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The rise of instant noodle nation

Zhang Lei

CHINA DAILY – When COVID-19 was contained in May 2020 throughout China and life was returning to something like normal, instant snail noodles began to raise their head.

These pungent noodles from Liuzhou, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region whose smell many find addictive, began to change Chinese views on traditional instant food.

People in their mid to late 30s are said to account for more than half the sales of the noodles. One of the top brands, Liziqi, sold 520,000 bags in just one day in May 2020, more than 10 times its average sales in a single month in 2019.

The phenomenon prompted anxiety among traditional instant noodles makers, including Master Kong, Uni-President, Jinmailang and Baixiang, the industry’s four behemoths, adding yet more variables to an already complex pattern of competition.

However, after two years of competing with the fad of snail noodles, the makers of flour-based noodles that can be ready to eat in three minutes have emerged with newfound confidence, having consolidated their popularity among young people.

Wang Zhigao, 24, who works in a technology company in Beijing, remembers when instant noodles were his saviour in his school days. At college, he said, he always used to have a few cartons of instant noodles on standby in his dormitory. One of his favourites, Master Kong braised beef noodles, set him back a mere CNY10 (USD1.57) for five packets.

If hunger pangs set in in the wee hours or when he needed some energy to pep himself up after hours of study, he took a pot, poured hot water into it, and in a matter of minutes was chomping into a bowl of instant noodles. Even now with a well-paid job he has still not got over the instant noodles kick.

“Having a bowl of noodles as I watch TV on my iPad is a great way of getting rid of the day’s fatigue,” he said.

The World Instant Noodle Association said 117 billion servings of noodles were consumed globally in 2020, China ranking first with 50 billion servings. Total consumption in China rose 20.3 per cent compared with that of 2016, hitting a new high in six years. With about 50 billion packs sold, China’s 1.4 billion people eat an average 36 packets of instant noodle each every year.

Instant noodles have long been seen as champions of convenience and as a quick fix for a longing appetite, but as not particularly healthy. But with innovation and clever marketing, views seem to have evolved. Challenged by new fast foods such as snail noodles, self-heating pots, and premade meals, instant noodles are regaining lost ground by launching new high-end brands. From the shelf in the supermarket, or their Taobao official flagship stores, instant noodle brands have bid farewell to their cheap but cheerful CNY5 meals.

Master Kong’s Express Noodle House series charges CNY66 for four boxes of boiled noodles.

Uni-President’s Soup Master is also popular, its golden soup beef ramen series costing CNY80 for four boxes. Uni-President’s palace flavour series, with a lid and folding chopsticks instead of a plastic fork, will set you back CNY179 for six bowls.

Emerging convenience food brands with label references to the likes of “richer ingredients”, “better photogenic” are opening up the consumer market to young people. High-end instant noodles are taking over convenience food aisles. Twenty-four per cent of instant noodles in supermarkets are priced at CNY5-10 and about 33 per cent at CNY10-20.

Makers of upmarket instant noodles, in addition to putting a premium on appearance, are going all out to ensure their ingredients are just right. For example, in expensive instant noodles, real meat is added, and the instant noodle companies use technologies such as concentration and freeze-drying to preserve nutrients, soup and vegetables.

Food industry analyst Zhu Danpeng said: “With the continuous upgrading of consumption, consumers’ demands for instant noodles are also increasing, and young people are less sensitive to their price. It’s entirely possible for instant noodles to be sold at a high price, CNY50 even.”

A ‘2021 Instant Noodle Despise Chain’ illustration widely disseminated on the Internet shows old crock sauerkraut was a runaway flavour favourite last year, but its fortunes dived after China Central Television alleged in a programme on March 15 that bad sauerkraut processing had led to the presence of unsafe levels of bacteria. Noodle flavours next on the chart were braised beef, spicy beef and rattan pepper. Stewed chicken noodles with mushrooms were at the bottom of the chart, and there were comments raising serious questions about customers’ taste buds.

Even though noodles have been a staple in China for centuries, it was not until the late 1980s that instant noodles emerged. In fact, as the reform and opening-up took off, instant noodles became a symbol of surging economic prosperity. Shanghai Yimin Food Factory and Beijing Instant Noodle Factory both introduced Japanese bagged fried instant noodles, and by 1982, 10 sets of convenience food production lines had been imported from Japan. In 1981 alone, more than 6,500 tonnes of instant noodles were produced nationwide.

The instant noodle leader Huafeng was founded at this time. Its bright yellow packaging of three fresh delicacies noodles has become part of the collective memory of the youth of those days, as has the product’s advertising punchline ‘Chi huafeng: lulutong!’ (‘When you eat Huafeng, everything’s within reach.’)

At the same time there was rapid urbanisation in developing countries, and in the 1980s and ‘90s the reform of China’s rural economy opened the door for more educated youth to live in cities. The growth of companies in the cities created millions of jobs, and the tidal power of migrant workers, many of them avid consumers of instant noodles, began to make waves.

That in turn created a stampede of companies all over the country into the instant noodle market.

In 1992, the founder of Master Kong Wei Yingzhou surveyed northern China and created braised beef noodles according to northern tastes, setting up a factory in Tianjin. The brand’s classic braised beef noodles still dominate the country’s instant noodle market today. In addition to a bag of powder, it came with a bag of beef sauce, a cardboard bowl and plastic fork that generated a revolution in instant noodle making. In 1994, just two years after the Master Kong factory opened, the company had sold 200 million packets of noodles.

As Master Kong’s braised beef noodles stamped their authority on the market, Uni-President, which had entered the mainland market earlier, changed its target to focus on the next generation. In 1999, the company recruited an advertising firm that came up with the idea of inserting into packets collectors’ cards of heroes from the Chinese literature classic Water Margin. Since then, eating noodles and collecting cards have been a childhood memory for tens of millions of Chinese.

The height of the instant noodle industry’s fortunes was in 2012 when 44 billion packets were sold, meaning that each person was eating 34 packets of instant noodles a year. From that point, sales went into decline. The financial writer Wu Xiaobo, in his book China’s Reform Behind a Pack of Instant Noodles, said consumption upgrades and the disappearance of “migrant workers’ dividends”, attributed to the decline mostly.

However, gastronomy influencers livestreaming their dining habits in front of webcams at home became a powerful force on the Internet in China in 2017, and instant noodles began to make a comeback. It was at this time that the food blogger Big Stomach Mizijun posted the first food video on Weibo, showing that she ate 10 bowls of hot spicy chicken noodles in one go, and it immediately became popular. The video was viewed by more than 2.18 million times within a month.

Zhang Junqian, a Beijing college student, said she watches the Internet food channel Ms Kinoshita. Kinoshita, a Japanese woman popular for eating tonnes of meals in just a single sitting, is one of China’s favourite Japanese public figures.

“Seeing her eating so happily makes me feel good, and it seems to drive out any worries I have,” Zhang said.

Figures from the Internet shopping platforms Taobao and Tmall show that sales of instant noodles peak at 10pm and continue to sell well for a few hours after that. Although placing an order does not necessarily mean that someone eats a similar product they have on hand there and then, it suggests that people sitting alone late into the night have a keen desire for them.

Similar figures from Taobao show the proportion of consumer orders in first- and second-tier cities from those in their 20s between midnight and 6am is higher than at the peak online shopping time of 8pm to midnight.

Just as noodles were seen as a token of surging prosperity in the late 1980s and in the 90s, instant noodles can be regarded as a sign of material wealth in China’s Internet economy. So instant noodles seemed to be far from disappearing from the eating habits of young Chinese, let alone from the memories of older people who were there when they took off in China all those years ago.

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