December 6, 2022

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SBS Language | Instant noodles: junk food or delicacy?

Jess Ho, like a lot of Asian kids, grew up on instant noodles. It’s a rite of passage for many children of immigrants.

I don’t know if it’s possible to even overstate the importance of instant noodles growing up. My Aussie friends had sandwiches, we had instant noodles. 

          Vien Tran

 But what happens when the prices go up? What even affects the price? And since when did instant noodles become so cool?

Vien Tran, the buyer for D&K Asian Grocer reveals his deep love, secret shame and industry secrets in the season finale of Bad Taste. 

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Each episode of Bad Taste is paired with a recipe on SBS Food. Try our recipe for pimped up instant noodles!

Host and producer: Jess Ho
Executive producer: Michelle Macklem
Series producer: Bethany Atkinson-Quinton
Sound designer: Nicole Pingon
Editor: Zoe Tennant
Theme music: Rainbow Chan
Art: Joanna Hu

Want to get in touch? Email us at [email protected]

More episodes of Bad Taste

Transcript

(atmospheric sounds of wind and rain) 

Jess Ho: I acknowledge this episode was created on the lens of the Wurundjeri Woi-Wurrung people of the Kulin nation. I acknowledge the ongoing effects of colonisation and how it impacts the soil, the production of food, and in turn the foods we eat today. I pay my respects to the elders past and present. It always was and always will be Aboriginal land.

(wind fades out)

(punchy bassline begins)

Ho: When I went to Hong Kong the first time, I went on a noodle rampage. 

(music)

Ho: Fishball noodle soup, wonton noodle soup, beef brisket noodle soup, macaroni noodle soup. I spent weeks inhaling steaming bowls of noodle soup in 90 million per cent humidity.

Then, I stumbled upon cart noodles, or zche zai mien. The name is dated. These noodles aren’t  served out of carts anymore, not since the city cracked down on hygiene. Now, they’re served out of small, humble sit-down restaurants where everyone lines up and shouts their order to the vendor. Every single bowl is customised. And it’s cheap.

I was overwhelmed by this divine hole in the wall. There were over 60 different toppings to choose from. Soy sauce chicken wings, pig intestine, braised daikon, eggs, water spinach, tendon, master stock pork hocks, fish maw, fish balls, dumplings. I was in heaven. And I haven’t even got to the noodle options yet. There were too many to choose from. Thick, thin, oil, egg, udon, vermicelli, flat, rice, silver needle. And then I saw it: instant noodles. 

(glittering flourish)

(music ends)

Ho: I found this insane, amongst this buffet of freshly made noodles, there they were: instant noodles. I was culture-shocked by my own culture. My parents always told me that if I ate too many packs of instant noodles, I’d die. They’d send me articles of kids in China who got stomach cancer, stories of people who were malnutritioned, statistics on obesity. And the culprit: instant noodles. 

(glittering flourish)

And I’d hear my uncle’s voice: “Yeet hay, ah!” Which roughly translates to, “So heaty.” Any Chinese elder would yell this at me for eating anything delicious cos apparently it builds up heat in the body which causes pimples, sore throats, mouth ulcers… and you know…cancer.

(upbeat groove)

Ho: So back in this cart noodle restaurant, I looked around at the diners. They were all adults. Workers looking for a quick and filling lunch. And they were choosing instant noodles. It was our guilty pleasure.

I scanned the trays of noodles and realised why those dry, instant bricks were available. They’re non-perishable, so they won’t spoil overnight in the heat and humidity. Even in the land of excellent noodles, instant noodles, these dull bricks in plastic packets that sustained me through childhood, are considered a crown jewel. 

(music ends)

(theme song: ‘Ylang Ylang’ by Rainbow Chan – inquisitive bassline begins)

Ho: I’m Jess Ho and this is Bad Taste, a podcast about who we are through the foods we eat.

Seeing instant noodles served in that Hong Kong restaurant made me wonder, why is it, that now I earn enough money to buy fresh noodles, I still crave packets of instant noodles? Am I the only person who feels this way? And will this staple food of my heart remain accessible to the next generation? So, I went to the best person I know to speak about instant noodles…

(theme ends)

Vinny Tran: What’s going on?

Ho: What’s going on? Hello! Not much

Tran: Perfect timing it’s really quiet. Beautiful.

Ho: This is Vinny Tran. I’m in his family’s grocer, D and K in Footscray. 

