Instant noodles shed image as junk snack
No time or talent to cook a meal? You aren’t alone.
In the rental apartment of Shanghai white-collar worker Frances Tang, boxes of self-heating hotpots, instant noodles and frozen snacks are piled in a corner and in the fridge. She lives alone and describes herself as a “gourmet” of instant foods.
It all snowballed before she became fully cognizant of her reliance of instant meals. She says it started with the outbreak of coronavirus early this year.
“I didn’t go home for the Chinese New Year, and for some time, it was difficult to find an eatery that was still open,” she explains. “I was never very good at cooking, so I stocked up on some instant meals.”
She says she was surprised by the abundance of products in that category. It went beyond the commonplace instant noodles and frozen dumplings. Nowadays, dozens of food types are available online, from frozen congee to fried rice, and she found they tasted better than expected.
“I’m from Sichuan Province, so I especially like spicy products,” she says. “Of course, they’re not as good as freshly made, say, hotpots, but they are certainly much better than I would have expected from instant foods.”
Her meal choices are not unusual. The COVID-19 pandemic has breathed new life into the market for fast-food home meals. It has revived a slumping market for instant noodles, which suffered from the rising popularity of online food delivery platforms.
Food makers are seizing the trend. They are expanding instant-food lines and improving the taste and nutrition of their products.
The dark horse of the year is undoubtedly river snail rice noodles, or luosifen, according to an online survey.
For that survey, Data Blog, an analysis arm of Internet giant NetEase, collected and reviewed relevant posts on several major social media platforms in China. It found that luosifen was the most recommended instant food this year, defeating popular favorites like self-heating hotpots and chili-sauce noodles.
The snail noodles are mostly purchased by people between the ages of 18 and 34, dominated by office workers, according to shipment data.
Sales of luosifen have gone crazy.
On e-commerce platform Taobao, Li Ziqi Luosifen, one of the most popular instant-food brands in China, is selling about 1.5 million a month. Some Internet celebrities are able to sell tens of thousands of boxes of luosifen within just minutes on livestreaming promotions.
What’s so good about this particular instant meal?
Luosifen originated as a popular local snack in the city of Liuzhou in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. It is typically sold there as a cheap street food.
Its popularity grew nationwide after river snail noodles featured in the 2012 hit documentary “A Bite of China” on China Central Television. In Shanghai, where river snails are a popular dish served in some restaurants, the pre-packaged version gained traction.
River snail rice noodles feature pickled bamboo shoots, dried turnip, fresh vegetables and peanuts in a spicy broth flavored with the small freshwater mollusks. Some netizens call it “stinky food” because of its pungent aroma, but other foodies just love both the taste and smell.
“A friend of mine once walked by a luosifen shop without realizing it,” Tang said, “and she said: ‘What’s that smell? Is that a toilet blowing up or what?’”
Instant luosifen is no less smelly, perhaps because the manufacturers are serious about authenticity. All the ingredients, including peanuts, pickled bamboo shoots, river snail paste, chili oil, fried tofu and rice noodles, are wrapped individually. There are detailed instructions on how to cook the dish to give it as fresh a taste as possible.
Luosifen is part of the revival of the instant noodle market, which from 2014 to 2017 suffered 5 billion yuan (US$704 million) in losses because so many people who don’t want to cook were drawn to delivered meals sold online. But the strike back has begun.
Traditional instant-noodle makers are trying to win back consumers by improving product quality and dispelling the stereotype that instant noodles are low-end dining with scant nutrition and high calories. Many new brands are appearing.
During the Singles Day online shopping extravaganza last month, one of the best-selling instant noodles was priced at nearly 45 yuan, almost 30 times more than its common counterparts.
The “luxury” noodles claim to use European-imported, high-gluten wheat flour with an expiry date of only two months. The soup base is made of pork or beef, and preserved meats and dehydrated vegetables are added.
Food industry insiders said that such high-end instant noodles mainly target younger people, the major consumers in the takeout-food market. They are usually the most adventurous in trying new products.
“The instant food market is very divided, just like the whole consumer market in China,” said Zhu Danpeng, a food industry analyst. “Young consumers favor certain foods for different reasons, and the industry is now enjoying a big growth bonus.”