Instant noodles of different brands are seen on shelves in a supermarket. [Photo/IC]
YINCHUAN — Instant noodles, once the bedrock of China’s convenience food, have returned to the spotlight after a string of tiny noodle restaurants cropped up in the country.
After a day’s hard work, Du Zhenna and her husband walked into a small restaurant in a bustling street in Yinchuan, capital of northwestern Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.
They stopped in front of a wall with over 100 global brands of instant noodles, from kimchi-flavored noodles from the Republic of Korea to Tom Yum Kung-flavored noodles from Thailand.
Du made a decision to try the signature dish, which is a far cry from ordinary cup noodles made by simply pouring in boiling water.
Dipped in tangy sauces and topped with thinly sliced mushrooms, vegetables and a heart-shaped fried egg, a steaming bowl of instant noodles pleases not only the mouth but also the eyes.
“It’s nice to try the flavors of different countries in one restaurant,” Du said. “The noodles are tasty and have good presentation. It’s just like what I saw online.”
Instant noodle restaurants have emerged across China in the past few months as short videos featuring different mouthwatering noodles went viral on popular Chinese video-sharing app Douyin in May.
Yinchuan is now home to 15 such restaurants, according to Dianping, a Yelp-like leading Chinese online city-guide.
Xu Hongli, owner of the restaurant that Du visited, was inspired by the videos and opened a similar snack shop in August.
“Our restaurant is often packed with customers, many of whom are active Douyin users,” he said. “Diners like taking selfies with the ‘wall of instant noodles’ and posting pictures and short videos online.”
Over 2,000 customers visited Xu’s restaurant during the week-long National Day holiday. “The bestsellers are spicy instant noodles from the Republic of Korea because they cater to the taste of the locals,” he said.
But in another instant noodle restaurant only 10 km away from Xu’s, few tables were occupied.
“Most of our customers never come back,” said Liu Facai, the shop owner. “Some people entered our restaurant out of curiosity, but left very soon after they found out we only sell instant noodles.”
In fact, instant noodles have seen a drastic decline in their popularity in China in recent years, due to the rise of food delivery services and the growing importance attached to healthy diets.
According to the World Instant Noodles Association, the sales of instant noodles in China dropped from 46.22 million packets in 2013 to 38.97 million in 2017, a decrease of 15.7 percent.
Usually high in fat and sodium and low in vitamins and minerals, instant noodles have been regarded by an increasing number of Chinese as junk food, even when they are topped with fresh vegetables and mushrooms.
“Another reason is price,” Liu said. A bowl of instant noodles in his restaurant costs around 25 yuan (about $3.6), more than five times the price of a packet of Chinese-made instant noodles sold in supermarkets.
But Xu, bustling around his restaurant to serve customers, was more optimistic. “Starting a business means taking risks. For me, things are looking good, at least for now.”