(urban beat) 

Ho: Footscray is a suburb in Melbourne’s west that’s known for its Vietnamese community and its latest decade of gentrification. Vinny’s a character. Think of every grumpy aunty and uncle who runs an Asian grocer. He is the opposite. Every time I’ve shopped here I’ve spent more time talking to him than actually shopping.

Ho: Um,can I ask you from a very odd favour? I ran into John from Keratan 

Tran: Yeah

Ho: And he gave me a box of jewelry to share with everyone, do you mind if I chuck this in your fridge?

Tran: (squealing) Yes!

Ho: And then we divide and conquer it.

Tran: Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

Ho: A very Footscray moment. Footscray is my second home. I love it for the market, the seafood shops, all the old-school Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Chinese and Italian restaurants. My favourite Uyghur joint is here. A bunch of my friends have bars and casual eateries here too. And most recently, an ice cream shop. Hey John! 

Today, it’s a cold afternoon and the streets are pretty quiet. It’s past peak hour at the market and the sisters who sell the best bowls of Viet noodle soup have sold out for the day. The shelves in bakeries are running bare.

But in D&K, the shelves are stocked with stellar condiments. The freezers are packed with ice creams straight from Japan. The hum from the fridges surround the rows of Korean hangover drinks and the sound bleeds into the aisles. And… they also sell rice cookers now?

Ho: You’ve got the premium rice cookers now!

Tran: Yep. We’re going to get every single one of their cookers in and just see how it goes. 

Ho: But my favourite aisle at D&K, without a doubt, is the instant noodle aisle. It’s my version of a candy shop and I’m clearly the kid. I have a rule that I am only allowed to buy one variety per visit so I always stand there agonising over which instant noodles I want. Today, I have a tour guide. A noodle pusher. Vinny runs me through the shelves.

(music ends)

(sound of refrigerators)

Tran: this, this is the classic. This is just chicken ramen. This is the first ever instant noodle ever invented. Right? So it’s got no suit packet, no sauce packet. You need nothing except for boiling water. Hell, you don’t even need boiling water! You can just eat it as is, and it’s so bloody tasty!

I’ve got a deep emotional attachment.

(crinkling of package)

Ho: When Vinny holds up the packet, his face lights up. There is a twinkle in his eye and a softness to his gestures. It’s true love for the OG instant noodle. The first of its kind, invented in 1958 by Momofuku Ando.

Tran: This is heritage. This is the beginning of instant noodles. It deserves respect. People have to know. It’s my duty

Ho: Vinny doesn’t just stock the cheap stuff. 

<MX IN>

Ho: He’s got buckwheat instant ramen, wholemeal instant ramen, super-thin somein….and even the top-shelf stuff.

Tran: Now this is the Michelin style range. So, when you first pick it up, you’re going to notice so many flavor packets. It’s got like four flavor packets and you have to do it in order… according to them. Me, quite frankly, I just chuck it all in at the same time and it tastes bloody glorious.

Ho: And then he points out the best noodles ever. Maybe it’s just the nostalgia factor— I dunno— but I live for them.

Tran: And these little company, classic one-seat initiative. 

Ho: They’re my favourite

Tran: Yeah. These the ones that made in Hong Kong so you can get the price a little bit lower And the flavor is great. Usually we have five or six different varieties, but as you can see we’ve only got two because unfortunately at the moment, like everything, there’s a bit of a shortage.

Ho: After a quick run down of the noodle aisle, I realise it is looking a little bare. Usually, he’s got different flavours stacked on top of each other. So it’s hard to see his shop running a little low. 

(music ends)

Ho: This grocer isn’t just a job to Vinny, it’s his family’s legacy. We step out back so we can chat away from his customers.

Tran: My parents originally had this shop for about… over 20 something years. And I’ve got about two and a half thousand products. So for my parents who are getting a little bit older to manage all of that, bit difficult, they were going to sell the business, but, when COVID happened, I basically took over the business because my other job got shut down. My other job, I work as a photographer between Tokyo and Melbourne. And I thought, well, if I’m not going to do anything, I might as well take over the family business rather than let a stranger take over the name and potentially destroy it. We originally focused on Vietnamese groceries when my parents were dealing with it. But because I spent so much time in Japan, I was sick of not being able to get the groceries that I usually get when I’m in Japan. Hence the Japanese range and the Korean range.

