Nepal: A Mount Everest of Noodles

Features Issue 23 Aug, 2010
Text by Arlene Shale

If all the packaged noodles sold in Nepal during the past two decades could join hands, they might reach the top of Mount Everest. Tons of the stuff is filling Nepali bellies. The first homegrown manufacturer, in the early eighties, was Gandaki Noodles of Pokhara, which introduced Rara (named after a mountain lake). A white noodle closely resembling the pasta known in the west as spaghetti, it needs some preparation and still claims a following in the hills and mountains. Then, around 1985, Wai Wai, manufactured by the Chaudhary group, entered the market with a brown, spicy, precooked noodle, which became an instant crowd pleaser in the urban centers. In the past few years many players have entered the field, and today committed noodle fans can choose from a couple of dozen brands, manufactured by a dozen companies. What’s behind this taste craze in the land of the Yeti? Is it possible that eating habits dating from the mists of time could alter? Let’s think the unthinkable. Could the ever-present dal bhat (rice and lentils) take a back seat to chauchau (the Nepali word for noodles)? I wanted to know more.

Noodlin’ with History
Legend has it that in the 13th century, the young Marco Polo visited the court of the fabulously wealthy Mongol potentate, Kublai Khan. He accompanied his uncles who were busy trading jewels for spices. On his return to Italy, Marco brought back with him a recipe for mixing flour and liquid, thus creating a doughy mass. This was then cut into long, stringy pieces, which when thrown into boiling water were cooked al dente. Well, maybe not. But that’s one version of how pasta reached the boot-shaped country. Italy is synonymous with pasta. That popularity dates from the 18th century, when mass production by machine began in Naples. By the 1980’s the average Italian ate twice the noodles of people in most other nations, about 65 pounds a year.

Ready-to-eat: a revolutionary food

Nepal seems definitely joined at the hip with instant noodles. The entire population, except for the very poor and the very remote, eats them every day. Instant noodles are, of course, consumed worldwide. The planetary mania drives a huge market: roughly 50 billion servings annually. Why? The product is relatively cheap, modern, and above all, simple. Open the package, pour on boiling water, wait a few minutes, then enjoy. Or even easier, gulp them down straight from the package as do so many of the younger generation, and folks on the go. But what is the genesis of this phenomenon? Shortly after World War II, the American government aided the Japanese government by sending that starving nation their surplus wheat. The Japanese baked it and made bread, but it didn’t catch on. Then some enterprising person discovered how to make instant noodles. Eureka! The trick was to steep the cooked noodles in a seasoned broth to absorb both flavor and moisture. Then they were deep fried and dried. Thus, the noodles could be easily preserved.  In addition, they were both tasty and easy to store. Furthermore, if the pocketbook permitted, vegetables and other ingredients could be added to provide a more nutritious meal. Additionally, one of the most important features actually helped the environment: the cooking time was minimal, and therefore less combustible material was necessary. No doubt, instant noodles changed the food culture of the 20th century and probably beyond.

The Noodle Odyessy

China is supposedly the cradle of noodles. As early as the first century A.D. the Chinese were experimenting with various recipes. Furthermore, during the Sung dynasty (960 to 1280 A.D.) thousands of noodle enthusiasts congregated in shops, sampling the floury treasures, though in all likelihood they didn’t resemble our modern fare. But even with the proximity of China, the noodle invasion of Nepal came from another close neighbor, India. Nestle, a Swiss company, launched Maggi, one of the first instant noodles, in India, in the early nineteen eighties. “There was a major debate at the time, they didn’t know how to position the product on the market,” says Manish Thapa, who came to Nepal from India and is the creative director at Ad Venues, a local advertising agency. He continues, “They actually thought of making noodles a substitute for dal bhat, but quickly realized that an entrenched food habit wasn’t going to be changed overnight, so they opted for marketing the product as a snack, not a meal. In India, the people don’t care about nutrition or calories, they want the taste.”

