Why Instant Noodles Become So Popular?

How does the Culture of Noodle Consumption evolve in relation to the social and economic changes?
The consumption of instant noodles is now widespread everywhere in the world as is the case with other types of fast food. Indeed the Japanese themselves regard the instant noodles as their most important invention ever. Using Hong Kong as an example, this paper will look at the reasons why instant noodle has become so popular and whether there are any marketing lessons to be learnt.

Noodles can be regarded as the second staple after rice in Asian countries. The great thing about noodles is that they can be prepared in various combinations; with sauces, in soup, fried, with all kinds of meat, seafood and vegetables. When compared to rice, noodle meals are cheaper and more convenient. A great deal of time can be saved in the preparing, consuming and dish washing processes. Therefore, despite it ancient origins, it is highly suited to the fast beat of modern society.
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Hong Kong is well known for its variety of cuisines and delicacies. Noodles are still very popular and serve as a daily meal for many, especially the working class. The noodle shop nowadays originated from the Dai Pai Dong noodle stall in the 1960's. At that time, the economy in Hong Kong was based very much on manufacturing industry. The factory workers either brought their lunch box or went to the Dai Pai Dong for a bowl of wonton noodle for their lunch. There were also many street hawkers who earned a living by using a cart to sell noodles with assorted toppings to serve the needs of pedestrians. In the early 1970's, immigration of people from different regions of the Mainland China encouraged the emergence of different varieties of noodle, soup and ingredients. These types of noodle shops were welcomed by the Hong Kong public.

The popularity of Japanese culture in the 80's bring Japanese noodles to HK

Hong Kong has always been heavily influenced by Japanese culture. It starts at a young age in Hong Kong where children are deluged with loads of Japanese cartoons and dramas. They become infatuated with characters such as Hello Kitty, Pokemon, Ultraman, Gozilla and Dragonball Z. Generally, all things Japanese are considered to be fashionable and sophisticated whereas Chinese culture is considered to be boring and staid. From the 1980's onward, many Japanese Department Stores set up operations in Hong Kong. They flourished at the expense of local department stores that were considered to be rather bland. They brought in the concept of food courts located inside a department store, which shoppers found convenient. Japanese food like sushi and noodles were the major fast food introduced in the food courts. Due to curiosity and adventurous nature of Hong Kong people towards different cultures and foods, it did not take long before Japanese noodles like udon, ramen, became well accepted in the Hong Kong marketplace.

Competitive Edge of Japanese over Chinese Noodle Shops

The traditional Chinese noodle stalls in Hong Kong has changed little over half a century. Like many traditional Chinese businesses, these were usually run by a family, (typically the father acts as the cook and master, the mother the cashier, and their children as waiters/ waitresses). Although the management of these stalls can be very flexible, they lack of control on the quality of food and customer service. Moreover, they do little to promote their shop image. The staff seldom wears uniform, and little attention is paid to food hygiene and the shop interior. Some stalls have pets strolling around and some don't even have air conditioning. Usually the menu is only in Chinese language, which is placed either under the greasy table glass top or pasted along the walls.

The target customers are usually people in their neighborhood and the business relied mainly on the low price strategies, or by word of mouth. The way in which the noodle is cooked is the crucial factor on getting return business. However, since the current generations of young people nowadays are able to receive higher education, they will not be eager to inherit their father's business. Given that running a noodle stall is not considered as a particular prestigious and well-paid job. Therefore when the master retires, he must pass on his technique to someone outside the family. It is a customary practice though for Chinese chefs not to pass on everything. Therefore, there is bound to be changes to the quality of the food once the business has changed hands.

The Japanese noodle shops on the other hand are better organized. In the shop front, there is usually a display window showing wax models of different set meals. The wax models can imitate the food so successfully that it provides a mouth-watering image to the passerby. When one walks into the shop, he will be greeted politely by trained waitresses either wearing apron or some sort of uniform. The shop interior is carefully design to reflect Japanese culture and is always clean and hygienic. The menu is supplemented by some very attractive photographs. So that customer can be assured what they order will match their expectations, even if they cannot read the menu correctly.