Ho: So you mentioned that you took over this store because you didn’t want your parents to sell it over to some stranger. What does this store mean to you?

Tran: It started to mean a lot more to me when I started working here. We set up roots here a long time ago. My grandpa opened up one of the first Vietnamese groceries in Footscray. Being a Vietnamese immigrant, there was always a strong Vietnamese community. I mean, this is my family legacy and I’m kind of carrying the torch now, so I feel like it’s partly my duty to continue it.

Ho: Immigrant families like Vinny’s have a long history in Footscray.

Tran: It’s always been an immigrant community. So prior to the Vietnamese, we had the Italian wave, the Greek wave and the Polish wave, I suppose, the next wave was the Vietnamese. And the Indians and the Africans, the current wave is hipsters, right? (laughs)

Ho: And Vinny’s fostered a community at the shop. People come here for him as much as they come for groceries. I remember when I first stepped into D&K, he was running around saying hi to regulars, yelling their names as they came in. And I’ve seen him work so hard to build up the shop’s range over the past couple of years. From things like chips, confectionery, frozen dumplings, binchotan, and even skincare. But what I’m curious about today is why he gets so excited when visiting his noodle aisle.

Tran: Like every other Asian kid who had parents working multiple jobs who couldn’t cook for them all the time ‘cause the parents were so busy, we were raised on instant noodles as snacks. I would say it was 60% of my diet as a kid. I think that was so crucial to the development of Asian kids. It’s cheap, tasty. You can pimp it up if you want to, if you want to spoil yourself you put an egg in. I mean, I don’t know if it’s possible to even overstate the importance of instant noodles growing up. My Aussie friends, they had sandwiches. We had instant noodles.

Ho: So, what’s your relationship with instant noodles like now?

Tran: Oh, my relationship with instant noodles, it’s a love, hate relationship. I’m still obsessed. As I get older, I am trying to watch what I eat. but every time we get instant noodles in, I just have to taste it and I often hide when I’m eating it because I don’t want to be judged by my girlfriend who was also conscious of my health and my blood sugar levels.

(chill groove)

Ho: If you didn’t grow up on instant noodles, the key players to note are Nissin from Japan, Nongshim from Korea, Indofood from Indonesia and Toyo Suisan… also from Japan. And each of those companies make a huge variety of noodles. But with so many varieties of instant noodles on the market, how does he even choose what to stock?

Tran: Ramen accidentally became our strength. I remember when we first opened up, we hardly had any rum, we certainly not Japanese ramen. We had to work really hard to build up our supplier base because not many people want to bring in Japanese ramen because it has such a short expiry date. We’ve stocked pretty much everything we can get our hands on. I mean, the reason why I love the customers so much is everybody’s willing to give something a go, because I’m here to explain it and I love doing that.

(beat out)

Ho: But then there is one kind of instant noodle, Samyang ramen…

Tran: Korean some young, you know, it went viral a few years ago online and they’ve got spicy and then two times spicy, and I thought that was the threshold. You can’t go beyond that. But then they brought out a three-time spicy and I thought who was going to eat. this? This is like next level burn. You’ll feel it, every single centimeter going down your stomach. It’s like a kidney stone you’ll know when it’s coming. In terms of spice, the Koreans really take it to the next level. But people still buy it! It’s at bit of a resurgence in the past few months, because uh, the YouTube channel “Korean Englishman,” he kind of started that spicy noodle challenge.

Ho: So, this YouTuber started this challenge eight years ago. He filmed a bunch of unsuspecting people eating Samyang instant ramen. He called the Fire Noodle Challenge. It went viral to the point where English Footballers and Marvel actors have taken it on.

Tran: I can’t believe it’s mainstream!

Ho: People just want their food to attack them.

Tran: Yeah, I dunno why.

Ho: But let’s step away from this kind of instant ramen— the one that’s designed to test the plumbing in your house. I want to know about the most popular kids on the block. 

Tran: Definitely the Michelin style range. So in Japan, and this is why I love Japan so much, so Nissin is one of the biggest ramen noodle brands. And in Japan, they’ve got Michelin starred, ramen shops. Really artisan, highly regarded, everything made from scratch, just really, really beautiful ramen. So oftentimes what happens is Nissin, they would do collaborations and make instant noodle versions of their signature dish. So whenever we can get our hands on that, that is always the best seller and it sells out so fast. People always get upset at me, but I always tell them on Instagram, I’ve got this much, come in, get it. I’m not going to hold it. People come in two weeks later and expect there still to be stock. And it’s like, “No,” we go through this all the time and they ask, “Well, when when’s the next time it’s going to be in?” Well quite frankly, I don’t know because shipping is screwed.

