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Instant noodles rule the world!
It is the most popular processed food on earth, and by far the most controversial. Its supporters say it is the ideal food for the masses and one of the 20th century's great inventions. Its detractors call it a weapon of mass destruction and blame its high sodium content and preservatives for widespread malnutrition from the Philippines to Mexico.
Easy to prepare and stomach-filling, it has become the staple diet of the world's dispossessed and victims of war and disaster.Made of wheat but in great demand in rice-, corn- and bean-growing countries, it has helped boost the agricultural exports of rich nations in the First World at the expense of poor nations in the Third World. Countries use it to extend their foreign policies; companies use it to penetrate new markets. It is incorporated in Canada’s foreign aid package to Indonesia in 1997/98 to help generate demand for its wheat farmers. It is said to have figured in Australia’s scandalous wheat sale to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. South Korea famously offered it to North Korea in return for closer relations, which Kim Jong Il turned down in a moment of pique.
An Asian product, it is now to be found everywhere. In America it sits prominently on supermarket shelves, competing with Campbell soup and Heinz baked beans for the consumer dollar. In Russia it is fast becoming a popular snack
food. Nestle, the Swiss food conglomerate, uses it to gain a foothold in Syria. Tingyi and Uni-President, two Taiwanese food concerns, use it to dominate the convenience stores in mainland China. In Mexico, it has replaced corn tortillas as the food of choice for the young, the poor and the urban dwelling.
Cheap and infinitely adaptable to local tastes, it comes in a bewildering number of varieties. The Mexicans like it with tomato sauce. The Koreans eat it spicy. In Japan, its birthplace, a few hundred new products are offered every year. In Britain, one single brand, produced by Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate, has dominated the market. It was slurped down by workers labouring on the Qinghai-Tibet railway 4,000 metres above sea level. Chinese soldiers carry it with them while conducting UN peacekeeping duties in Liberia. Arctic explorers carry it with them to the North Pole. It has accompanied mountaineers ascending the Himalayas, its plastic wrapping and styrofoam cups now a major source of pollution in the once-pristine snow-capped mountains. It accompanied Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi onboard the US shuttle Discovery, and Chinese taikonaut Nie Haisheng when he orbited the earth on the Shenzhou 6 spacecraft. Love it or hate it, you can’t escape it. Instant noodles are taking over the world.
This year the world will gulp down nearly 100 billion (100,000,000,000) cup and pack noodles, averaging 16 servings for every man, woman and child on earth. Stacked together, they form a chain long enough to stretch from the earth to the moon and back 25 times, or girdle the earth 250 times. Their total weight is more than 10 million tonnes, as much as 120 aircraft carriers. Amazing for something that was invented in a rundown kitchen in a small city near Osaka not even half a century ago.
Instant noodles was the brainchild of Momofuku Ando, a transplanted Taiwanese who moved to Osaka and took up a Japanese name. In 1958 Ando, whose lending business was doing badly, was watching his wife frying noodles in the kitchen. Suddenly he realised the end product — a dry lump of noodles — was so fused with oil and porous that it could be made soft and tasty again by soaking it in hot water. It was one of the "Eureka!" moments of food history. After months of trial and error, Ando produced the world’s first instant noodles. It was pre-cooked and sold in a pack. The product was an immediate hit. Today Ando, an immensely rich man and a local folk hero nearing his 100th birthday, has just retired but is still keeping a close eye on how his son is running the company he founded, Nissin Food Products.
Nissin may be the most famous brand of instant noodles, but it is no longer the biggest. By volume, the honour goes to Indofood, a company owned by the Salim group, which holds a near-monopoly in Indonesia’s burgeoning market for instant noodles. If all goes according to plan, Indofood’s production could hit 10 billion packs and cups this year.
Even among the Japanese, Nissin is no longer the most progressive. While others were eyeing the cut-throat Chinese market, Toyo Suisan, a medium-sized player, quietly expanded its presence in Mexico. Today it sells close to 1 billion servings of instant noodles in the country, with an enviable market share of just under 90%. Its brand, Maruchan, is so famous among the Mexicans that it is now part of their vocabulary.
Like many other businesses, instant-noodle manufacturing has gone through a bout of rapid expansion, only to be followed by a period of painful consolidation during which factories were closed and jobs lost.
Today the industry has become more orderly. A trade body, cutely named IRMA — the International Ramen Manufacturers Association — was formed in 1997, in the midst of the Asian Financial Crisis. IRMA members, who include most of the big boys, meet regularly to trash out issues of common interest (how to get cheaper wheat, how to avoid another price war), and to work together to open new markets.
The fifth IRMA meeting was conducted in Seoul in April. For 48 years its members have sold their instant noodles on the 3As: affordable, acceptable and available. This has carried them further than anyone could have imagined.
But IRMA now wants to move upmarket. It has introduced a Global Standard for Ramen, a set of rules for the ingredients and preparation of instant noodles. IRMA hopes this will change the perception of instant noodles as junk food and help to sell it to the more health-conscious, affluent classes.
Given that instant noodles are often made in remote places, enforcement of the standard will be difficult, if not impossible. Moreover, some association members reportedly opined that such a standard will add extra costs in a business already suffering from dwindling margins.
Nissin, on the other hand, is pushing the standard as hard as it can. It still promotes the three "rules" laid down by Momofuku Ando decades ago.
Rule One: Peace will come to the world when its people have enough to eat.
Rule Two: Eating wisely will enhance beauty and health.
Rule Three: The creation of food will serve society.
These rules have helped to build Nissin from nothing to a US$2.6 billion-a-year concern. The question now is whether Nissin can convince the likes of Indofood and Tingyi that they apply equally well to markets in Indonesia and China.
RELATED LINKS:Get to know the father of instant noodles Momofuku's cup noodles Who has not eaten ramen? Noodle politics
Lee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.