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A Shelf-Stable History of Why Vietnam Loves Mì Gói

Instant noodles are more or less a religion. They have widely spread to many lands, where they are adapted to suit the culture and people there. Most importantly, they offer us salvation in some of the darkest times.

These are the thoughts that ran through my mind while slurping up a bowl of instant noodles. Saigon is now beginning its third month of social distancing, and households aren't even allowed to go outside for groceries. Even when we could, my mother, whom our family entrusts with this task, often returns home exclaiming: “There is almost nothing left. Even instant noodles are out of stock.”

Flash back a bit in time to when the pandemic situation in Saigon was just beginning to become complicated and unpredictable. Nervous and confused, many people, like me, rushed to grocery stores to prepare for the uncertainties ahead. As if connected by an invisible force, everybody in the store at that moment was at the instant noodle section, staring blankly at the limited choices they could make, calculating both variety and quality against price, and then quickly putting several packets into their baskets.

In a checkout queue that felt like forever, everyone was trying to stock up on noodles. Each person was armed with Hảo Hảo, Omachi, Miliket, and more, all hugging the packets as if they were afraid that somebody might accidentally take them.

If you have experienced this yourself, you probably wouldn’t be surprised about the surge of instant noodle consumption in Vietnam since the outbreak of COVID-19. According to statistics from the World Instant Noodles Association, Vietnamese people consumed more than 7 billion packets of noodles in 2020, 67% more than during the same period in 2019.

Similar trends are seen in other Asian-Pacific countries such as China, South Korea and Japan, where the instant noodle industry has continuously observed record-breaking profits, sometimes even passing technology companies and car manufacturers in taking the lead in the stock market.

Even before the pandemic, Asian communities as a whole, and Vietnamese people in particular, already had an unshakable love for instant noodles. In Vietnam, a delicious bowl of noodles is considered a complete meal. To satisfy the craving for noodles, we incorporate various ingredients to create "masterpieces" such as mussel noodles, snail noodles, and stir-fried beef noodles. Though this product is present in western countries too, only in Asian cuisines do instant noodles play such an important role.

From a scientific perspective, it is not difficult to understand why we love eating noodles so much. The main ingredients in each bowl are starch, fat, and monosodium glutamate (MSG) — a combination methodically crafted to stimulate human appetite. Each packet is often not large enough to make us full, enticing us to reach for another.

Or, perhaps we eat instant noodles because the habit is so deeply ingrained into the Vietnamese lifestyle. As children, one of everyone’s favorite snacks was a colorful packet of noodles, small enough to fit in the palm of our hands. We would tear open the packet, pour it into our mouth, and listen to the sounds of noodles crunching in our mouths. Passing the noodle packets under the table during class was how we tightened our childhood friendships.

As we grew older, instant noodles became our savior during those sleepless nights trying to study for exams, chasing after endless deadlines, or those drunken nights when we almost forgot our way home. At convenience stores, shelves of instant noodles and the hot water counter are also strategically located near the entrance, making it a much-desired stop for those hungry stomachs out in the busy streets.

But above all, we eat instant noodles because it is a necessity. For many people, the consumption of noodles does not come from a love for the taste, but from the urgency of life. In the midst of the rapidly developing economy in Vietnam, many people have to make a living through informal, non-contracted jobs, with low and unstable wages. Meanwhile, the average price of a box of multiple packets of noodles fluctuates around VND100,000, roughly 1/30th of the minimum wage. For them, though instant noodles aren't an ideal source of nutrition, they are by far the cheapest way to satisfy hunger.

Instant noodles were invented in Japan in 1958, after World War II. At the time, Japan was in the process of an economic recovery and plagued by famine. The popular dish at the time was noodles, though they were not widely produced due to a lack of factories and storage options. Realizing the demand of the people, an entrepreneur named Momofuku Ando sought to invent a kind of noodle that could be stored for a long time and consumed instantly.

Google Doodle for Momofuku Ando on his 105th birthday.

In his autobiography, Momofuku writes: “I happened to be passing by this area and saw a 20-30 meters long line of people queuing in front of a dimly lit ramen shop, from which clouds of steam were rising from. People were underdressed for the weather and were shivering under the cold. [...] Their faces lit up as they slurped the bowl of ramen.”

The first packets of instant noodles were sold for JPY35 (VND7,200), carrying Momofuku’s aspiration to bring affordable sources of nutrition to the people. “The world will be at peace when everybody is well-fed,” he affirmed.

Fast forward to 2021, the world is again reeling from war, natural disasters, and social inequality. Millions of people face poverty and food shortages due to the pandemic. In the midst of that bleak picture, instant noodles are not the magical products that Momofuku hoped for, but they remain an important lifeline. During the time of a tsunami in Japan, earthquake in Taiwan, or floods in central Vietnam, instant noodles were ever-present.

Hence, it is not surprising that when a global pandemic broke out, instant noodles were readily waiting for us in the corner of the cupboard. Just put the noodles in a bowl, add in the seasoning packet, pour over some boiling water, let it sit for five minutes, and we have a complete meal. Though it can’t compare to the sophistication of phở or the flavors of bún bò, amidst the uncertainties we are experiencing, the rich flavor from MSG is an adequate comfort for your empty stomach.

Instant noodles are more than just a basic, convenient product, they are a representation of many common values that Vietnamese people and Asian communities share. They stand for persistence during painful histories, from post-war famine to the devastating pandemic. They represent culinary creativity stemming from the most trivial ingredients, which is evident in Saigon’s phá lấu, or Korea’s military hotpot. Most of all, it is a sense of security, family, and home.

When a Korean eats Shin Ramyun, an Indonesian eats Indomie and a Vietnamese eats Hảo Hảo, we are all savoring different flavors, yet feeling the same warmth and comfort. And maybe that is the invisible string that leads us back to the instant noodle shelves at grocery stores in the good days, the bad days, and the many days afterwards.

Illustrations by Patty Yang and Phương Phan.
Graphics by Phan Nhi and Jessie Tran.

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