Promoting the Product

According to Manish, “The success of Maggi was extraordinary, a case study in how a major product should be launched,” he exults. But the initial exportation to Nepal was a bust. Maggi was a white noodle and it didn’t catch on, “even though Nepal’s taste buds are more influenced by India than China,” comments the ad executive. And he should be in a position to know. His company handles the advertising for Mayo’s Noodles, (a branch of the Khetan Group), a product that came on the market almost 3 years ago. It has become immensely successful, with they say, a 22 percent market share. Maybe not because of its superior taste - all the instant noodles have more or less the same flavor, and the same ingredients - but because of the way the noodles are promoted. Not only can you enjoy a good snack, get a coupon worth a rupee or two towards your next purchase, but you can also win yourself a car, a computer, a motorcycle, kilos of gold, or a diamond. Yes! A real diamond can be yours if you win the draw. Manish, the creator of the ad campaign, explains, “Years ago I wanted to buy my wife an anniversary present and thought about buying her a diamond. However, it seemed too costly.” Then he discovered that diamonds were a relatively inexpensive way of increasing the volume of sales: an excellent way to hit the target group, housewives, right in the emotional bull’s eye. Most women, it seems, love jewelry. Who hasn’t noticed the huge billboards with a starry-eyed, mature-looking brunette wearing a sparkling jewel around her neck, while holding a young boy on her lap? Manish elaborates,” The ad features a middle-class husband, in the presence of his young children, offering his wife something precious he had promised her on their wedding night: a diamond locket.” He grins broadly. “’Diamonds are forever’, he quotes, and Mayo’s made it possible!” Although the client was dubious, Thapa pushed his idea and the results were spectacular. In just two months sales zoomed. Last July he won a CRITI award  (the equivalent of an advertising Oscar) for the campaign. However, dark clouds of doubt gathered as people began to wonder if the diamonds were really distributed. “To dispel any skepticism,” Manish explains,”we offer our congratulations and the prize to the lucky winners three times a week during the 8 o’clock news.”

Other Targets

Billboards are studded with images of young couples, dreamily eyeing one another, mouths linked by the umbilical cord of a drooping noodle. This mirrors the American Walt Disney film ‘The Lady and the Tramp’ -  the Lady being an elegant cocker spaniel, and the Tramp being your average run-of-the-mill kukur (mutt). They share a back alley dinner and while each holds one end of a long strand of spaghetti, they slurp their way to a poochy smooch. The person behind the image, ad executive Navin Joshi of Maxpro, was unaware of this. His agency handles the advertising for 2 PM Noodles. Their slogan is “Hunger no longer.” One of the ads - not created by his company - caused a slight stir. It depicts a pregnant woman whose solicitous husband, while leaning over his wife’s belly, hears a voice saying something like “I’m hungry.” He immediately prepares a plate of noodles, serves his wife, and everyone is happy - except for one of the censors who objected and had the ad withdrawn from TV. But the ad illustrated the target group: the young, urban, married couples, who probably both work, and whose male partner is more than willing to try his hand in the kitchen. Joshi, who also recently won a CRITI, relates the content of his winning ad. “A guy has just been promoted at work. A few of his wife’s girlfriends arrive at his house and tease him. Since he got a raise why not take them to a five star restaurant? He agrees, but first runs to the kitchen and serves everybody a yummy bowl of 2 PM noodles.” We only have to guess the rest. Appetites sated, everyone agrees that the evening has been a smashing success. But does Navin think that noodles could ever replace dal bhat in the hearts and stomachs of modern Nepalis? “Noodles are great snack foods. Most everybody in the younger generation has 10 rupees in their pocket. They feel independent and don’t have to ask mom to cook,” he states. “But people still traditionally want their dal bhat, at least at one meal.”

The Pioneers

This Rs 250 crore industry is one of the leaders in the Nepali business landscape, with an annual growth estimated at anywhere from five to twenty percent. Way back in 1958, Nissin Food Products of Japan introduced packaged seasoned noodles. More expensive and sophisticated Cup Noodles appeared in 1970. However, nothing much has changed since. Take your wheat flour and add flavors: a curry here, chicken there, or maybe vegetable here or prawn there, plus some mono-sodium glutamate and spices everywhere. And that spells instant satisfaction, or so the manufacturers hope. But some do more than that. In the early eighties, before the Chaudhary Group introduced Wai Wai Noodles to Nepal, they made an extremely thorough market study. Basically, the Nepali population was shifting from rural to urban, as was the case in many countries. Albeit not plentiful or very rewarding, industries began creating jobs for women. Mommy couldn’t spend as much time over the hot stove, couldn’t prepare khaja (afternoon snack) for the kids. What could be more of a godsend than instant noodles: a fast food that fit in with important factors: price, speed, and ease of preparation. More private sector and government jobs meant that adults had to reconsider their daily menu as well. But the target group was children and teenagers. It worked. Wai Wai is still leading the pack because, as J.P. Sah, the GM-Technical at the company, comments in a recent issue of The Boss magazine article, “Today only Wai Wai commands brand loyalty because the children, now adults, grew up with the product.”

But what of the future? Will the cooking pot of cultural memories contain instant noodles? Could they ever be offered to the gods and goddesses in distant millenniums? Let’s put this question in a time capsule.  In the meantime, dal bhat rocks!