Thailand's queen of instant noodles takes a hit due to slowing economy

Mama noodles is the matriarch of Thailand's instant-noodle market which burst onto the scene in 1972. ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

BANGKOK - Call it Pavlovian conditioning, Thai style: The mere mention of the word "Mama" in the kingdom conjures up images of thin noodles in a spicy-and-sour broth laced with monosodium glutamate.

It makes a hungry man nip to the nearest 7-Eleven outlet for a fix of cup noodles. Or - in the case of someone who cannot wait - just coat a slab of uncooked noodles with the seasoning powder and stuff it into his mouth.

Mama noodles is the matriarch of Thailand's instant-noodle market which burst onto the scene in 1972 with the joint venture between Taiwan's President Enterprise and Thailand's Saha Pathanapibul.

Today, the brand is a shorthand for the product itself, and controls about half of the Thai instant-noodle market despite stiff competition from local upstarts with sing-song names like Wai Wai and Yum Yum.

Each shiny packet of guilty pleasure costs just 6 baht (24 Singapore cents), one-fifth of what it costs to have a bowl of noodles at a street stall. Seamstresses who work out of pavement booths scarf it down during meal breaks, just as beggars on footbridges do.

For years, it was considered the barometer of the Thai economy, with consumption rising when times were lean. But changing tastes have thrown this inverse relationship out of whack.

The dehydrated staple has worked its way into the menus of both streetside eateries and popular restaurants.

One common dish, for example, is Yum Mama (not be confused with Yum Yum), a fiery salad of blanched instant noodles, cabbage, coriander, spring onion, tomato, shallots, lime, chilli paste, garlic, fish sauce, sugar and salt.

Some restaurants take "Mama" to a whole new level. A popular Bangkok eatery near Chualongkorn University last year introduced a late-night supersized version of Mama Tom Yum flavoured noodles.

It threw into the crimson noodle soup hunks of crispy pork, seafood, sliced lime, as well as two raw eggs. What soon followed was a social media frenzy and snaking queues.

Mama noodles have developed a cult following outside of Thailand too. Tourists like Hong Kong-born Cher Lai, 32, stuff their suitcases with it on each shopping trip to Bangkok.

"I have liked every flavour I tried," she told The Straits Times. "I buy 10 or 15 packets at one go… it depends on how much space there is in my suitcase."

The noodles come in a whole range of flavours, including minced pork and tom yum.

Meanwhile, Cambodians buy them as gifts for their parents when travelling back home for festivals.

According to a report last year by business intelligence firm Euromonitor International, instant noodles make up the bulk of noodles consumed in Thailand.

But "the rising trend of health awareness and availability of healthy meal solutions will damage demand for instant noodles, which was traditionally the driving force to overall growth", it said.

All that means is that Mama is no longer a recession-proof product, with its fortunes appearing to be equally tied up with Thailand's larger economy.

In 2014, when a political crisis slowed its economic growth to 0.9 per cent and eventually led to a military coup, the growth of Mama noodle sales hit a low of 1 per cent, according to broadcaster Thai PBS.

Last year, while the military government could not lift the country beyond an estimated 2.8 per cent growth, sales of Mama noodles only grew 0.4 per cent - a record low in 44 years.

In his comments to Thai media last month, Saha Pathanapibul's vice-president Vathit Chokwatana attributed the dismal sales to falling commodity prices, which have weakened the purchasing power of the rural set.

In other words, even the poor have found Mama noodles to be too expensive.

Ipsos Business Consulting expects government stimulus plans in the coming year to improve the fortunes of the low-income groups this year, which might persuade them to return to their Mama habit.

But with a moribund global economy expected to continue weighing down farm prices, and a government wary of agricultural subsidies, the brand that Thais have come to associate with a cheap, quick, tasty meal may have to bank increasingly on other consumer groups for future growth.

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