of travelling and eating my way through Asia, I expected to find food that would challenge me, dishes that would make me think. I just didn’t expect that to be instant noodles.
I wanted to eat everything – a gloopy intestine soup in Taiwan, weird and wonderful 7Eleven bain-marie delights in Japan, spicy fried bugs in Cambodia, soups thickened with pig’s blood and brimming with pig bits in Thailand – and yet I couldn’t get past my preconception that instant noodles are not real food. Yes, I have friends that were weaned on cup noodles, I know that some of Australia’s top chefs love to eat them after hours, and like anyone with a heartbeat I enjoy the odd Indomie Mi Goreng, but I can’t be alone in seeing them as a last resort. In Australia they have a stigma as being cheap sustenance for teenage boys, cash-strapped uni students, and those without the money, means or appreciation for good food.
In Asia, they proved impossible to avoid.
Long distance trains double as cup noodle restaurants at meal times. Billboards and television commercials picture actors cradling a bowl of instant noodles, all smiles and eyes closed to better inhale that sodium-laden broth. Convenience stores stock aisles full of cup noodles, with facilities for you to prepare and eat them in the store. If you’re feeling peckish at a library, an internet café, on a hike, at a shrine, on a ferry, or just about anywhere, a cup of noodles is usually within arm’s length.
In Australia they have a stigma as being cheap sustenance for teenage boys, cash-strapped uni students, and those without the money, means or appreciation for good food.
According to the World Instant Noodles Association, 102.7 billion instant noodle units are eaten per year - that's 14.5 per person. I’m doing no favours for the average, but Asia picks up my slack.
Japan, the home of instant noodles, is also home to two instant noodle museums. There’s the CupNoodles Museum in Yokohama, where visitors can design their own cup to take home, and the Instant Ramen Museum in Osaka, where instant ramen is upheld as a giant leap for mankind. And it was. Inventor Momofuku Ando created it in the aftermath of World War II as a solution to food shortages and mass hunger. They still play a key role in disaster relief, sustaining victims of the recent earthquake in Nepal, for example, but most of those billions of noodles are eaten by choice.
China is the biggest consumer of instant noodles in the world, devouring some 44.4 billion packets in 2014. A lot of this slurping takes place on trains, which are are equipped with a hot water faucet for passengers to prepare the obligatory cup noodles that they'll bring on board. On a two-day train across the breadth of China, I watched as the cups piling up in the bin changed with each province we passed, from a classic ‘beef’ noodle soup in Beijing, to a Uighur 'lamb' laghman labelled with Turkic script and halal certification in the far west.
Momofuku Ando’s own Nissin cup noodles are actually tweaked to represent different broth preferences across Japan – a subtlety that would have been lost on this gaijin (foreigner) if not pointed out by a Japanese friend. The packaging looks identical but for the tiny capital letter on the rim of the bowls, (E) for distribution in the east or (W) for west, and the seasoning sachets inside are either kelp or bonito based depending on where they are headed. It seemed incongruous to me that Japan, a country that demands lifelong commitment from its ramen masters, could take instant ramen so seriously.
More than their widespread popularity and mind-boggling array of flavours and styles, it was this culinary legitimacy afforded to instant noodles by countries with such strong and passionate food cultures that most struck me. Grandmas who could cook you under the table will happily whip up a packet. People that live to eat and will travel hours for food will just as readily drop past 7Eleven for cup noodles on the way home from work. There’s no whiff of desperation hovering over those styrofoam bowls. Unhealthy no doubt, but an authentic, legitimate food choice.
In the hundreds of long distances buses, trains, ferries and planes that I travelled on across Asia this year, I managed to dodge cup noodles all but once. Instead I picked up food from street vendors before boarding or at stops, and sat eating freshly prepared, expertly packaged noodles, wondering why everyone else was tolerating an inferior imitation.
"In Asian culture... we don't have sandwiches, we have instant noodles." -Dan Hong
"They are different, but not inferior", says Dan Hong, executive chef of hatted Sydney restaurants Ms. G's and Mr Wong, and instant noodle fan. "Sometimes instant noodles are better than normal food. I would prefer to eat instant noodles when I am flying economy than plane food. They taste better."
Would his mum eat them? “Yeah, I grew up eating instant noodles. We always had a box in the pantry that we ate after school. Sometimes for breakfast." While it’s not the whole story, convenience does play a part: "In Asian culture, it's like the sandwich. We don't have sandwiches, we have instant noodles," says Hong.
He eats them when there’s nothing in the fridge, always adding an egg, and often spring onion. He’ll even use the sachet separately in a stir-fry. But would Dan Hong serve them at his restaurants? "I'd possibly use instant noodles as a garnish, use it to crumb a piece of meat or use it as part of a dish.”
David Chang, the Korean-American chef of Momofuku fame, also has no qualms experimenting with instant noodles in his kitchen. He’s published recipes for ‘ramen cacio e pepe’, sole crusted in instant ramen, and an omelette flavoured with the seasoning sachet.
While it might be new for some of us, it’s not in Asia, where instant noodles have long been tricked up into street food favourites and home-style comforts. In India, so beloved are Maggi noodles that people actually protested their recall at one point last year, despite it being prompted by legitimate safety concerns: it was alleged the noodles had toxic lead levels. Appetites remained, it seemed, for noodles transformed into ‘Maggi masala’ by street vendors, and ‘Maggi cutlets’ by mums. In Thailand, the Mama-brand of instant noodles is used to make ‘yum Mama’, a spicy salad of instant noodles with your choice of meats and vegetables that challenges pad Thai for national dish status. Mamak stalls in Malaysia whip up ‘Maggi mee goreng’, while Indonesian bakso carts use the noodles to make beef ball soup.
South Korea’s budae jjigae, or army base stew, is an entire hotpot of maligned foodstuffs. There I left my dinner in the hands of a waitress, and I must admit to some regret as it arrived, brimming with instant noodles, Kraft singles, Spam and frankfurters. And yet heavily spiced with gochujang (chilli paste) and kimchi, eaten with a cold beer in hand, it proved just why you should leave your food prejudices at the door when travelling. The instant noodles were perfectly cooked, springy to the bite, and supremely comforting. It was excellent, with not an ounce of desperation.
They say necessity is the mother of invention and this stew is a sterling example of that sentiment. Budae jjigae (army base stew) was created in Uijeongbu, an hour north of Seoul, soon after the Korean War when food scarcity led starving Koreans to concoct a meal using food that was discarded or handed out at US military bases. The Koreans added the unfamiliar ingredients, like Spam, hot dogs and baked beans, into a traditional spicy soup flavoured with gochujang, Korean red pepper paste, and topped it with a square of melted American cheese.
A favourite street food in Taiwan, these cold sesame noodles are similar to versions of the Sichuan noodle dish, dan dan mian. The Taiwanese interpretation uses wheat noodles and is covered in a creamy sesame, peanut and soy sauce. The dish is so popular in Taiwan, you can even find it at 7-Eleven stores.