story by Vincent Vichit-Vadakan
There is so much more to humble instant noodles than meets the eye. They may symbolize everything wrong with industrial fast food and mass-produced foodstuffs, but eaters around the world have embraced the much-maligned noodle, elevating it to unexpected culinary heights.
If there is a food with a reputation problem, it has to be the instant noodle. Whether in a cup or a packet, the images of post-drinking comfort food or post-apocalypse survival rations these noodles conjure up are not exactly appealing. Instant noodles come out in times of stress, neglect, or end-of-the-month impecuniousness. For anyone who owns more kitchen appliances than a dorm room hot water kettle, they are the proof of sloth or a source of shame. They are unhealthy. They are bombs of salt, MSG, and e-numbers. According to at least one study, they cause hair loss.
Instant noodles are so strongly identified as a foodstuff of last resort that, for years, Thailand's economy rose and fell to the rhythm of the so-called datchani mama or Mama Index. When sales of Mama, the country's leading brand, went up—or so economists reasoned—it was a sign that money was tight and consumers were pinching every last satang. When sales fell, it meant that Thais had more to spend on fancier victuals and therefore on other products as well.
Amy Besa, the co-owner of the Purple Yam restaurants in Brooklyn and Manila and passionate crusader of wholesome foods and modern Filipino cuisine, makes no bones about her stand on the question. “Instant noodles are the bane of my existence and I have sworn to eradicate them from our diet. They are totally devoid of anything nutritious.” End of discussion. Case closed.
Or is it? Do instant noodles deserve such a bad rap? It may or may not be a sound tool of economic forecasting, but the very existence of the Mama Index says a great deal about the preponderant role the product itself plays in everyday life: instant noodles are universal, the common denominator that knows no social or geographical boundaries. The very serious World Instant Noodles Association calculates that 270 million servings are eaten every day, just shy of a whopping 100 billion a year globally. Factories churn out millions of blocks of noodles daily from Peru to Saudi Arabia in a dizzying array of flavors suited to local palates: masala, criollo, and tom yam are common in India, South America, and Thailand, while lyophilized kimchi, cheese powder, pizza, or bacon soup bases and sweet mayonnaise are variations and add-ons that are designed to satisfy every conceivable taste.
Nothing could have been further from the mind of Momofuku Ando, the Taiwanese immigrant who took a Japanese wife and her maiden name, when almost sixty years ago he invented the process of drying noodles in hot oil—the process that went on to be voted the best invention of the twentieth century by the citizens of his adopted homeland. And how could he have imagined that what started out as a high-priced novelty meant to mimic traditional Japanese ramen would ultimately epitomize cheap food for the masses in every corner of the globe?
Instant noodles may be eaten out of necessity, but the fact of the matter is that people, well, eat them up. Millions of packets are consumed daily in their unadulterated state. An American diplomat friend, whom I'll call “Flora” to protect her otherwise worldly reputation, has carried cases of Indomie across three continents, freely admitting to her addiction and indulging whenever she needed a break from the official fare of high-powered ambassadorial receptions and hordes of war-zone correspondents. But look around and it becomes clear that unlike flash-in-the-pan ramen burger buns, there are also enduring recipes that have become fixtures, ordered and enjoyed the world over. Noodle eaters everywhere love any opportunity to make the dish their own. In many countries, dominant brands like Mama, Maggi, and Indomie have become synonymous with the instant noodle, entering the local language and culture.
At many a noodle stand in Thailand for example, stacks of Mama commonly sit behind the panes of glass alongside the old-school selection of wheat (ba mi) or thin (sen lek) or wide (sen yai) rice noodles, ready to be served in clear soup (nam sai), blood-thickened nam tok broth, or with no soup at all (haeng), and with luk chin (bouncy meatballs) or a dizzying array of meats, normal or piset (super-sized)—just another option that Thais reel off when personalizing their bowls of soup with the same exacting precision of a Starbucks devotee placing a caffeine order. Even traditional eateries have appropriated the instant noodle. The decades-old student haunt, Jeh O, bills itself as a spot for khao tom or thin rice porridge, a classic late-night, stomach-padding snack. But located in the alleys adjacent to the sprawling Chulalongkorn University in the heart of Bangkok, its real claim to fame these days is the crowds who, night after night, wait an hour or more for a massive portion of their late-night tom yam soup featuring the ubiquitous Mama, generously served in spicy broth with mixed seafood, pork, or both.
In Korea, the world's largest consumer of instant noodles per capita with over 72 servings annually, large wheels of pale noodles are added to bubbling soups and stews right at the table, including the hugely popular budae jjigae or “army base stew” that combines American rations of Spam, hot dogs, American cheese, and baked beans with kimchi, tofu, rice cakes, glass noodles, and instant ramyun. There, the noodles act more as a hearty topping than a main ingredient—the cherry on top of an improbably moreish savory cake.
Though their roots are clearly Asian, the noodles have spread far beyond Asia. “[They] are very popular in Nigeria,” enthuses Nigerian food expert and cookbook author Chy Anegbu. “One in every three kids gets noodle for breakfast every morning.” And with a two-thirds market share, it's safe to say that a lot of those noodles are Indomie, Indonesia's favorite brand that has become the first choice in many African and Middle Eastern countries. One of Anegbu's favorites instant noodle dishes is boiled Indomie, parboiled carrots and green beans, a handful of chopped fresh chiles for kick, raw onion, corn kernels, and a few dollops of corned beef right out of the jar, which melts right into the still-warm noodles to form a meaty sauce.
