I count my days in instant noodles. One day the pot is boiling orange, dried mushrooms and scallions dancing in the heat. The next day the water is clear, rolling over a disc-shaped block of distinctly flat and wavy noodles as they wait for a spicy carbonara glaze. The day after that, the stovetop expands; next to the boiling noodles, I fry an egg as a topping and mix a sauce from separate packets of sweet soy glaze, chili oil, and minced shallots. As days melt into weeks, each box in my calendar fills with the sights, sounds, and smells of cooking instant noodles. Sure, it’s a convenience food, but it’s nothing if not appetizing.
And better yet, it’s cheap! This food is so affordable and
William Koehler's Food Story
Flour, Water, Salt
omnipresent that an unprecedented number of people can afford to customize it. Papua New Guinean schoolchildren, on their midday break, sometimes buy them to drink the soup and make sandwiches with the noodles. American prison inmates often mix them with other items to form dishes of their own design. The Japanese company Nissin has even designed instant noodles that astronauts can bring with them into space. With their bottom-shelf selling price and their just-add-water simplicity, instant noodles are a playground for self-expression and human ingenuity.
The downside is that instant noodles may have gotten a little too comfortable on the bottom shelf. The wide variety of flavors they boast and the ever-growing population of mascots on their packages both indicate and disguise the ease with which they insinuate themselves into people’s lives. Strip away the colorful packaging and the endless variety of seasonings and instant noodles begin to tell a gloomy story about the capitalist desire for an ever-growing consumer base that will sacrifice true culinary diversity for convenient well-marketed artificial variety.
It’s an unfortunate truth that instant noodles are a major protagonist of this story. The cheap packages of yellow-white noodles are small, inoffensive corporate purchases. They often become a staple among low-income, short-on-time demographics for their convenience and versatility. Because the consumer generally prepares instant noodles, there’s a personal aspect that replicates the comforting feeling of cooking at home. The combination of convenience and comfort makes instant noodles a perfect “anti-friction device” for capitalist expansion—a "proletarian hunger killer" that dulls the impact of low wages on underpaid, overworked individuals.
I’m not saying that instant noodles are just some instrument of corporate evil. They are a capitalist lubricant, and that’s worth talking about, but the chains of the working class were not woven from two-minute noodles. These noodles are not just a well-marketed product—they are also well-loved. Homogeneous as the base ingredients may be, people will continue to customize their noodles to suit their desires. As long as you can show me a college student soft-boiling an egg for their midnight mi goreng instant noodles, I’ll be able to show you a story in progress.