I remember the last batch they brought in, because the container was stuck at sea for so long. By the time it got to my shop, we had three weeks before the best before date expired. That’s a huge financial risk for me to take with stock. But I know that people are still going to enjoy it. And look, to be honest, most people know instant noodles don’t expire.

Ho: To be honest, I haven’t tried the Michelin star range before. I’ve never had the inclination to race across town and line up for an instant noodle. But I know people who do.

(pop beat)

Ho: I grew up eating Nissin ramen. You know, the standard stuff in the red and green packets with only one or two flavour sachets: sesame oil and tonkotsu. Very basic stuff. Kinda like me. 

Back then, they were only about 30 cents each. But now, instant noodle prices can creep up on you if you don’t pay attention to the price tag. Those entry level Nissin instant noodles I grew up eating? They’re just under a dollar a packet these days. If I’m having a mid-week treat, I’ll drop $3-5 on a packet. But when I splurge, I’ll get myself some snail or duck blood instant noodles that sit around the $7 mark. But these Michelin star noodles are even too pricey for my blood. Once I hit a certain price point, I figure, I might as well fork out for a fresh bowl of noodles in a restaurant. 

(music ends)

Tran: It’s expensive, it’s expensive. The most expensive ramen that we have. It’s $9.50 for a single serving bowl. And that’s the Michelin star range. So you have Tsuta, and then you have Nakiryu, which is $9.50 a serving. And then they’ve got other restaurant collaborations working out to about $8.50 a bowl, but then it gets really cheap as well, like $2 a serving. So, it’s it’s quite a huge range. The Japanese ramen, if it’s made in Japan, it’s going to be a little bit more expensive. So a lot of people just aren’t use to that price. The Korean noodles tend to be a lot cheaper. The Chinese noodles definitely much cheaper. And the Vietnamese, noodles much cheaper, but we generally, only stock Japanese and Korean.

Ho: Why is there that huge price difference?

Tran: I mean, surely the cost of labor in Japan is much more expensive. I think also the availability of it as well. Shipping from Japan is much more expensive. But I don’t know if that’s adequate to explain the discrepancy of price between Japanese and Korean noodles.

Ho: So, can shop owners like Vinny get rich selling instant ramen?

Tran: Well, I mean, not really because if you try and overcharge for instant noodles, that’s a crime. It’s a staple like rice. There have been times where I’ve gotten in something very rare and then we’ll do a little bit of a bit better margin because we can’t get more. But generally we stick to the same margin, whether it’s Japanese or Korean. You can’t charge people too much for instant noodles.

Ho: I think about D&K’s shelves and how they’re not overflowing with instant noodles like they normally are. And we know that COVID has affected international shipping. We’ve all heard the term “supply chain issues.” But what people are really talking about are the people in factories, at ports, and in transportation that can’t work. Is COVID driving up the cost of instant ramen?

Tran: With COVID, because shipping is still messed up. You’re still playing this catch-up game of what can we get? How much can we get? We have awesome, awesome suppliers. I think I have over 30 different suppliers and I’m just checking them every day to see what they can get in stock. They’ll send me what they have and then I’ll ask them, “If I would have set you up with the agent in Japan, can you guys do a custom order for me?” So most of our suppliers have increased their margins. We’ve been around for two years so with the cost of fuel, lack of staff, the prices of most things have gone up. There are some noodles where I’ll work on an even smaller margin, even though the suppliers have increased their price. I just don’t want to charge too much for instant noodles. So there’s one range, again, going back to Nissin. So Nissin has obviously a huge variety of noodles, but one of their premium brands, even now with the price increase, the Nissin made in Japan, you’re looking at about $15-$16, Which I find for a family pack pretty steep, but because I want more and more people to try this instant noodle, I cap I kept the price at $12.30. Some suppliers are going to be more expensive than others, but for me, I just feel like, “Hey, I want to do it a little bit lower because I want you guys to try this.

It’s so good.” Just when you think the Japanese couldn’t make instant noodles any better, they, they bring out this range. It’s like, guys, you’re killing me. 