As a rule, dishes like Anegbu’s corned beef Indomie are only found in the home. “It takes five minutes, why would anyone wait to eat it outside?” she asks before adding that there is one exception that everyone is familiar with: aboki Indomie. Sold in the evening on street corners by ethnic Hausas, this dish is made for “students and bachelors.” It's not immediately clear if this added detail is tinged with pity, disdain, or dismissiveness. Perhaps it's a combination of all three at once. The diners make their choices between a fried egg or an egg cooked into the noodles; then pick from a variety of vegetables like carrots, cabbage, or pumpkin leaves; and finally indicate how much spiciness they desire. The aboki (“friend” in the Hausa language) does the rest right before their eyes, stirring the ingredients into the noodles. Diners can eat the steaming plates on the spot, often while standing on the side of the road with fellow diners, or take them home.
Phat Mama (fried instant noodles) has become a street food staple in Thailand, with the zing of Mama phat khi mao or drunken noodles just one of the most-ordered variations. Fried instant noodles are also a feature of Hong Kong East-meets-West cha chaan teng cafés, served with anything from luncheon meat to pork chops. In chifa cooking, Peruvian-style Chinese food, instant ramen noodles can replace egg noodles in tallarin saltado, the local version of fried noodles. The best-selling instant noodle flavors in Indonesia (mie goreng) and the Philippines (pancit Canton) are ersatzes, boiled noodles that are reminiscent of the original fried noodle dishes. But without the vaguest hint of post-modern irony, those instant noodles now get thrown back into a blazing wok and faux-fried to become real fried once again.
Not all instant noodle dishes require the heat of the wok or the soup pot. Throughout Southeast Asia, examples of mixed noodle salads abound. They share a common flavor profile (salty, sour, spicy, sweet), but in addition to the boiled noodle base, the other ingredients are only limited by the inspiration of the chef. In Thailand its simplest expression is mama phrik nam pla, chilis and fish sauce dressing on softened noodles. Yam mama sai krok adds sliced hot dogs, while ngom mee kang jop or mixed packaged noodles is the Cambodian take on the same dish. In the sleepy seaside town of Kep, diners order this dish directly on the pier, topped with highly prized Kep crab, fresh or dried shrimp, squid, and whatever happens to be in the catch of the day. In Indonesia, arem arem is a common street snack, traditionally made with coconut rice rolled into banana leaves around some kind of filling and then steamed. Originally from Kebumen in Central Java, it was originally a modest dish made primarily with vegetables, but these days the garnishes can include cooked chicken, beef, or flaked fish like canned or fresh tuna fried with seasonings. Tempeh mixed with meat or vegetables is also very popular. Arem-arem mie is a modern interpretation of the same dish in which noodles replace the rice.
Far from being a guilty pleasure, the status of many of these dishes, like that of the Jeh O tom yam, could almost be qualified as fashionable or aspirational. Noi Sisomphone, a well-traveled Laotian law student, elaborates: “In Laos, like in Thailand, we also have papaya salad and other kinds of som tam. Instant noodle som tam is one of the most preferred som tam among young people [and has become] one of the most famous street foods” in the last few years. The imported Thai brand Wai Wai is the noodle of choice, and in addition to shredded papaya, long beans, fish sauce, and lime, padek or fermented fish gives the salad a distinctively funky note that Laotians crave.
Another example of the noodle’s ascension to new levels of classiness is Maggi ketam, named for the brand of reference in Malaysia and the Malay word for crab. Softened blocks of Maggi mee and chunks of locally fished crab are stir-fried with chilis and onions in a sauce thickened with eggs and tomatoes. Day-trippers trek out to Pulau Ketam or Crab Island to devour huge plates of noodles and crab before enjoying a leisurely tour of the carless island, a refreshing contrast to the ever-congested streets of Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysians, along with their neighbors in Singapore, Indonesia, and Brunei, also love murtabak, flaky dough encasing a savory filling and fried on the griddle to a crisp. In the instant noodle version of this dish of Indian origin, eggs bind the noodles that are fried into a cake not unlike a frittata. It is now a regular feature in the pasar malam or night markets throughout the region.
Even great chefs can be unapologetic about their taste for instant noodles. For Gaggan Anand, whose eponymous Gaggan has topped the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list three years running, Maggi 2 Minutes is his madeleine de Proust. “It's always in my luggage after a trip to India,” his native country. It was the dish that started him on the road to a life in the kitchen. “Maggi 2 Minutes was my first cooking experiment when I was 10 years old. I added the vegetables exactly as pictured on the packaging. I remember it exactly.” Several experiments soon followed. In the end, Anand discovered that doctoring up the noodles wasn’t the answer. “It didn't taste good. No salt. Bland. First timers!” Now when he enjoys them, he eats them instant and leaves them well enough alone.
When prodded, even the combative Besa, who has sworn off instant noodles, admits a weakness for a dry mix of instant noodles, steamed veggies, and greens with toppings like peanuts, sugar, and toasted garlic. “Man, I was addicted to that salad,” she says wistfully.
There may be good reasons not to give in to the siren song of the instant noodle. Or maybe not. That question is a matter of conscience best left between the diner and the diner's food gods or demons. But the mouth-watering allure of instant noodles is undeniable. And ultimately irresistible.