People & Society / Asia Wide

We’re just that into mie: Asia’s obsession with instant noodles

We’re just that into mie: Asia’s obsession with instant noodles

We use data to find out why.

Since its humble beginning as flash-fried noodles in 1958, instant noodles have been incorporated into doughnuts, enhanced with pudding, used as prison currency, and even as drywall to repair sinks.

What is it about instant noodles that continues to capture our imagination after all these years?

moving chopstick divider

Asia ❤️ instant noodles

In a 2000 poll, Japan voted instant noodles as the country’s best invention in the 20th century. It looks like the rest of Asia agree. According to the World Instant Noodles Association (yes it's legit), Asians are the biggest consumers of instant noodles. Eight out of the top ten countries for global consumption are situated in Asia.

Top 10 countries with the highest demand for instant noodles

Why is Asia so obsessed with instant noodles? To find out, we looked at data from the Ramen Rater, the reigning authority on instant noodles.

Instant noodle brands are mostly from Asia

Distribution of instant noodle brands according to their country of origin

Asian Country Non-Asian Country

Each dot represents an instant noodle brand. Click the dot to see the brand.

According to the Ramen Rater, he gets his instant noodles from different sources. He buys them, or they are gifts from fans, retailers, big instant noodle distributors, and corporations. While we do not claim that his list is representative of all the available instant noodle brands out there, Asian brands do dominate. The Nissin brand from Japan is virtually synonymous with instant noodles worldwide. And even when brands originate from Western countries—like Maggi which is Swiss—Asian countries hold the biggest market share.

Since Asia is both a big exporter and consumer of instant noodles, we wanted to follow up by seeing if localisation was a big factor in explaining Asia’s instant noodle craze.

Local noodles, local flavours

Gone were the days where instant noodles were simply dried noodle blocks. To stay ahead of the competition, instant noodle companies have come up with noodle types and flavours that are familiar to Asian palettes. Anyone feeling homesick can instantly get a taste of home by grabbing a curry flavoured maggi mee, or by slurping a bowl of jjajangmyeon (black bean sauce noodles) while watching mukbang videos (eating broadcasts) for the full experience.

Types of Noodles

Enterprising companies have found a way to convert various asian noodles into instant ones. Noodle types are plotted based on how many times they occur in the dataset.

Noodle types that are common also tend to be quite versatile. Take udon for example. It may have originated from Japan, but countries like South Korea have given it their own spin with the pojangmacha (street food) udon.

Click the icons for more information about the noodle type.

Mouse over the icons for more information about the noodle type

Instant noodles flavours

Perhaps you have eaten tom yum-flavoured instant noodles before even trying the real tom yum soup. The diversity of instant noodles flavours has enabled people to sample different cuisines at an affordable price.

Distribution of flavours across countries

Click to select a flavour and see its distribution across countries.

Curry and spicy flavours are most well-loved across Asia, which makes sense as a lot of its cuisines use spice.

Portion Sizes

We have a theory: instant noodles sizes are proportionate to the size of the people. To test it out, we compared the average weight of the population (male and female) with the weight of each country’s most common instant noodles.

Average mass of person against the average mass of 1 serving size of the most common instant noodle per country

chart comparing mass of person and serving size chart comparing mass of person and serving size

Surprisingly, the lightest (India) and heaviest (Taiwan) people do have the lightest (70g) and heaviest (200g) instant noodle packets. But everything else in between does not support our theory. If we consider the sheer variety of instant noodles that exists, it makes sense that companies would not be able to tailor the portion size of instant noodles to each country.

Instant noodles are cheap 💵

Instant noodles has helped alleviate the hunger of millions, from cash-strapped college students, to low-wage workers on a budget.

To see how affordable instant noodles truly are, we compared the most common instant noodles in each country against the price of other common food items, like one litre of milk and a fast food combo meal. Turns out, instant noodles are very affordable, with Indomie being the most cost-effective at US$0.18. Taiwan and Japan are slight outliers, crossing the US$1.00 mark. A possible explanation for Taiwan is that the chosen instant noodles, “TLL Taiwan Huadiao Chicken Noodle” is a premium instant noodle with actual chicken slices inside.

Price of 🍜instant noodle compared to 🥛milk and 🍟fast food

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US$

Ramen Rater's 2019 Top 10 List 🏆

It would be sacrilegious to use Ramen Rater’s data without showing his famous top ten instant noodles list, so here are his picks for 2019.

Click to learn more about each noodle.
#1: Prima Taste Singapore Laksa Wholegrain La Mian - Singapore
#2: Red Chef Spicy Sakura Prawn Soup Noodles - Malaysia
#3: Liangchengmei Food Biang Biang Mian - China
#4: A-Sha Gourmet Braised Beef Noodle Soup - Taiwan
#5: CarJEN Nyonya Curry Laksa - Malaysia
#6: Prima Taste Singapore Curry Wholegrain La Mian - Singapore
#7: Red Chef Green Tom Yum Soup Noodles - Malaysia
#8: Mom’s Dry Noodle Dan Dan Noodle - Taiwan
#9: Sau Tao Tom Yum Kung Flavour Ramen - Hong Kong
#10: Indomie Real Meat Mi Instan Goreng Rendang - Indonesia

We explored the potential reasons why instant noodles are so popular in Asia, but sometimes it is difficult to quantify the love of something.

When Momofuku Ando invented instant noodles in 1958, he wanted to design a form of sustenance which would tide people through tough times. From the start, instant noodles was about celebrating humanity.

61 years later, instant noodles is still fulfilling this purpose. In 2010, South Korea shipped three million cups of instant noodles to North Korea as a food aid, a first for the two divided countries.

Instant noodles also reveal the idiosyncratic sides of people. “Ramyeon meokgo galrae?”, translated as, “You wanna eat ramen before you go?” became a way for shy millennials in South Korea to gauge romantic interest in 2017. Reddit is filled with posts about instant noodles, from tips on how to elevate it, to discussions over what people add to the noodles. Kylie Jenner set off a frenzy when she shared her ‘secret’ instant noodles recipe on Snapchat. It may seem silly that we care so much about a convenient food item. But instant noodles has always been the food of the people. As the Momofuku Ando’s saying goes:

mr ando quote
Methodology

Data collected from the Ramen Rater’s Big List. For the portion size and affordability section, we chose the countries based on the Asian countries with the highest count. The cost of each country’s milk and fast food combo was collected from Expatistan.

Note on how we categorised flavours: using R, we use string detect on the “Variety” column to determine the flavor of instant noodles. After that, we group and summarise by “Country” to obtain the count of flavors for each country. For example, to count the number of instant ramen tagged with “Spicy”, we detected different descriptions of spiciness such as “Spicy”, “Hot”, “Pedas” (spicy in Malay and Indonesian). This is to account for all the variations of spicy that manifest in another language.

Yet translations must also be used sparingly. For instance, while “Mi Goreng” can be literally translated to “Fried Noodles”, it is inaccurate to equate the two. For this dataset, “Mi Goreng” refers to the Southeast Asian style. Some instant noodles have more than one categorisation of flavours. For example, an instant noodle can be both tagged as “Curry” and “Spicy”. In that case, they will appear for both graphs depending on the selected flavor button.



Topics:

  • indomie,
  • instant noodles,
  • momofuku ando,
  • nissin,
  • ramen rater

Disclaimer: Our stories have been researched and fact-checked to the best of our abilities. Should you spot mistakes, inaccuracies, or have queries about our sources, please drop us an e-mail at hello@kontinentalist.com

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