An Ode to Instant Noodles

A bowl of instant noodles is comfort food personified. But what is it about noodles that makes them so beloved? I set out to answer that question.

Walking down the instant noodle aisle of the Wing Yip supermarket in Cricklewood is a wondrous assault on the senses. Each phosphorescent packet, box, and cup on the shelves make up a cavalcade of colours and flavours that seems never-ending. Roasted beef! Abalone and chicken! Porkchop! BBQ! Sesame! Hot and sour shrimp! I even spy a flavour called "Seafood Party" as I make my way to the checkout and, while I’m not entirely sure what that get-together is composed of, I sure as hell know that I want an invite.

Instant ramen holds a place that’s near and dear to my heart, and running my eyes over the selection of noodles in any supermarket – greedy for a quick, easy, and salty snack – always takes me back to my childhood.

Maggi's masala-flavoured noodles were the first thing that I was properly able to cook. Opening up a packet of those noodles, breaking them apart with my childish scallop-sized hands, and throwing them in a pot of boiling water was a rite of passage; an initiation into a world of adulthood where I could now fend for myself. Provided that all you needed to be an adult and fend for yourself was a bowl full of bright yellow noodles. And not, like, a stable income or a mortgage or anything like that.

My brother even used to take a packet of dry Maggi into school for his lunch. He’d pour the seasoning (chicken was his flavour of choice) onto the dry noodle cake like it was salt or pepper and eat it like that, acoustically. Looking back now, I’m not sure if that was absolutely absurd or absolutely genius behaviour. The older I get, the more I lean towards the latter. And the older I get, the more I’ve come to realise that instant noodles have been there for me at just about every major juncture of my life so far.

Moving to the UK from the UAE when I was 18 meant that I was offered a whole new cornucopia of instant noodles to choose from. Super Noodles and Pot Noodle dominated the shelves in England and, though I’ll admit to having a few rogue Chicken and Mushrooms in my time, they never tasted as good as Maggi and didn’t satisfy me in quite the same way. A discovery I did make at university, though, was Indomie.

Those brittle bricks of Indomie Mi Goreng got me through more break-ups, breakdowns, and breakfasts than I care to recount and hearing the news that the flavour’s creator, Nunuk Nuraini, passed away in January of this year was a real punch to the gut. I’d never met Nuraini personally but, in a roundabout fashion, I’d been fed by her countless times. I’d go as far as to say that the only woman who’s provided me with more sustenance over the years is my own mother. For that, I’m eternally grateful to both Nuraini and Indomie. And I’m far from the only person that feels that way.

Shuko Oda, whose London-based udon outfit Koya has been shipping nationwide noodle kits since February, is also a fan. Although Oda didn’t eat a huge amount of ramen growing up, her mother used to fry up Yakisoba noodles for weekend lunches on a regular basis. It was Oda’s first-hand experience of Japanese noodle culture growing up that inspired the creation of Koya Mail – a refreshingly minimalist meal kit concept that contains nothing but a generous portion of handmade udon noodles and a bag of fish dashi.

Koya Omiyage
Koya's udon noodles kits are simple perfection. Photograph: Anton Rodriguez.

“In Japan, you can get quality fresh noodles and dashi (often air-dried noodles and concentrated dashi) in service areas on motorways and souvenir shops,” says Oda, “if you went to Sanuki region of Shikoku, you would have various types of udon noodle boxes from famous restaurants, each with their own design. We had always wanted to do something like this and, when the second lockdown happened, we decided to pursue that idea. It’s been a big learning curve but very much an enjoyable fun process.”

There’s something nostalgic about the pull of instant noodles. They scratch an itch that not many other foods can and there’s something therapeutic and intensely calming about bunging a flavour sachet into a pot of dehydrated ramen, knowing that the outcome will taste exactly how you expect it to. There’s a comforting consistency and predictability to the instant noodle you can’t get from many other foods.

Invented by Momofuku Ando of Nissin Foods in Japan around the late 1950s, instant noodles have become a staple food in a host of different nations and a globally recognised foodstuff. They’ve been referenced in British grime songs ("that's Pot Noodles and Indomie") and have even been boiled and knitted together to create striking works of art by Indonesian artists like Cynthia Delaney Suwito.

“There were a few packets of instant noodles that I brought from my hometown during my overseas studies and I realised they had expired. I didn't want them to go to waste so I decided to do some art experiments with them,” explains Cynthia Delaney Suwito. Cynthia, whose favourite brands and flavours are Indomie's Mi Goreng and NongShim's Shin Ramyun, also ate a lot of instant noodles growing up. "I vaguely remember a phase where I would eat them once a week because my parents only allowed me to eat a maximum of one a week," she adds. Whether you view them as a unique artistic medium or a speedy lunch, you can’t deny that instant noodles have got an undeniable allure.

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A Cup Noodles Museum was even opened in Hong Kong in March of this year, taking up 10,000 square foot of space in the China Hong Kong City Mall. The Cup Noodles brand itself, created by Nissin Foods, turned a respectable 50 this year. No longer a newfangled way of heating up a quick and convenient meal, dehydrated noodles have been a part of global diets for decades now. They’ve become a part of the culinary canon here in Britain, too. The comfort of a Pot Noodle is as entrenched within our lives as brands like Spam and Fray Bentos were to a previous generation. Part of the appeal is how the noodle can be a blank canvas for culinary creativity; you can pimp up your instant noodles with everything from chorizo and coriander to American cheese and a fried egg. Cookbooks like Sarah Cook’s ‘Pimp Your Noodles’ underline the noodle’s lofty potential.

