Instant gratification

Instant noodles are now coming in local flavours such as laksa and chilli crab

People wanting premium instant noodles have looked to Japanese and Korean brands but more manufacturers are now introducing fancy ones in familiar local flavours.

Prima Food was one of the first to tap into the premium instant noodle niche in 2011, when it launched its Singapore Laksa LaMian.

Mr Lewis Cheng, general manager of Prima Food, says: "When we developed Singapore Laksa LaMian, we knew it would be high in cost."

He cited the use of better ingredients, the noodle manufacturing and retort process (heat sterilisation process for the paste) and packaging as reasons for the higher cost.

"Thus we had to position the noodle and target it at the premium market segment," he says.

"Although the target market for instant noodle consumers is generally price conscious, more are willing to pay a higher price for better quality and nutrition," he adds.

While regular instant noodles can be priced as low as $1.80 for a pack of five, Laksa LaMian, part of Prima's Easy Gourmet Indulgence range, costs $10.95 for a packet of four. It boasts new flavours too: Fish Soup LaMian and Chilli Crab LaMian were launched last year.

And like the Prima Taste pastes that are widely available overseas, these noodles are also sold in more than 35 countries.

Instant noodles were created more than 50 years ago, in 1958, by the late Momofuku Ando of Japan.

He founded Nissin Food Products in 1948. The noodles were a way of using wheat supplied by the United States to solve the food shortage problem in Japan post World War II.

However, in the decades since, manufacturers have surpassed the usual noodle patty with generic chicken or seafood flavour.

Brands are also going the premium route by putting their spin on other local flavours, featuring spice pastes instead of just powdered seasoning, and offering noodles with no added monosodium glutamate (MSG).

Responding to Singaporean's love for spicy food, many are also introducing spicy flavour options.

Maggi's latest instant noodle product is its premium Maggi Senses Laksa, which comes with laksa paste and coconut powder.

Mr Heng Peng Kwang, marketing director of Nestle Singapore, which owns Maggi, says the company realised two years ago that there was a demand from consumers for premium instant noodles.

Its new laksa product aims to cater to "affluent Singaporeans who are looking for instant noodles that promise richer and intense flavours that are hard to replicate at home conveniently at any time of the day".

He adds: "Laksa is one of the top local dishes that Singaporeans enjoy and through research, it was the preferred flavour our respondents want us to launch."

Besides this new laksa instant noodle, it also released Maggi 2-Min Extra Spicy Curry Noodles last month, featuring its springy noodles with extra spicy curry broth.

Nissin Foods (Asia), too, has introduced Asian flavours, including Tom Yam Mee Goreng under its Fried Noodles Specialist range, and its halal-certified Japanese ramen range last year.

Its Myojo brand features local flavours such as Ee Mian, Lor Mee, and Asam Laksa bowl noodles, as well as Semi Dry Ramen Fried Prawn Noodles.

Ms Audrey Chia, marketing supervisor for Nissin Foods (Asia), says that generally, spicy flavours are more popular than non-spicy ones.

"Trends come and go. Premium items are the latest trend and local flavours tend to be the core of the instant noodles market. Another part of it is to constantly come up with flavours."

The recent craze for Penang-style instant white curry noodles from the MyKuali brand in Malaysia also highlights how new-to-market brands are going premium.

Each MyKuali packet comes with seasoning powder, chilli paste and palm oil-based non-dairy creamer, and more flavours such as Hokkien Prawn Noodle and tom yam are expected soon.

They are available at supermarkets and hypermarkets such as Cold Storage, Giant and Sheng Siong, as well as neighbourhood mini-marts - although many have had their shelves wiped out after word got out that the noodles are sold here. A pack of four retails between $3.80 and $4.60, depending on the supermarket or mini-mart.

Over the next few months, the FairPrice chain of supermarkets is looking bring in MyKuali noodles, as well as A1 White Curry noodles.

Currently, it stocks Ah Lai White Curry Noodles from Penang, which is sold exclusively at the supermarket chain.

Mrs Mui-Kok Kah Wei, director of purchasing and merchandising for FairPrice, says: "We have increased our range of instant noodles by more than 10 per cent in the past three years and now carry more than 35 brands."

She says the popular ones include Maggi, Myojo and Nongshim, and customers go for hot and spicy flavours.

The Cold Storage chain also carries more than 35 brands and 20 flavours, with the newest additions of Maggi and MyKuali noodles.

While the fancy flavours are tempting, Miss Sarah Sinaram, senior dietitian from the Raffles Diabetes & Endocrine Centre in Raffles Hospital, cautions against eating instant noodles too often.

She says: "Since most instant noodles are fried, one should limit intake of such processed foods to no more than two times a week.

"The main ingredients of the dried noodle are wheat flour, palm oil and salt. The principal ingredients of the flavouring powder are salt, MSG, seasonings and sometimes sugar.

"Instant noodles mainly contain carbohydrates and fats, especially saturated fat, which is the type of fat that can increase blood cholesterol levels; and sodium. It is generally low in protein, dietary fibre and vitamins and minerals.

"In order to reduce your sodium intake it is best to avoid using the seasonings found in instant noodles."

She recommends adding a pinch of salt or a dash of soya sauce, and use sliced, fresh chillies to add flavour to the noodles.

She adds: "Adding an egg or some lean meat can increase the amount of protein, while adding fresh chopped vegetables will increase the amount of dietary fibre, vitamins and minerals, making the dish a balanced one."

Dry instant noodles or low fat versions may not be much healthier either, says Miss Sinaram, because of the sodium in the accompanying packets of seasoning.

Nevertheless, diners are still slurping up oodles of instant noodles from their favourite brands. Housewife Pamela Lam's kitchen is well-stocked with Prima Taste's Easy Gourmet Indulgence noodles.

The 52-year-old mother of three says: "I started buying the Laksa LaMian when it launched and have been a fan ever since. Even though it is more expensive than other brands, I am willing to pay for it because I like the laksa flavour.

I normally add extra ingredients such as fishcake, tau pok and vegetables for a full meal with the curry or laksa base. I also add fresh fish and ginger slices to the fish soup noodles."

Student Jonathan Tham, 24, says: "I chanced upon the extra spicy curry noodles from Maggi, as I normally buy their instant noodles. I like that it's even spicier now as I felt that the previous version could have been spicier.

"My friends and I can eat at least two packets at a go. I prefer Maggi to the other brands as I've grown up eating it and I like the springy noodles."

For public relations director Richard Leen, 46, eating MyKuali noodles is the closest he can get to the taste of Penang.

He says: "The curry soup is rich with a nice spicy kick, and for instant noodles, it is close enough to the curry mee in Penang. I cook two packets of noodles with one pack of soup base as it's thick, enough, and I add tau kwa, cai xin and a hard boiled egg to make it better.

"I think the MSG is quite strong, but it's a small setback. The spicy feeling at the back of my throat and in my stomach is satisfying."

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