Chinese Youth Take Their Love for Instant Noodles to the Next Level

From salmon-topped noodles to a Shanghai restaurant with over 100 varieties of instant noodles, China's youth are tricking out cup noodles

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9:24 PM HKT, Wed December 15, 2021 6 mins read

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“It would be a pity to exclude instant noodles from my life,” says Fiona Xu, a 21-year-old junior college student based in the city of Hangzhou in East China.

So many of her memories involve the food item, Xu tells RADII. When she was in Europe for her middle school exchange program, teenage Xu found convenience stores were the best place to shy away from conversations and enjoy a hot meal. Her most common selections were a pack of instant noodles and a rice ball.

The ubiquitous snack became even more important during the early days of the pandemic. Xu’s university campus was closed to the public, and she had limited access to food in the college dorm, so she had to rely on instant noodles, eating them at least three times a week.

Even though Xu has moved out of her dorm, she still eats instant noodles regularly. Since the end of 2020, she has been documenting every pack of noodles she consumes and sharing her culinary adventures on social media.

instant noodles raccoon

Fiona Xu says she particularly likes Korean noodles because they are chewier. She’s also fond of the raccoon-looking fish cakes in the package. Image courtesy of Fiona Xu

Instant noodles were first invented in 1958 by Japan’s Momofuku Ando of the Nissin Foods company. Many countries have since imported and developed their own varieties of instant noodles.

In China, four local brands dominate the market: Master Kong, Uni-President, Jin Mai Lang, and Bai Xiang. According to Daxue Consulting, in 2018, the four companies occupied more than 80% of the total market share of instant noodles in China.

Thanks to the global pandemic, cup noodles have become one of the most popular items in grocery stores worldwide. Walmart’s online sales of instant noodles jumped 578% between February 23 and March 21 last year.

Though the food item appeared in China in the 1960s, it didn’t become widely accepted until the ’80s. And now, it is the biggest market for instant noodles globally.

According to the World Instant Noodles Association (yes, it’s a thing), Chinese mainlanders and Hong Kong residents combined ate more than 46 billion servings of instant noodles in 2020 — almost four times as much as the world’s second-largest market, Indonesia.

Now, four decades after debuting in China, with the growth of online shopping and international trade, Chinese millennials and Gen Zers who grew up with instant noodles are demanding more innovative ways to consume their favorite treat.

Not Instant Anymore

Instant noodles were created amid the economic uncertainty following World War II. Traditionally, people gravitated to the product because it is fast, cheap, and filling. Even today, you can find travelers in China eating paper cup noodles while on the road.

However, to increase shelf life, instant noodles are often highly processed, lacking nutritional value, and filled with additives. Many Chinese youths recall that their parents didn’t allow them to eat cup noodles while growing up.

“When I was young, I thought instant noodles were very fragrant and delicious, but my parents seldom fed me those. So for me, they used to be ‘luxury items’ in my life,” Xu says.

She adds that her initial memory of instant noodles was Master Kong’s classic braised beef noodles.

instant noodles master kong braised beef

Master Kong’s classic braised beef noodles, on the left, only cost 5.3RMB (about 0.8USD) in Shanghai convenience stores. Image via Lu Zhao

But when young kids grow up and go to college, they have the freedom to choose whatever they want to eat, meaning instant noodles are especially popular among university students.

For them, the food item is not unhealthy, but convenient and flavorful. And instead of simply pouring hot water into paper cups, some take the time to make a real meal.

Freya Xie, a 20-year-old philosophy major based in Guangzhou, eats instant noodles every other day. Xie says her junior year has been hectic, and she only has one hour between afternoon and evening classes.

spinach instant noodles xie

Freya Xie adds salmon to a pack of dried spinach noodles. Image courtesy of Freya Xie

Instead of lining up in the cafeteria or ordering pricy takeout, she rushes back to her dorm and cooks instant noodles with her favorite ingredients. She usually adds bok choy, eggs, and ham sausages into the mix.

“Cooking some noodles after a busy day is a good psychological comfort to college students. It combines the convenience of instant food and the satisfaction of cooking for yourself,” Xie says.

Even food bloggers offer hacks to elevate instant noodles to a restaurant-quality meal.

Vlogger Cat’s Kitchen (Rishiji 日食记), who has more than 20 million followers on the Twitter-like platform Weibo, lists six ways to make instant ramen in longer than an instant.

“If instant noodles are inconvenient, how can you call it instant noodles?” writes Cat’s Kitchen in his recipes. “That’s what I had thought before I had instant noodles cooked in these ways. They’re so good.”

Upgraded Instant Noodles

With the increasing demand for health-conscious products among Chinese youth, instant noodle companies in China are also trying to make the food item high-quality, healthy, and cool.

Many instant noodle brands have created upgraded versions of their products to use natural flavors instead of a simple MSG base, foldable chopsticks instead of plastic forks, real beef chunks, freeze-dried broth and vegetables, along with well-designed packaging. The target: young consumers in first-tier cities.