As the living standard of people in Hong Kong improves, their requirement on food is no longer just to fill the stomach. The target customers of Japanese noodles are usually the young generation and office workers. They are less price conscious and are willing to pay more for better food quality, service and eating environment. Although a bowl of noodle sold in a Japanese noodle shop could be at least three times higher than those sold in a Chinese noodle stall, many people still think that it is worth the money.
The Japanese film 'Tampopo' in 1986/7 lionized the Japanese noodle philosophy

Besides the overall image of a Japanese noodle shop, the consistency of food quality is the critical success factor for the Japanese noodles in penetrating the Hong Kong market. The Japanese have a fancy on noodles and have a serious attitude on trying to make the best noodle. This can be reflected in the film called 'Tampopo'. This is a comedy directed by Juzo Itami in 1986/7. The story is mainly on a Japanese noodle shopkeeper persistently pursuing ways to improve her noodle making technique. With the help of some amateur noodle gourmets, she had to first undergo a vigorous physical training program. Then they spied on local ramen shops in order to steal secret recipes from other chefs, and comparing the quality of service and decor. She slowly worked towards gaining confidence in herself, finding the correct balance in her food, and was finally able to make great noodles.
Although the story was a bit outrageous and the characters are exaggerated in order to be humorous.
This film revealed very much the mentality of typical Japanese. They take research seriously, and are keen on meticulous observation and detail. This kind of enthusiasm and persistency enabled them continuously to develop new product to suit the ever-changing demand of the global market.
The invention and the development of Instant Noodles
The process for turning the traditional Japanese Ramen noodles into the now familiar instant, packaged noodles was pioneered by Momofuku Ando. He founded of Nissin Foods in Japan shortly after World War II, when the country did not have enough food to feed itself. After he lost his job, Ando decided to spend his life working in the food industry. He turned his house into a small research laboratory, looking for a way to process noodles so they could be stored and prepared quickly. After considerable trial and error, he found out that, like tempura, deep-frying boiled noodles in very hot oil can remove water from them. Before they are eaten, numerous small holes on the surface allow the added hot water to quickly penetrate and return the noodles to their original condition.
In 1958, his instant noodle "Chicken Ramen" was first sold and was nickname "Magic Ramen". The new type of noodle was so popular and was sold out overnight. The rapid growth of the product can be attributed to its simplicity, sanitary packaging, preservability, and good taste. But the real turning point no doubt came with the introduction of cup-type noodles, where the food was prepared simply by pouring hot water over the dried contents, and the meal would be available in a few minutes.
In 1966, Ando was inspired by the way the instant noodle was sampled in an promotion campaign in the US, he then developed and marketed a new product called "Cup Noodles" in 1971. The change in packaging from bags to cups spurred the growth of instant noodle so that today, instant ramen has become an integral part of the Japanese diet. The product had also enjoyed great popularity overseas, with many imitators. The Japanese word ramen is now recognized in many parts of the world as being synonymous with instant noodles. Therefore today, Japanese instant noodles have become well established as part of the fast food culture, in the same manner as hamburgers and fried chicken.
Why Instant Noodles are so popular in the modern society?
Instant noodles are eaten around the world - 43.7 billion servings annually. The cup noodle is particularly suited to the rapid pace of modern living. The dried noodle and food base is packed into a cup along with a fork. All the customer needs to do is to pour hot water into the cup and wait for a few minutes. After consuming the meal, the whole receptacle is then discarded. The whole package is very light and can thus be easily carried to work and outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, and traveling on a plane, ferry, coach or train. Instant noodles are manufactured by machine so that the shape, size, and quality are the same each time. That way, the consumer can be assured of consistency in the product purchased.

Instant noodles have a long shelf life, which makes them eminently suitable for use in emergencies such as during a typhoon. Their ease of storage meant that they could be stocked easily by a variety of establishments. Instant noodles can now be bought in supermarket, convenient stores, gas stations, and vending machine. Quite often, hot water facilities are available on-site so that the customer can cook the product immediately after purchase. Instant noodles have become a favorite for many college student, bachelors and people who work overtime a lot. It also provides a good alternative for busy young married couples that would have gone out to eat otherwise. It also serves as an easy to prepare snack for many households. Therefore instant noodles have made a large impact on the food culture.
Key factors to the success on promotion of Instant Noodle
After the success of "Nissin" noodles, copycat makers appeared one after another. Even industry giants based in Western countries such as Lipton and Campbell's began to experiment with ramen-like products. Nowadays, there are hundreds of brands of instant noodles for selection in supermarkets around the world. Under such a fierce competition, each manufacturer would have to promote their products strategically.

