The Short History of Instant Noodles.

I published this essay on this blog a few years ago. Today, I am republishing the revised version of this essay, edited by Jen Campbell.

Whenever it’s raining outside, my mind always goes to a bowl of instant noodles. A steaming plate of comfort topped with egg and fried shallots, drenched in my favorite savory soup, such as Chicken Curry or Special Chicken flavor, which I loved as a little girl.


Of course, these days various instant noodle brands have come up with all kinds of flavors I never could have imagined. But, like with most things, nothing beats the classics.

I guess it’s all about how the signature taste transports you back to the old days from the very first sip: to feast on memories; to slurp a piece of nostalgia; to savor a feeling of going back in time.

***

There was a period in my life when Mother and I moved in with my mother’s parents. Every evening, after the call for Maghrib prayer, Grandmother would disappear into the kitchen and prepare a bowl of instant noodles for Grandfather.

Grandfather always opted for the Chicken Curry flavor—and he wanted the noodles to be extra soft instead of al dente. His should be topped with egg, fried shallots, boiled choy sum (Chinese flowering cabbage), and a tablespoon of sweet soy sauce, all served—steaming—inside a white Chinese bowl with a red rooster painted on it.

Grandfather always had his bowls of instant noodles exactly like that, every single evening, at the same time. He would be having it in front of the TV in the living room, while watching the evening news or a soccer match. Before bringing the spoon to his mouth, whenever I was around, he always asked the exact same question: “You want this? This is delicious. You want this?”

I would shake my head and watch him in amusement as he savored his instant noodles with gusto, slurping the soup noisily. Seeing him made me believe that here, right in front of me, sat an old man who was having the best meal of his life. Sometimes, long after Grandfather finished his meal, a splinter of boiled egg yolk sat stuck in his white beard.

When (on very rare occasions) Grandmother made me a bowl of instant noodles, she would prepare it the way she prepared it for Grandfather. I didn’t like the bitter choy sum back then, but I liked the way the too-soft noodles made the soup seem way thicker, the way they absorbed the full flavor from the seasonings.

Grandmother continued to prepare a bowl of instant noodles for Grandfather every single evening, until one day she fell sick. She passed away a month later.

After Grandmother’s death, Grandfather still had his bowl of instant noodles every evening—only now, they were prepared by my mother. She took great care to emulate Grandmother’s noodles.

Grandfather would have his meal as usual, but he no longer asked me whether I’d like to have the noodles, too, and I suddenly lost interest in watching him finish his dinner. Maybe I was bored. Maybe I was simply growing up. Maybe the sight of Grandfather eating his instant noodles had stopped to excite me.

But then I realised it was because something was missing: his gusto.

I guess no one could prepare the perfect instant noodles for Grandfather but Grandmother.

My mother was a good cook, but even she couldn’t precisely copy Grandmother’s signature dish. Grandmother also knew the way Grandfather liked his sweet hot tea: the precise thickness of tea and sugar, as well as the exact level of warmth when it should be served.

A year after that, Grandfather passed away. And then no one in that house ate instant noodles anymore.

***

I am always fascinated by the fact that a bowl of instant noodles can develop its own taste. These noodles come in identical packaging, with identical seasonings, and identical instructions on how to prepare and serve them. Nevertheless, I have heard of people lining up in front of certain instant noodle street stalls, who are all selling the same brand, because ‘the noodle here is so delicious’.

I thought this would be something Grandfather would understand. Perhaps, in another life, Grandmother would have her own stall, and Grandfather would visit every day.

In Indonesia, especially in the big cities on Java island, instant noodle stalls can be found on almost every street corner. Many stay open until the small hours. One need only look for street stall signs proclaiming the word ‘Internet’.

A friend who visited from abroad pointed at those stalls one day, and asked me whether those were street-style internet cafes. I told him that it was a different kind of Internet. This ‘Internet’ stands for Indomie-Telur-Kornet (a brand of instant noodle, egg, and corned beef). It’s a bowl of comfort food for most Indonesians—especially for clubbers who roam the streets hungrily at 3 am after partying and drinking hard, trying to prevent hangovers before heading home and sleeping through the morning.