“As consumption continues to upgrade, consumers’ demand for instant noodles is also increasing, and young consumers are less sensitive to prices,” says food industry analyst Zhu Danpeng in an interview with a Chinese financial news outlet.

Master Kong introduced its high-end product, Express Noodle, at the Single’s Day Shopping Festival in 2018 and sold out in two hours. They cost 25RMB per cup, five times the price of its classic beef noodles. The brand will also provide customized Express Noodles for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

Other than the four instant noodle giants, new brands such as Ramen Talk and Yuan Niang Niang are also emerging in China’s market.

Founded in Shanghai in September 2016, Ramen Talk claims to provide “restaurant-level tastes at home,” with handmade fresh noodles and authentic ingredients. In 2020, its sales reached 600 million RMB.

ramen talk instant noodles

Ramen Talk has six different flavors. Image via Ramen Talk

It’s safe to say that most regions in China have their own distinguished cuisine, which usually includes a famous local noodle variety. Some of these unique regional flavors have been made instantly available, such as reganmian (hot dry noodles) from Wuhan and luosifen (rice noodles with river snail broth) from the southern province of Guangxi.

In terms of flavors, China’s largest instant noodle producer, Master Kong, reportedly has more than 200 varieties across the country, though some are only available in specific regions.

For example, braised Dongpo pork noodles are commonly seen in China’s Jiangnan region. The noodles are inspired by a famous Hangzhou dish made by pan-frying and slow braising pork belly.

instant noodles master kong dongpo pork

Master Kong’s braised Dongpo pork noodles are commonly seen in the Jiangnan region. Image via Weibo

Xu says she has an eclectic taste, but her favorite regional flavor is Master Kong’s shredded pork noodles with pickled vegetables.

Speaking as to why these noodles are her top choice, she tells us, “Because I’m from Hangzhou and there is a well-known noodle dish called pianerchuan. One of its main materials is pickled vegetables. I think the umami flavor of the pickled vegetables in Master Kong’s noodles is pretty good,” Xu explains.

Global Noodle Tastes

Xie Qiong, 35, is a foreign trade specialist based in Hangzhou. He started reviewing instant noodles in September last year after being inspired by “Instant Noodles Master Hans Lienesch,” Xie tells RADII.

“I admire Lienesch’s spirit of insistently evaluating instant noodles, so I wanted to make a similar review list in China to pay tribute to my role model,” he says.

Xie has reviewed 106 different noodles from China and abroad, and his most recent review is YumYum Tom Yum Shrimp Creamy Flavor. He also created a community group on the Chinese social media platform Douban in October 2020, which has since attracted almost 25,000 members.

“Instant noodles are not junk food; instant noodles should live with their dignity; instant noodles are our favorite. Join us and share every wonderful moment that instant noodles have brought to you,” reads the description of the group.

instant noodles beef jinhuangpin

Xie Qiong’s friend recommended these beef noodles to him and they have become one of his favorites. Image courtesy of Xie Qiong

To experience and evaluate more types of instant ramen, Xie used to have one pack per day and sometimes two packs on the weekends. He has slowed down but still eats instant noodles at least once a week. Xie says it’s the first thing he’ll think of whenever he doesn’t know what to cook or feels lazy.

Meanwhile, other noodle fans have taken their love to a professional level.

In 2018, Chico Ngou, 32, opened an instant ramen restaurant called Instant Noodles Boy in Shanghai. The inspiration? He wished to have a restaurant where he could eat different kinds of instant noodles from around the world after going out at night with his friends.

The name of the restaurant came from his nickname at college. Ngou studied in the UK and ate instant noodles at least once a day to save money. He did so for four years and never grew tired of his favorite meal. He even named one of his cats Instant Noodles.

instant noodles boy shanghai

Chico Ngou offers more than 100 different kinds of instant noodles from around the world at his Shanghai restaurant. Image courtesy of Chico Ngou

“I think instant noodles are really delicious and better than the noodles you have at some restaurants. There are so many different flavors, and there’s always a new experience,” Ngou says.

The restaurant serves more than 100 types of instant noodles and updates its menu every month. Ngou says he tries all the noodle varieties beforehand and only adds ones that he thinks are delicious or unique to the menu.

salted duck egg noodles

Salted duck egg dry noodles are the most popular signature dish in the shop. Courtesy of Chico Ngou

The shop also develops its own signature noodles. The most popular order is salted duck egg dry noodles.

Select anything from the menu, and store staff will cook it with fresh seasoning and ingredients added.

“I like instant noodles because there are many special flavors, and I want to share my favorites with people who have the same tastes and give them more choices,” Ngou says.

It’s clear there is a market for Ngou’s entrepreneurial undertaking: Chinese Millennials and Gen Zers are passionate about instant noodles and keen to get creative with the food item. We’d be lying if we said we aren’t excited about what unique flavors are dreamed up next.

Cover photo designed by Sabina Islas

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