According to a survey conducted by "Pot Noodle" (part of the Unilever group in the UK), around 50 per cent of purchases are impulse buys. Therefore, in order to stand out from the rest, attractive packaging is essential in order to draw the attention of potential buyers. Exotic images are associated with particular flavors, in order to promote the idea that eating instant noodles is fashionable. The Pot Noodle brand takes the whole idea further by trying to promote a cult image for its products (http://potnoodle.com)

Price is often not the crucial factor in the purchasing decision of customers. The price of instant noodles is usually much cheaper than a meal purchased in a fast food outlet such as McDonald抯 and Kentucky抯. The purchasing decision mainly rests of the food quality i.e. type of noodle and seasoning.
How does Instant Noodles fashion to meet different market niches?
Although cup noodle was modified from the pack noodle, and is considered to be more convenient, the original pack noodle is still in a high demand. Firstly the price is much less than equivalent cup noodle, and it takes up less storage space. Bowl noodle is very similar to cup noodle in design but the container is much more akin to those one would use at home or in restaurants. Some products even have a printed pattern on the bowl that imitates the look of a traditional Japanese ceramic bowl. This somehow lessens the feeling of an artificial product. Crumble noodle is a read-to-eat product, although it can also serve with hot water, it is crispy and mostly consumes as snack without water. However, one may become thirsty after eating crumble noodle because of the lack of water.
Factories that make instant noodles can now be found not only in Japan and the U.S., but also in Europe, Korea, China, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. The instant noodles produced often reflect local preferences. Korean ramen is highly spiced and often contains packets of black bean sauce. China makes ramen in Szechuan flavors, and Thailand makes very thin, delicate noodles with very hotly spiced packets. The Japanese prefers seafood and mild spices. In the U.S. they are usually available with meat and mushroom flavors, or mild spices often referred to as Oriental flavor�. In Hong Kong people seldom stick to a particular flavor, they like to try new flavors and tastes are likely to change in a short period of time. Therefore, in order to satisfy the Hong Kong market, as many flavors and textures should be offered as possible.
How did the concept and technology of Instant Noodle and related product affect the Local & Global Food Industry?
It wasn't long before instant noodle skipped over national boundaries and became an international phenomenon. Along with instant noodle, more and more different types of instant food products were invented to suit the growing demand on the global market. Instant noodles have become part and parcel of the instant food industry and culture. The concentrated powder form products such as instant coffee mixture, cereal, soup, juice and dehydrated food products such as fruit, vegetable, meat were claimed to retain the most original flavor and nutrition value when they are 're-hydrate' by adding water. As over 90% of the moisture was extracted during the process, these products can be preserved for a long time and no need to place in a refrigerator.
Another type of instant food emerged is the microwave products (re-heated frozen food) such as dim sum, cake and congee which can re-gain the food original color, form and texture after defrosted in the microwave. In the science fiction movie 'Back to the future', there is a shot showing a biscuit like pizza when put in the microwave for a few minute, it dramatically becomes a true size pizza. This reveals the expectation of people on the convenience of preserved food in future.
The seasoning packet can be regarded as the soul of an instant noodle, other than salt and sugar; it contains various flavor enhancers including MSG and spices. This also encouraged the development of technologies on capturing and imitating different flavor and smells for other food products such as sweets, vegetarian food, artificial crabmeat, abalone and shark fin soup etc. where unique flavor is their major selling point. The Japanese had become masters of imitation foods, a good example are the fish meat products made to taste like scallop, abalone or crabmeat.
What are the impact of Instant Noodles and related products on contemporary society?
There are basically no limitations or boundaries on food supplies. With good preservation techniques, even the most perishable food can be preserved and ship over to the world. Regional flavor such as Indian curry, Korean kimchi, Thai spices, Japanese wasabi, Basil coffee etc. can be copied into different kinds of food products and supplied to the global market. Through the use of advance technology, most of the flavor, smell, color, form and texture of the original food can be captured and mass-produced. Therefore, we are being surrounded by artificial food products in our everyday life and sometimes, it seems opulent when we ask for fresh and natural food. We are living in a world where it is hard to define what is real or fake. Nowadays, people are so much taken to the conveniences of instant foods that they are prepared to abandon a more healthy lifestyle or naturally prepared foods. This is especially in a fast-paced city such as Hong Kong where 揟ime is Money� and 搘ork hard, play hard� attitudes prevail.
