Tradition and Innovation: The Protean Power of Instant Noodles

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By Esther Tseng

In the 2017 film This Is Not What I Expected, the male protagonist Lu Jin (played by the Japanese-Taiwanese actor Takeshi Kaneshiro) opines that instant noodles belong to lonely souls—people’s best friend on a sleepless night. Ever fussy about food, Lu applies his culinary perfectionism to instant noodles. “It takes three minutes for instant noodles to be cooked through,” he says, “but that al dente bounciness happens only at the moment when the noodles are just about to be cooked through. Time is the enemy of noodles. Just one second’s difference will result in a completely different bowl of noodles.”

Deep-frying transforms Qingji Ice Dessert Parlor’s noodles into veritable “instant noodles.” They only need to be soaked briefly in boiling water before being served.

Origins

What were the decisive moments in the history of instant noodles? Qingji Ice Dessert Parlor opened its doors in Yuanlin, Changhua County, in 1946. In its early days, Qingji sold ice desserts in summer and seasoned millet mush and jisi noodles in winter. Both Japan-based Taiwanese writer Liu Li-er and Japanese writer and journalist Tsuyoshi Nojima have suggested that Taiwan’s jisi noodles are actually the prototype of Japanese instant noodles. Qingji’s delectable invention in fact predated Japan’s famous Nissin instant noodles.
Dai Yi, Qingji’s third-generation owner, tells us that it was in 1951 that his grandmother Dai-Xie Yuefeng started to prepare noodles by frying them in pork fat. The intention was to reduce the cooking time when they were later boiled in water. Because the crinkly fried noodles looked like thin shreds of chicken meat, they came to be called “shredded chicken noodles” (jisi mian in Mandarin, kesi mi in Taiwanese).

Qingji Ice Dessert Parlor’s jisi (“shredded chicken”) noodles are regarded as the prototype of instant noodles.

The world, however, probably owes its first commercially manufactured instant noodles to Momofuku Ando (1910–2007), founder of Nissin Food Products, who developed this new line of products in 1958.

Nevertheless, Ando himself had close connections with Taiwan. A Japanese entrepreneur of Taiwanese origin, he was born in today’s Puzi City in Chiayi County, his Taiwanese name being Go Pek-hok (Wu Baifu in Mandarin).
Taiwan is indebted for its first locally manufactured packets of instant noodles to National Foods, which brought out the chicken-flavored Sunlih Noodles in 1967. Unfortunately, the company didn’t fare well subsequently and is no longer trading.

Qingji Ice Dessert Parlor’s jisi (“shredded chicken”) noodles are regarded as the prototype of instant noodles.

The second oldest, Tung-I Noodles, were developed by Uni-President Enterprises, whose products still dominate the industry today, occupying 48% of Taiwan’s instant noodles market. Uni-President spokesman Tu Chung-cheng says that his company originally specialized in the production of flour and animal feeds. In order to enhance the practical uses of its flour, Uni-President organized a research trip to Japan in 1969 and began to manufacture instant noodles with sachets of flavoring powders in the following year.

In time, Uni-President would deliver a series of legendary culinary masterstrokes. In 1971 Kao Ching-yuen, then chairman of the company, treated his Japanese guests to the famous danzai noodles at Tainan’s Du Hsiao Yueh restaurant—a flavorsome noodle soup graced with braised minced pork and prawns. “How do they make these smell so good?” The guests’ appreciative response inspired Kao to work on inventing danzai-flavored instant noodles, and Uni-President’s Tung-I Minced Pork Noodles came onto the market in the same year.

Chen Li-ting, senior research scientist at Taiwan’s Food Industry Research and Development Institute, says that the history of instant noodles yields insights into local food culture.

While many Taiwanese people have memories of eating danzai noodles on traditional bamboo stools at local eateries, Tung-I Minced Pork Noodles, now 53 years old, have given this vintage dainty a mobility that suits the modern age. The classic fragrance of braised pork that comes with it has itself entered the country’s collective memory, evoking a sense of old-time warmth. Since their launch, Tung-I Minced Pork Noodles have not only been Uni-President’s best-selling instant noodle product but also topped national sales charts.
 

Ever-popular flavors

“Delicious noodles, tasty soup—that’s just what we want,” Tu Chung-cheng pinpoints the secret to the abiding popularity of Tung-I Minced Pork Noodles. In 1983 Uni-President brought out its Imperial Big Meal Chili Beef Noodles, which included hearty chunks of beef shank in a sealed bag. In 1989 it went on to produce Laiyike cup noodles, targeting female customers. The year 1991 saw the launch of its Ah Q “Barrel” Noodles—bigger-sized cup noodles for high-school students. Each of these instant noodle product lines is now more than 30 years old, but they remain immensely popular with Taiwan’s consumers.

Launched in 1973, Wei Lih Food Industrial’s Jah Jan Noodles marked the arrival of a new type of instant noodles. Unlike previous products, these noodles, once cooked, are supposed to be eaten “dry,” blended with Wei Lih’s signature savory soybean paste. The packet also comes with a flavoring sachet for the broth, to be consumed separately. Online commentators dub Jah Jan Noodles one of the “Four Kings of Instant Noodles.” The others are Ve Wong’s Beef-Flavored Noodles, Vedan’s Chicken-Flavored Noodles, and Uni-President’s Tung-I Minced Pork Noodles.

