Commentary: How instant noodles became a symbol of workaholics everywhere
Originally invented to solve world hunger, the humble instant ramen has come to represent sustenance for those who are too busy to eat proper meals, says Karen Tee.
SINGAPORE: My love for instant noodles began when I was a teenager. A latchkey kid through my secondary school and junior college years, instant noodles was something that I could whip up in a jiffy as a late lunch when I returned home from school.
These days, my culinary repertoire extends beyond instant food. However, the love affair continues. My kitchen cabinet is stocked with at least five different types of noodles for when the craving hits.
Whenever I travel, especially in Asia where there’s a mind boggling variety of instant ramen, I make it a point to visit a convenience store or supermarket to pick out a few local flavours to try and even bring home as souvenirs.
In the 61 years since its invention - Japanese entrepreneur Momofuku Ando invented instant noodles in the post-war era as a way to ease the country’s food shortage - this humble item has become a global staple, a fast and easy meal for everyone from poor college students to overworked individuals.
But even more fascinating is that today, instant ramen has come to represent so much more than just convenient and tasty chow to keep the hunger pangs at bay.
EATING RAMEN HELPS YOU STRETCH YOUR CASH
Earlier this year, a young South Korean worker was killed in a workplace accident during a night shift. Among the meagre worldly possessions he left behind were three packets of ramen.
This struck a raw nerve in the country, where many saw his main means of subsistence as an indication of his dire financial plight.
More broadly, this pocket-friendly dish is a symbol of frugality in many parts of the world, including Singapore. NTUC’s recent prize freeze of 100 FairPrice housebrand products which comprise popular daily essentials of average households here include instant noodles, which costs just S$1.45 for five packets.
When I was younger, more foolish and living on a smaller income during my college days and when I first started work, I would eat instant noodles in an attempt to save money.
I am lucky that wasn’t doing it to make ends meet, but rather to accumulate extra dough to spend on things I wanted, like nice shoes and handbags.
It is a funny story to retell today and I do wish I had channeled more of that savings into investments other than material goods, but I suppose this method of keeping my finances balanced did work out, sort of. I’ve never accumulated credit card debt because I was careful to spend within my means.
Still, those of you out there who are considering this frugal diet, take it from me - don’t spend all your money. Put away at least a portion of the money you have saved by eating instant noodles instead of fancy gourmet meals into a bank account and your older, wiser self will thank you.
INSTANT NOODLES FUELS SINGAPORE’S WORKAHOLIC CULTURE
During my busiest phases, when I am glued to my computer for interminably long hours in an attempt to meet multiple deadlines, I often rely on instant noodles to keep me going.
It seems I am not the only one. Convenience stores are well stocked with instant noodles, presumably to feed the hungry masses and big companies like Facebook even have a stash of instant cup noodles in their snack pantries.
In time-starved Singapore, where workers are among the hardest working in the world in terms of number of hours clocked, instant noodles are not surprisingly, a quick fix for those who don’t have time to maintain a reasonable work-life balance.
According to the latest available statistics by marketing research firm Nielsen, there was a 7.9 per cent growth in the instant noodle market size in Singapore from 2015 to 2016. In that same year, Singapore residents clocked 45.6 hours of work a week, second only to Hong Kong at 50.1 hours.
Sure, there are likely to be other factors that has led to the increasing popularity of instant noodles in recent years, such as a greater variety of flavours available in the market, but it is not difficult to draw the conclusion that the convenience of instant food appeals to those who have no time to spend on preparing meals from scratch.
IS INSTANT FOOD ENTIRELY UNHEALTHY?
For the longest time, instant noodles have been much maligned as a junk food with little nutritional value. I am under no illusion that instant ramen could ever be considered healthier than a salad, but there are ways to ensure you are at least not consuming empty calories.
These days, there are different types of noodles that are touted to be healthier, such as sun dried noodles or those made with wholegrain flour. Even back when I was a kid cooking for myself, my mum made sure to keep the fridge stocked with simple ingredients like eggs and meatballs that I could easily add to my ramen.
In fact, the possibilities are endless - just about any ingredient can be thrown into a pot of boiling water to jazz up a simple bowl of noodles.
For inspiration, check out the Instagram accounts of local chefs like Willin Low, Shen Tan and Jeremy Nguee. Their fancy versions of instant noodles will surely have you salivating for this comfort food.
When Ando created instant noodles, he did so with the aim of inventing a food that would provide sustenance in the toughest of times.
He may not have imagined that instant noodles would end up being so intrinsically linked to workaholics - whether by choice or by circumstance - but for those who rely on this food to get them through the late nights and long hours of work, his invention has certainly helped to tide them through their tough times.
Karen Tee is a freelance travel and lifestyle writer. Six years ago, people thought she was crazy to leave the security of her full-time job. Today, most want to know how she does it.