“Is there anything else that’s so quick and easy to cook, and so perfectly suited to both soups and salads, stir-fries and curries?” asks Sarah Cook – a recipe developer and food writer who spent years honing her skills at BBC Good Food and quite literally written the book on zhuzhing up your instant noodles. "Pasta comes close [to noodles] but, although it’s got the more comfort end of the spectrum covered, there’s nothing really to compete with a thread-fine rice noodle stuffed into a chilled Summer roll with lots of fresh herbs and chilli. Slurp udon on sad days, nuke straight-to-wok sachets on busy days. Keep a few varieties in your store cupboard and see where the mood takes you. Because wherever it does, it’ll never take long to get there!"

Chinese shredded Duck
Sarah Cook's Pimp Your Noodles is full of some excellent recipes. Photograph: Andrew Hayes-Watkins.

Convenience is obviously a major factor in the instant noodle’s draw – all you need is access to hot water and you’re good to go – but the ever-increasing quality of the products is another reason why the section only continues to get more popular with each passing year. Other continents are still streets ahead in terms of options but go to any decent Asian supermarket in the UK nowadays and you should be able to find a decent selection of noodles on offer. The growth of the global Instant Noodles market is expected to be huge by 2027 and people like Carl Clarke, the chef and founder of cult London restaurants Chick ‘N’ Sours and Chik’N, are betting on that increased demand.

This April saw Clarke switch his focus from fried chicken to launch Future Noodles: a "nutritionally complete, natural, plant-based instant noodle" that’s set to take on the big guns of the industry by offering a healthier, vegan alternative packed with "all the protein, fibre, essential fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals needed to aid a healthy and balanced lifestyle". While that might sound like quite a high and mighty aim, Future Noodle’s origin story is a lot more humble.

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"The truth is that I was inspired to start the brand after eating so many Shin Cup ramens working late nights in kitchens,” says Carl when I ask him where the idea for Future Noodles came from, “there's something very comforting and nourishing about them – they're cheap, quick, spicy and they just tick the box. Sometimes you can go for a period of time where you forget to eat when you're working long hours and your body's just craving spicy carbs.”

Speaking to Carl, it becomes obvious that he’s an instant noodlehead like me: a man enthused by instant noodle culture and all of its intricacies, from the design of the cups to the weird little flavour profiles and personalities of all the different brands. While Carl’s enthusiasm for his product was evident, I obviously had to see for myself whether the noodles he’s been making were up to standard.

I got my hands on a batch of his Future Noodles, boiled a kettle, and got to work. By which I mean got to eating them in my pants on my balcony. I’m pleased to say that they were pretty damn good – the wheat noodles actually tasted like wheat and the flavourful sauces were thick and moreish, coating the noodles in a way that more watery, broth-y noodles don’t.

I wouldn’t have known they were vegan had the 100% recyclable packaging not made that evidently clear and they even come with a little baggy of white powder that holds all your daily vitamins and minerals in. No, not that like that. The sachet contains a proprietary blend of nutrients and vitamins which you add when you give your noods a final stir so that they aren’t denatured when added straight into boiling water. I don’t know exactly how the science of that works but Clarke ensures me it’s legit.

This isn’t the first time, though, that someone has tried to disrupt the British instant noodle scene. Anyone who knows me intimately will know that Peperami Noodles are something of an obsession of mine and a food that I lust after on an almost weekly basis. My passion for Peperami Noodles is something that tends to come up in conversation around the third or fourth date. Available in 'Original', 'Chicken', 'Barbecue', and – my personal fave – 'Hot & Spicy', those noodles were loaded with MSG and were utterly, utterly delicious. Or, at least, that’s how I remember them being. They’re also, quite notably, not around anymore.

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According to The Grocer, Peperami put £3m of marketing support behind the product’s launch including television, radio and a door-drop sampling campaign, in order to compete against heavyweights of the British scene like Supernoodles and Pot Noodle. It didn’t work. Possibly because they were treading on the toes of their competitors, selling a product that was too similar to Super Noodles et al with the tantalising offer of "noodles + little Peperami slices" not being enough to entice your average consumer. Much to my dismay.

So where do the likes of Future Noodles come into that market? How do they succeed where the spending power of Peperami failed? Well, the fact Future Noodles began life as a Kickstarter campaign already suggests that there is a genuine demand for the product. But, considering that each pot works out to be about £3.75, will it actually be able to compete with the budget-friendly Bombay Bad Boys and Batchelors on the supermarket shelves?

"That's a question that we can't answer yet: ‘Where does it sit?’ I think that's part of the journey and the learnings about figuring out what this product is,” says Carl, “it's three times more expensive, maybe even four times more expensive than any of those big brands, so can it compete? I don’t know. But I think we've created a space and we've created a unique, standalone product at the quality end of the market.”

In spite of the odds being stacked against him, Clarke has faith Future Noodles will persevere. "We've got a purpose to put something out there that's not only good for you but food for the planet. It also has a purpose of feeding others less fortunate, wherever we can. That's what's important to us." Putting their money where their mouth is, Future Noodles has partnered with FareShare to donate a proportion of their sales every month to help feed people in food poverty. At the time of writing, they’ve already donated 8,000 pots of Future Noodles to the charity with that number only increasing with every passing day.

Although Peperami Noodles met their untimely demise, I’ve got hope that Future Noodles will weather the storm. Brits are, as a whole, far more accepting of noodles as a bonafide genre of snack food now and their minds are open to a wider range of flavours. “When I think of the seaside, I think of sandy feet and forkfuls of cold, nutty-dressed soba as often as I think of fish and chips,” agrees Cook.

I can only hope that everyone else loves instant noodles as much as I do and that someone in 25 years time thinks about Future Noodles the same way that I think about Maggi.

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