How did Japanese Instant Noodles Become So Popular?
Japanese instant noodles have found their way into our everyday life; be it a late-night snack after a long workday or a quick meal in between lectures. Nowadays, every supermarket and convenience store offers at least some collection of this world-famous noodle product. Many countries have created their own version, and it is still growing more and more popular every day. But how exactly did instant noodles become an empire worth billions in the first place?
Japanese instant noodles - A brief history lesson
Let’s start at the very beginning - in a war-torn Japan after World War II (1945). It all begins with a man called Momofuku Ando. If you know a bit of instant ramen history, you already know how much of a ramen legend Ando really is. He first had the idea for ramen that is easy to prepare at home during Japan's post-war ramen craze. The USA donated wheat flour with the intention of it being an ingredient for bread. But the Japanese used this wheat flour to make ramen noodles instead! This ramen was sold at market stands for very cheap and people would line up in endlessly long queues.
Seeing potential in the idea of selling ramen in an “instant” form, Ando founded his company Nissin Foods in 1948. After a lot of experimenting in his backyard shed, the first instant ramen packet, a chicken ramen, was ready to see the light of day in 1958. It became a big hit in Japan. But eventually popularity faded a bit. Therefore, Ando sought a new market in the USA. He was surprised to find that Americans would break the noodle block in half, put it in a cup, pour boiling water in and eat directly out of it. Thus, cup noodles were born in 1971. It was a huge success again, especially outside Japan.
Success of Japanese instant noodles overseas
Despite Japanese instant noodles obviously being invented in Japan itself, the Japanese aren’t actually the top consumers of it. Looking at servings per year, China takes the top spot - by a lot too! Indonesia, Vietnam and India also make up the Top 4, pushing Japan into the fifth spot only. The Top 10 consists of mostly Asian countries, with only the USA and Brazil breaking into it as well. The sheer existence of a World Instant Noodles Association (WINA) proves: Japanese instant noodles have become a world-wide phenomenon.
Still, it’s also clear that the Asian market is still dominating massively. Most instant noodle brands are from Asia, like Nongshim, Indofood and Nissin itself. Indonesia’s Indomie and Thailand’s MAMA are products everyone thinks of when asked about instant noodles. South Korea even has its own version of instant ramen called “ramyun” which is also very popular across the world. All this is to say that there seems to be something about instant noodles that sticks with an Asian audience first and foremost. Let’s find out what it is.
Why are instant noodles so popular?
That’s a question I would like to counter with another question: Why wouldn’t they be? There are many reasons why instant noodles are sold almost 120 billion times a year now. Most of all, they are cheap and convenient yet still taste good. So, it’s definitely no surprise they are as popular as they are. But let’s get a little more in-depth with the top three reasons I think instant noodles are a go-to for so many people.
1) They're convenient
This one is obvious. You put the noodle block into boiling water, throw a few seasoning packets in, maybe add a topping or two and voilà: It’s done! Furthermore, with cup noodles, it’s even easier (as we’ve already seen). This convenience is great for someone like me with zero cooking skills. It's even greater for an overworked Japanese salaryman on his lunch break.
The culture of convenience is almost synonymous with most Asian cultures and shows itself in every part of daily life. So, the rise of convenience stores and vending machines made instant noodles fit in perfectly. In some Asian convenience stores it’s even possible to cook instant noodles then and there! This level of convenience is something most Western countries are only very slowly adopting, if at all.
2) There is variety
What started with a simple chicken ramen has now become a big playground of thousands of different flavors. Imagine a flavor and there’s probably an instant ramen version of it somewhere out there. Bacon? Sure. Chicken tortilla? Yeah, why not? Every curry flavor ever? Of course!
As long as you have no problem with most being spicy, you’re good to go. Spicy flavors actually dominate the market significantly. Some of the most popular instant noodles being the so-called fire noodles from Samyang (I also willingly tortured myself many times eating them).
There are so many flavors out there that it’s hard NOT to find something for you. Then again, flavors mostly cater towards an Asian palette. This makes sense when most brands are from Asia. You’ll find instant noodles of practically every type of Asian dish: Tom yum, tonkotsu (pork bone), mi goreng, masala, and so on and so forth. It’s interesting to think that I have eaten so much Kimchi-flavored instant noodles, but have never actually eaten any real Kimchi dish.
3) It’s high quality
This point might actually surprise some people, but yes, instant noodles are becoming more and more high quality. The pioneers here again are the Japanese, even going as far as creating "premium" instant ramen. While most instant noodles very much play into the convenient and cheap aspect, premium instant ramen aims to give a more authentic ramen experience. It has fresher ingredients and includes actual toppings that can be found on regular ramen, too. Even some popular ramen restaurants offer their own premium instant ramen nowadays. So, if you would like to know what Michelin star instant ramen tastes like, give it a go!
The future of Japanese instant noodles
There are no signs that Japanese instant noodles will stop being our trusted meal of choice when we don’t want to cook. Although more and more articles debate the health aspect of these noodles, there are already healthier products on the horizon. Also, I don’t think people flocked to instant noodles because of their health benefits in the first place. Additionally, sustainability plays a big role in many industries nowadays. The impact of billions of instant noodle wrappings is noticeable. That is what the market should focus its efforts on in the future, in my opinion.
Growth of the industry is not to be underestimated and the pandemic didn’t halt this growth in any way. The opposite is true actually: the long shelf life and affordable