Ho: I love it. You’re the, like the local ramen dealer.

Tran: Yep. Yep. Yep. Yep.

Ho: So what are your suppliers saying when the timeframe of noodle availability or the price changes?

Tran: Oh, I mean, my suppliers are very, very transparent. They’ll give me plenty of notice. They’re going to say Vinny, 1st of April, where we have to Jack up our prices 10% across the entire range. So I mean, that’s stressful. Um, but what can you do?

Ho: And the other big factor affecting price and supply: war. At the time of this interview, Russia has been at war with Ukraine for two months.

Tran: You get all of these people talking about, you know, the wheat prices are gonna go up this and that. Sure it’s got to have some kind of knock on effects, because Russia and Ukraine are huge wheat producers.

Tran: And the majority of instant noodles are made from wheat. Look, I’m not an economist. But all I know is the supplies have increased their prices. They’re saying, you know, the war has had something to do with it. Shipping also has a lot to do with it. It’s definitely affected everything. 

Ho: And that has a trickle down effect, all the way to D&K in Footscray.

Tran: The customers have definitely noticed, but I just tell them the truth. “Hey, price has gone up,” you know, but generally my customers are really cool, “They’re like, yep, we get it.” And some of them even noticed that when I didn’t increase the prices. They’re like “Vinny, how come this hasn’t gone up?” I’m like, “Oh, cause I want to keep it low.” They’re like, “Oh, you should raise the price, okay?”  

Ho: So are you seeing people being priced out of some staple instant noodles?

Tran: I wouldn’t say they’re necessarily being priced out. But if it gets to the point where, you know, it’s going to cost $20, I’m just not even going to bother. Unless the war ends tomorrow, unless shipping resumed back to normal, unless COVID disappears, I think we’ve got at least a year before we start to see some kind of semblance of normality. In the meantime, I’m not going to be surprised if we see more price rises, but obviously I’m going to do everything I can to  make sure everything’s affordable for customers.

(jazzy melody)

Ho: And I get it. Vinny wants to keep dealing instant noodles, he wants to make sure they’re an affordable staple. He’s had a lifelong relationship with them. Same as me. Instant noodles aren’t just a staple because they’re cheap and durable, there’s a nostalgia factor. I have so many friends from Indonesia, Malaysia, China and Korea, and they all moved to Melbourne to study. They eat instant noodles because it’s a comfort to them when they’re homesick. It tastes the same, wherever you buy them. But the world is changing. The pandemic surges on. The Russian-Ukrainian war will continue to impact the production of food. And instant noodle prices will rise. And if things keep going the way they’re going, that instant noodle comfort will turn from a staple to a treat. Which for people like me and Vinny, may be a blessing for our health. We can’t afford to eat all that yeet hay.

(recipe bell)

(upbeat and fun jazz-inspired song)

Ho: Keep listening after the credits for my favourite way to pimp up instant ramen.

(theme song: ‘Ylang Ylang’ by Rainbow Chan— inquisitive bassline begins)

Ho: Bad Taste is an SBS podcast. Michelle Macklem is our executive producer. Our Series Producer is Beth Atkinson-Quinton. Our producer is Beź Zewdie. Our sound designer is Nicole Pingon. Our editor is Zoe Tennant. And I’m Jess Ho, your host and producer. Thank you to the team at SBS for respectfully distributing our noods: Rachel Sibley, Caroline Gates, Joel Supple and mix engineer Max Gosford. Our theme music is Ylang Ylang by Rainbow Chan.

Our awesome podcast art is by Joanna Hu. Thanks to Vien Tran and the crew at D&K Grocer.

Thanks for listening to the first season of Bad Taste, a podcast about who we are, through the foods we eat. If you enjoyed the show and want to support us, follow SBS and SBSfood and don’t forget to share our noods.

(horn-led jazzy inspired song) 

Ho: This is a recipe for fishball instant ramen. You’ll need 4 fishballs, a packet of sesame oil Nissin ramen, a few leaves of iceberg lettuce torn in half and one egg. Grab a small pot and add your fish balls and 500ml of water. Bring to a boil and add your lettuce and instant ramen, cooking to packet directions. When your noodles are done, crack your egg in the pot and mix it through. Turn the stove off, put the lid on and let it sit for 30 seconds. Transfer to a bowl and eat.

(music ends)