Issue 8

If we were to say that you were being treated to an instant noodle meal, would images of barely cleaned student kitchens and congealed noodle shaped food in polystyrene containers come to mind? Thanks to the ongoing gourmet trend, instant noodles are getting a well needed revamp and are no longer the gloopy plateful we once knew.

Brands such as Grasshopper, Kabuto and Tanpopo are bringing back classic noodles to a new audience by combining good quality ingredients, bursting flavour and modern design.

As the figures show, the gourmet trend looks like a fail proof way of bringing a bit of life into a once flagging sector. In 2012, the UK wolfed down 340 million packets of instant noodles, up by 40 million on the previous year. As more gourmet noodle pots enter the market we take a look at the newest brands, find out which flavour combinations are popular and discover why consumers are becoming more interested in this once unloved market.

The fastest growing sector: why noodles?

The question you’re most likely going to ask next is why noodles? The UK high street has seen a noted increase in the amount of noodle restaurants; 24% of restaurant executives cited Asian cuisine as the fastest growing sector when asked by Allegra Strategies. It also must be taken into account that the quick and convenient nature of instant noodles fits perfectly with consumers’ generally hectic lifestyles.

Crispin Busk, founder of Kabuto Noodles – an up and coming gourmet noodle brand – agrees with this analysis stating: "Everyone is busy and wants quick convenient food, but no one wants junk full of artificial ingredients, so making a quality, up market instant noodle just really made sense."

Once relegated to the student market, instant noodle brands are slowly disassociating themselves from the image of tasteless cheap food to appeal to professionals, parents and even holiday makers who want a quick and easy meal on the go.

"Instant noodles are just one of those classic meals that are hugely popular around the world. Everyone knows them; they’re a comfort food that’s simple, quick and easy," says Busk.

"They’re also really good value. You can easily stock up your cupboard or your desk draw in the office with something you know will taste great for those days when you’ve forgotten your lunch, or you’re running late – maybe you’re just bored of sandwiches."

Helen Cooper, managing director at Grasshopper, also agrees with Busk and points out that consumers’ want convenience but are not willing to compromise on quality, which is where gourmet noodles step in. Cooper also believes that students, the traditional market for instant noodles, are no longer willing to settle for poor quality food.

"I think students are incredibly aware of the food that they’re eating now," says Cooper. "They are not going to just eat rubbish, they’re not prepared to eat rubbish because in most cases they are not being brought up eating rubbish at home."

Gourmet at heart: lack of additives or artificial flavourings

Given the potential for the gourmet market and the change in consumer expectations following the horsemeat scandal in the UK, noodles brands are quick to promote the gourmet nature of their products and the lack of additives or artificial flavourings; separating themselves from the instant noodles of the past. Cooper states that Grasshopper wanted to branch out into the savoury market, the company started out with a range of porridges, because "we felt that we could do better than was currently offered to the consumers by just following our own principles and having 100% natural foods no additives, low salt, and so on."

The inspirations for many of the new flavours that are coming out span all of Asia including Thailand, China and Japan. Exciting flavours and spices such as Chicken Ramen, Chinese Five Spice, Beef Pho and Teriyaki, are reflective of a consumer market that is more travelled than previous generations.

Recent backlashes against high levels of salt in food products have seen a rise in popularity for spices, something Cooper witnessed, after the introduction of the noodle pots to her range: "What we’re seeing increasingly, and it’s not just in the noodles but in the soups as well, where we have low salt there is a trend towards having a more spicy flavour profile because you need something that still gives you that flavour kick."

While instant noodles may have a questionable past, a focus on quality ingredients and interesting flavours is providing a cheap and tasty lunch solution for consumers. As Busk, cheerfully states: "A quick, filling and hot lunch for around £2 – it’s hard to beat."

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