A local friend of mine would enthusiastically vouch for an instant noodle stall in another part of the town. It would take her 45 minutes to get there by car—an hour and a half if there was a traffic jam. But she would brave it all. She said this stall served the most delicious bowl of instant noodles she had ever tasted in her life.

Perhaps it was the way they prepared the noodle.

Or how long they boiled it.

Or whether they stirred the noodle or not.

Perhaps it’s due to when they added the seasoning.

Or the kind of eggs they used.

The amount of fresh bird eye chili they put in.

Whether they sprinkled fried shallots, or not.

It could be the brand of the corned beef and whether they served it from the can.

Whether they put in some leafy greens.

Whether they grated cheddar cheese.

Whether they added a sprinkle of salt or chicken stock.

Or maybe ‘delicious’ has nothing to do with the taste itself.

Maybe it has more to do with memories.

***

We moved out from my grandparent’s house into a rented one when I was ten. The house itself was really small. The kitchen was oddly located; it was right in front of the bathroom. But the house had a huge backyard.

Seeing it, as a little girl, I imagined us having a huge swimming pool. But my mother sensibly decided to use the space to grow peanuts.

I don’t know why she chose peanuts, but after spending a few hours under the sun in the backyard for a few months, she managed to grow 10-12 rows of of them. I might not have got my swimming pool, but Mother bought me a huge plastic bucket. On sunny days, she would fill it with cold water. I would soak myself happily; wearing my swimsuit, playing with a yellow rubber duck, while Mother worked on her peanuts.

During harvest time, we always had more nuts than we could consume, and my swimming bucket would be filled with them. You could say we were swimming in peanuts. Mother would boil several batches of peanuts for hours; I could smell them from the street. We would eat some of them, but ended up giving away most of them to our neighbors. She also made peanut cookies and peanut butter, but we kept those for ourselves.

When there were simply too many peanuts to handle, Mother would leave the peanut-filled swimming bucket outside our fence, so anyone could grab some.

Peanuts were meant for sunny days.

For rainy days, we had instant noodles.

Mother always scolded me for forgetting my umbrella—or for losing it. On some wet afternoons, when it rained heavily and I came home from school with a soaked uniform, my mother would tut at me for not having my umbrella, while—at the same time—preparing a bucket of warm water for a bath. Then she would send me to the bathroom, reminding me to wash my hair so I wouldn’t catch a cold.

By the time I finished bathing, Mother would have prepared my ‘rainy day’ meal on the dining table: a plate of warm pandan white rice with a bowl of steaming hot instant noodles; and some eggs—fried in margarine and sweet soy sauce. A glass of sweet hot tea would be ready on the side. At this stage, my mother would stop scolding me about the umbrella. She would tell me the stories of her day; or ask me to tell some stories of my day.

My mother could cook anything from rendang to gulai, from gudeg to siomay, and they were always delicious. But nothing reminded me more of the comfort of coming home than the signature smell of her simple rainy day meal: a warm plate of rice, a bowl of steaming hot instant noodle, egg fried in margarine and sweet soy sauce, that glass of sweet hot tea.

It is the smell I come home to—the taste of warmth I’ve come to long for.

***

After Mother’s passing, for the sake of living a healthier lifestyle, in the past few years, I have drastically reduced the frequency I consume instant noodles.

However, every time I come home from a long traveling journey, I still treat myself to a bowl of Chicken Curry or Special Chicken, and fry myself an egg in margarine—drizzled generously with sweet soy sauce.

For this reason, when I found an Asian supermarket in my first few weeks after moving to Amsterdam, I shrieked in ecstasy at founding the exact instant noodle brand of my country; my grandparents; my childhood; my memories.

Every few weeks now I treat myself to a packet of Chicken Curry instant noodle (finding the most bizarre excuses to validate this ‘treat’)—preparing it in a too-clean kitchen that still feels foreign to me, a kitchen that now smells of cheap margarine, fried egg, and caramelized soy sauce.

Because if coming home had a taste, to me, it would taste just like that.

Hanny

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