March 28, 2022
BEIJING — When COVID-19 was contained in May 2020 throughout China and life was returning to something like normal, instant snail noodles began to raise their head.
These pungent noodles from Liuzhou, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region whose smell many find addictive, began to change Chinese views on traditional instant food.
People in their mid to late 30s are said to account for more than half the sales of the noodles. One of the top brands, Liziqi, sold 520,000 bags in just one day in May 2020, more than 10 times its average sales in a single month in 2019.
The phenomenon prompted anxiety among traditional instant noodles makers, including Master Kong, Uni-President, Jinmailang and Baixiang, the industry’s four behemoths, adding yet more variables to an already complex pattern of competition.
However, after two years of competing with the fad of snail noodles, the makers of flour-based noodles that can be ready to eat in three minutes have emerged with newfound confidence, having consolidated their popularity among young people.
Wang Zhigao, 24, who works in a technology company in Beijing, remembers when instant noodles were his savior in his school days. At college, he says, he always used to have a few cartons of instant noodles on standby in his dormitory. One of his favorites, Master Kong braised beef noodles, set him back a mere 10 yuan ($1.57) for five packets.
If hunger pangs set in in the wee hours or when he needed some energy to pep himself up after hours of study, he took a pot, poured hot water into it, and in a matter of minutes was chomping into a bowl of instant noodles. Even now with a well-paid job he has still not got over the instant noodles kick.
“Having a bowl of noodles as I watch TV on my iPad is a great way of getting rid of the day’s fatigue,” he says.
The World Instant Noodle Association says 117 billion servings of noodles were consumed globally in 2020, China ranking first with 50 billion servings. Total consumption in China rose 20.3 percent compared with that of 2016, hitting a new high in six years. With about 50 billion packs sold, China’s 1.4 billion people eat an average 36 packets of instant noodle each every year.
Instant noodles have long been seen as champions of convenience and as a quick fix for a longing appetite, but as not particularly healthy. But with innovation and clever marketing, views seem to have evolved. Challenged by new fast foods such as snail noodles, self-heating pots, and premade meals, instant noodles are regaining lost ground by launching new high-end brands. From the shelf in the supermarket, or their Taobao official flagship stores, instant noodle brands have bid farewell to their cheap but cheerful 5 yuan meals.
Master Kong’s Express Noodle House series charges 66 yuan for four boxes of boiled noodles. Uni-President’s Soup Master is also popular, its golden soup beef ramen series costing 80 yuan for four boxes. Uni-President’s palace flavor series, with a lid and folding chopsticks instead of a plastic fork, will set you back 179 yuan for six bowls.
Emerging convenience food brands with label references to the likes of “richer ingredients”, “better photogenic” are opening up the consumer market to young people. High-end instant noodles are taking over convenience food aisles. Twenty-four percent of instant noodles in supermarkets are priced at 5-10 yuan, and about 33 percent at 10-20 yuan.
Makers of upmarket instant noodles, in addition to putting a premium on appearance, are going all out to ensure their ingredients are just right. For example, in expensive instant noodles, real meat is added, and the instant noodle companies use technologies such as concentration and freeze-drying to preserve nutrients, soup and vegetables.
Zhu Danpeng, a food industry analyst, says:”With the continuous upgrading of consumption, consumers’ demands for instant noodles are also increasing, and young people are less sensitive to their price. It’s entirely possible for instant noodles to be sold at a high price, 50 yuan even.”
A “2021 Instant Noodle Despise Chain” illustration widely disseminated on the internet shows old crock sauerkraut was a runaway flavor favorite last year, but its fortunes dived after China Central Television alleged in a program on March 15 that bad sauerkraut processing had led to the presence of unsafe levels of bacteria. Noodle flavors next on the chart were braised beef, spicy beef and rattan pepper. Stewed chicken noodles with mushrooms were at the bottom of the chart, and there were comments raising serious questions about customers’ taste buds.
Even though noodles have been a staple in China for centuries, it was not until the late 1980s that instant noodles emerged. In fact, as the reform and opening-up took off, instant noodles became a symbol of surging economic prosperity. Shanghai Yimin Food Factory and Beijing Instant Noodle Factory both introduced Japanese bagged fried instant noodles, and by 1982,10 sets of convenience food production lines had been imported from Japan. In 1981 alone, more than 6,500 tons of instant noodles were produced nationwide.
The instant noodle leader Huafeng was founded at this time. Its bright yellow packaging of three fresh delicacies noodles has become part of the collective memory of the youth of those days, as has the product’s advertising punchline “Chi huafeng: lulutong!” (“When you eat Huafeng, everything’s within reach.”)
At the same time there was rapid urbanization in developing countries, and in the 1980s and ’90s the reform of China’s rural economy opened the door for more educated youth to live in cities. The growth of companies in the cities created millions of jobs, and the tidal power of migrant workers, many of them avid consumers of instant noodles, began to make waves. That in turn created a stampede of companies all over the country into the instant noodle market.