Despite some initial food-snobbery, Tim Butler-Jones embarks on a journey that explores the cultural significance, culinary creativity, and global impact of everyone's favourite quick and convenient meal—instant noodles.
When I was at film school I would avoid the recreation room at lunchtime, as the smell of instant noodles would always be overwhelming. While cheap instant noodles offer a quick and affordable meal option, consuming them as a daily lunch choice may not be the healthiest decision. These noodles often come packed with high amounts of sodium, unhealthy saturated fats, and preservatives. I found it odd that talented people would pay over $5 on coffee at least twice a day and would only spend 50 cents on the stuff that actually fuels their body and brain. Of course, I knew better. I would go to a Vietnamese restaurant round the corner for noodle soup and as much free tea as you could drink.... Albeit on my own.
My food snobbery aside, it was impossible not to notice the huge cultural relevance of the instant noodle in Kiwi culture compared to where and when I grew up in the UK, in the 80’s, under Thatcher. Instant noodles were certainly popular in the UK, particularly the Pot Noodle brand, but The Traditional British Packed Lunch (TBPL. TM.) consisting of a sandwich, a packet of crisps, and an apple was already well ingrained in the culture, and to be seen in the canteen with a Pot Noodle, using kettle water for something other than tea, was definitely considered by most people to be somewhat gauche.
However, today the biggest instant noodle company in the world is Maggi Noodles. Since its creation in the 19th century by Swiss entrepreneur Julius Maggi, these quick-cooking noodles have become a staple in the diets of people across the globe. Over the years, Maggi noodles have transcended cultural boundaries, becoming an integral part of various cuisines and culinary traditions. From India to Nigeria, Thailand to Brazil, Maggi noodles have seamlessly integrated themselves into local dishes, adding a unique twist and flavour. Moreover, Maggi has expanded its product line to include a wide range of flavours and variations, catering to diverse tastes and preferences. This ubiquitous brand has not only influenced culinary practices but has also become intertwined with the cultural fabric of many societies. It has become a symbol of comfort food, nostalgia, and even a symbol of globalisation, bridging gaps between different cultures and connecting people through a shared love for a simple meal.
China, Japan, South Korea, and Thailand are renowned for their vibrant culinary traditions, and each country boasts its own beloved brands that have captivated taste buds around the world. In China, Nongshim's Shin Ramyun is a spicy sensation that has garnered a massive following with its fiery broth and chewy noodles. In Japan, Nissin Cup Noodles reigns supreme with its iconic cup packaging and a wide array of delectable flavours like Shoyu and Miso. South Korea offers the addictive and diverse lineup of Samyang's Buldak Bokkeum Myeon, known for its fiery heat and addictively spicy kick. Finally, Thailand's Mama Instant Noodles have gained international acclaim for their rich and aromatic flavours, with favourites like Tom Yum and Green Curry enticing palates with their authentic Thai taste. Many of these brands are readily available in western supermarkets, but personally I always like an excuse to go to a local Asian market and find some of the more obscure brands to try.
The way Maggi has been incorporated into the cultures of many different nations shows how imaginative peoples of different nations can be when given a blank canvas like instant noodles to work from. It’s usually best to use the packets of noodles as a base and add more flavours, veggies and proteins according to your taste. Below are some of my favourite ways to add to my instant noodles:
Spicy Peanut Noodles: Add a spoonful of creamy peanut butter, a dash of soy sauce, a squeeze of lime juice, and a sprinkle of red pepper flakes to your cooked instant noodles. Toss it all together for a deliciously tangy and spicy twist.
Asian Stir-Fry: Sauté some fresh vegetables like bell peppers, carrots, and snap peas in a hot pan with a drizzle of sesame oil. Add cooked instant noodles and toss with soy sauce, garlic, and ginger for a quick and flavorful stir-fry.
Thai Coconut Curry Noodles: Cook your instant noodles in coconut milk instead of water for a creamy base. Add curry paste, diced chicken or tofu, and a medley of vegetables like broccoli and mushrooms for a rich and aromatic Thai-inspired dish.
Teriyaki Noodle Bowl: Cook your instant noodles and toss them with a homemade teriyaki sauce made from soy sauce, honey, ginger, and garlic. Top it with grilled chicken or tofu and steamed broccoli for a satisfying and savoury meal.
Sesame Ginger Noodles: Whisk together soy sauce, sesame oil, grated ginger, and a splash of rice vinegar. Toss the cooked noodles in this dressing and garnish with sesame seeds and sliced green onions for a zesty and aromatic meal.
When it came to taking these photos, I wanted a pink background to compliment the colour of the noodles themselves (Adobe color ref. #FBFEE7) and the green in the packaging. The use of hard shadows in the photography of these instant noodles adds an intriguing element to the composition. By casting distinct and well-defined shadows at a 45-degree angle from the left side of the picture, it creates a sense of depth and visual drama. The sharp lines and contrast between the shadows and the surrounding elements enhance the overall aesthetic and make the noodles stand out. This particular lighting technique also evokes a nostalgic feel, reminiscent of Japanese advertising from the 1980s, which adds a cool and retro vibe to the images. The incorporation of hard shadows showcases the power of light and shadow in creating a dynamic and captivating visual narrative, capturing the attention of viewers and drawing them into the scene.
The journey of instant noodles from being a humble dormitory staple to becoming a global culinary phenomenon is truly remarkable. Maggi Noodles, with its wide range of flavours and versatility, has successfully transcended cultural boundaries and become deeply embedded in various cuisines worldwide. The endless possibilities of adding flavours, vegetables, and proteins to instant noodles demonstrate the imaginative nature of people across different nations. The possibilities for enhancing instant noodles are limited only by one's creativity and instant noodles have truly evolved into a symbol of culinary exploration, cultural fusion, and personal taste preferences, bringing people together through the joy of a simple, satisfying meal. The instant noodle has been a constant source for creativity, whether in the kitchens of millions all over the world or the film school rec-room!