Chen Li-ting, senior research scientist at Taiwan’s Food Industry Research and Development Institute (FIRDI), says that the history of instant noodles can yield insights into local food culture, as it is closely bound up with deep-seated culinary habits. She applies what she calls an “80/20 rule” to describe the evolution of Taiwan’s culture of instant noodles. The higher percentage, 80, refers to enduringly popular products like Tung-I Noodles and the rest of the Four Kings.
 

Competing for classic status

Chen, who is responsible for planning and integrated marketing in FIRDI’s Planning Office, goes on to tell us that “20%” refers to innovative new products. If these should survive initial market competition, they stand a chance of becoming one of the “evergreen” classics of the 80% group.
Chen explains that there are several ways to achieve innovation, including mashups, co-branding, and even bringing together seemingly conflicting elements. For example, Wu-Mu Ramen and Lian Hwa Foods’ Koloko Pea Crackers have joined forces, combining crushed crackers with Hong Kong fried crabs and Sichuan chicken fried noodles. Their co-branding strategy aims to arouse curiosity as well as whetting appetites.
 

Innovations

Fierce competition, Chen tells us, compels manufacturers of instant noodles to resort to creative strategies such as repackaging and relaunching classic flavors. Only by doing so can individual brands stand out in a world inundated with upwards of 300,000 new food products every year.

She draws our attention to Uni-President’s upgraded Gold Beef Noodles, a new addition to the Imperial Big Meal series. For this the company’s R&Dstaff traveled to China’s Sichuan Province, where they discovered the “Yellow Lantern” chili pepper (a variety of Capsicum chinense). This magic ingredient lends a multiplicity of flavors to the broth—sour, sweet, spicy, with a pleasant scent. Designed for the Lunar New Year, Uni-President’s Imperial Pashao Beef Noodles, which cost NT$248 per serving, are available only during the festive season.

Taiwan’s state-owned Tobacco and Liquor Corporation (TTL) draws on its rich experience of manufacturing alcohols to produce its own instant noodles. Aside from its three most popular products—Huadiao Chicken Noodles, Huadiao Beef Noodles with Pickles, and Sesame Oil Chicken Noodles—TTL’s Minced Pork Ramen and Sakura Shrimp Dry Noodles are flavored with mature Shaoxing rice wine; the company also combines its Yushan Mau Tai liquor with spicy, garlicky noodles; and its Mongolian Hot Pot Ramen, known for the exquisitely flavorful broth, contains wujiapi liquor and rice-wine lees, using more than ten medicinal ingredients. These intoxicating noodles are available only in Taiwan. Another company, Ve Wong, has launched its own whisky-flavored instant noodles, vying for space on the shelves of local convenience stores.
 

Future trends

Chen Li-ting observes that the Fun Food Taiwan Awards—organized by FIRDI and sponsored by the Industrial Development Administration of the Ministry of Economic Affairs—place a high premium on purity, design, convenience and sustainability. These criteria can help us identify future trends for instant noodles.

Referring to the noodles themselves, Chen says that there’s a tendency to move away from oil frying in order to meet the growing demand for healthy food. For example, Uni-President’s non-fried broad noodles, which won silver at the 2023 Fun Food Taiwan Awards, are an innovation made possible by new technology.

Tu Chung-cheng reveals that Uni-President spent 15 years developing its non-fried instant noodles. For the dehydrating process, the company uses heat rather than oil frying. Non-fried noodles thus take twice as long to produce.
 

Global appeal

If instant noodles may be regarded as an extension of local food culture, what is it about Taiwanese instant noodles that can lure international taste buds? For Chen, beef noodles are unquestionably the most saliently Taiwanese invention. Most foreign tourists have Taiwanese beef noodles on their must-eat lists. Beef-flavored instant noodles win out because they not only capture the island’s culinary soul but have the added strengths of being convenient and long-lasting.

One prominent feature of Taiwanese instant noodles is the richness of the sachets of flavorings and other ingredients that accompany the noodles. Uni-President’s Imperial Big Meal series first introduced sealed bags with chunks of cooked beef more than 40 years ago. Now selling some 30 million packets per year, the series is a classic success story.

Many Korean tourists in Taiwan buy Imperial Big Meal instant noodles as presents for their friends and families back home. So popular are these noodles that they can now be found in convenience stores in South Korea. It’s not far-fetched to call them Taiwan’s pride and joy.

The second authentically Taiwanese attraction is TTL’s range of instant noodles, enlivened by special alcohols that cannot be found elsewhere in the world.

The third is that group of instant noodles which carry memories of traditional food culture. Apart from minced pork noodles, there are instant noodles that reincarnate the flavors of familiar night-market snacks, such as oyster vermicelli, battered pork and noodles in thick soup, and “tonic” dishes such as dong quai duck, sesame-oil chicken, and pork ribs stewed with herbs. These are particularly popular among Hongkongers and Malaysians of Chinese heritage. Other characteristically Taiwanese products include crispy, cracker-like noodles that do not need to be cooked: Prince Noodles, Science Noodles, and GGE (Little Girl Zhang Junya).

Some have instant noodles as late-night meals while they’re working overtime, doing homework or preparing for exams. Others turn to instant noodles for their main meals when they run out of money before payday. Still others have them for snacks while watching live broadcasts, or store them up for typhoons. Instant noodles come in handy when we’re traveling abroad, and they may be presented as gifts to our overseas friends. Taiwan’s instant noodles not only pamper our palates with myriad flavors but also perfectly capture our island’s unique tastescapes.

This article was originally published on Taiwan Panorama. Read the original article here

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TNL Editor: Kim Chan (@thenewslensintl)

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