However, there is now a backlash in Hong Kong and the world in general against instant noodles and foods. Firstly, there have always been health concerns over the use of artificial flavorings and preservatives in instant noodles. There had been numerous but unproven claims on the increased risk of cancer. Second, the nutritional value of instant noodles and other instant foods have been questioned and attacked. In addition, there had been reports that polystyrene containers used for cup noodles might release environmental hormones as well as carcinogens. Moreover the use of disposable cups, bowls, forks and chopsticks clearly goes against the trend of environmental awareness and protection. Consumers worldwide are becoming adverse to new food technologies such as genetically modified foods and irradiated foods. There has long been in movement in the West towards natural and health foods and it has gathered momentum in other parts of the world. There is now also a vocal anti-globalization constituency, as well as a movement towards retro-designed products. Therefore, the future growth prospect of instant noodles is now very much in doubt, especially in developed economies.
Concluding Remarks
In Hong Kong, although the local noodle stalls have a long history and the noodles they offer are comparatively at a lower price, they were soon vanquished by the Japanese noodle shops. It shows that the traditional family owned type of business is no longer suitable unless they are willing to change and incorporate with effective management and strategies. It is especially true for those businesses that planned to take on the global market.
Ramen traces its roots to Chinese cookery, but today it is prepared in an unquestionably Japanese style and has become a favorite dish among Japanese consumers. Beyond that, the Japanese were able to perceive future needs and developed the ramen into instant noodle and cup noodle that successfully penetrated global markets and left an enduring effect on the global food culture. This success depended on persistent research and development and the adoption of advance technologies, quality control, promotion and distribution. It is worthy to note that most Chinese instant noodle brands sold in Western countries such as 揚ot Noodle� are manufactured and distributed by Western companies. The same is true for other instant Chinese foods such as pork and beef 揓erky�.
In view of the success of the Japanese Food development, the Chinese food industry should learn a good lesson. They should look ahead and perceive the future demand of the global market instead of always being a follower. More time and money should be spent on research and development in order to extend their original idea. Lack of persistency and advance technologies, unwillingness to change, poor management and quality control, had been the typical hindrance to the success of traditional Chinese business. There are thousands of unique foods from different regions that have yet to be introduced to the world market. Therefore, there is a lot of potential of development for the Chinese food industry.
However, because of recent health and environmental concerns, the outlook for instant noodle and other instant foods has become cloudy. With a movement towards the use of natural foods and retro-design products, it may turn out after all that the traditional Chinese noodle stall may make a comeback.
Movie Commentary for 'Tampopo'
Reviewed by Hal Hinson, Washington Post Staff Writer, on June 17, 1987
By Roger Ebert on 09/11/1987
By '1-World Festival of Foreign Films'
Review by Anthony Leong in 1997
By K. Martin on October 29, 1998
Reviewed by Yee-Fan Sun on 11.16.2000
Reviewed by Scott Ventura on 10.18.2001
Information on the History and Development of Instant Noodle was derived from:
An article " Ramen museum an instant hit" on Mainichi Online Daily News By Hiroko Ihara, Staff Writer, Tuesday, Dec. 7, 1999
An article " Food innovator still taking on the world" on Cincinnati Enquirer Online edition by Yuri Kageyama, The Associated Press, Tuesday, February 13, 2001
The website of Nissin Foods (US)
The website of Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum
Information on the environmental effect of instant noodle
© 2000 Nissin Food Products Co., Ltd.
Nutrition on instant food
Sample cases on 'The Endocrine Disrupter Scare' by Dr. Chung-Ho Kim
Pot Noodle
Manufacturing process of instant noodles
Noodles in Japan
Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum
Hong Kong Wonton noodle
Threads of Longevity
Photos of the instant food products were derived from:
Asian instant noodle
Asian instant noodle
Development of instant noodle
Healthy food products 

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