The Secret Life of Instant Noodles

Hannah Yan Han
4 min readFeb 3, 2018

In post-World War II food-short Japan, an inventor turned traditional ramen into instant noodles, which then spread to other parts of Asia and other parts of the world.

Many years later, a ramenphile started theramenrater site reviewing more than 2000 instant ramen. While it doesn’t cover everything, the dataset still contains most of the major brands and quite an impressive array from all over the world. Today I will check out the secret life of instant noodles.

The universe of instant noodles

Each cluster represents a brand of instant noodle, each dot a flavour.

Nissin and its noodles

Top 10 noodle brands by number of flavours, colored by country

Since Nissin Corp was founded by instant noodle inventor, it developed the most varieties across the most countries.

Instant noodles by packaging

It is also particularly known for its cup noodles, which is arguably the most convenient among all packagings, though with really small portion. Nissin also runs a cup noodles museum in Osaka.

The packaging and the brand

instant noodles by packaging

While the dataset is limited to what the reviewer has tested, we can still see the distribution of packagings among the sample such as more packs than cups in South Korea, which is at least consistent with what I saw in local stores, and glean useful info on where the brands are relatively big, such as Nissin in Japan/HK, Nongshim in Korea and Maruchan in the US.

Beyond Asia

While instant noodle is primarily an Asian thing, there are also present in many other places, such as Poland or Finland. I even went to the site check out how they look like to see it for real.

Colored by country and sized by number of flavours

While it’s commonly known South Korea, Japan and Taiwan manufacture loads of instant noodles, I just wasn’t expecting the existence of a variety of brands and flavors in the US: There are not only US brands like Annie Chun’s, but also various globalized flavor of Asian brands, such as pot-au-feu or fettucine alfredo.

Instant Noodle as a lens for local cuisines

Instant noodles, unlike plain noodles, often tend to mirror flavours of particular dishes like beef noodle, kimchi or Kyushu Tonkutsu, even though it may not contain the real ingredient. As such it can be seen as a lens for local cuisines, and the flavours also vary by market.

While in North America and Europe we can still see a lot Asian flavours largely catered to the Asian immigrants, there are still cases like chicken tortilla flavor in the US, or the pomidorova flavor from the Polish brand etc.

In South East Asia, there are lots of localized flavours such as mee goreng, chicken curry. In the Philippines it has Batchoy flavor, which I just learnt is a mixed soup containing offals and beef, chicken. In India there are flavours like pani puri.

In Central/South America instant noodles appear to be rather localized, with flavours like pollo habanero y limon.

Which tastes better

Number of ratings on 1–5 scale, ranging from 0–1, 1–2 and onwards

According to that particular ramenphile, the majority of the top 10 fall into a 4/5 rating, such as Filipino brand Lucky Me!. The reviewer seems to think rather highly of the Indonesian brand indomie. As it’s based on one reviewer’s rating, it is by no means universal, though likely somehow consistent.

Getting healthier

Instant noodles are often unhealthy due to preservatives, MSG and high amounts of sodium and fat. However they are long-lasting, cheap and quick, all of which makes them useful in situations of time shortage, money shortage, or even food shortage, such as during earthquakes.

However some manufacturer are getting healthier to appeal to the time-conscious, calorie-watching and label-reading population. Among the top 10 ramen list there were a few made-in-Singapore ones with flavors of laksa or chili crab sold at slightly higher price, which are not deep fried and don’t use presevatives or MSG. Still, instant noodles on its own doesn’t make a balanced meal.

This is #day77 of my #100dayprojects on data science and visual storytelling. The data has reasonably good level of details and interesting contents, though visualizing unique flavors is a challenge without incurring mouse over, which falls back to the intriguing problem of visualizing text. My Rstudio is hanging today so I made it with Thanks for reading. If you like it, please share it. Suggestions of new topics and feedbacks are always welcomed.



Hannah Yan Han

#100daysproject on data science and visual storytelling ✈️🗺️