CHENGDOO challenge: Instant Noodles
It's hot, it's oily, it's salty, it's the staple of college-student diets the world over. We set out to test just how much fangbian mian our (well-)post-university* digestive tracts could handle. After thorough trips to our local Hongqi and Huhui supermarkets, we emerged with 15 bowls and packets of fangbian mian, two large bottles of Coca Cola, nine liters of water, and a pack of paper cups.
While a cursory glance at an instant-noodle aisle in a supermarket makes it seem there's a vast variety of noodles, the selection is mostly beef, with a few seafood, poultry, and plain hot and sour flavors, produced by four different Chinese megabrands—Sichuan-based Baijia; packaged-food giant Master Kang, whose flagship noodle restaurant in Xiamen sells "top-grade" beef noodles for a scandalous RMB298; self-proclaimed "instant vermicelli experts" Guangyou; and the Shanghai-based Tongyi.
Despite illustrated, step-by-step cooking instructions on the packages, some of the supposed "convenient" noodles proved too difficult for our preparation skills. Some called for draining the water; others required adding the spice packets in a specific order. After some discussion we decided to follow one singular preparation method ("Just put everything in the bowl and pour water on it!"), so we added all spices and oil packets, skimping on none even when the slabs of coagulated oil that plopped out struck fear in our hearts. And then we let the chow-down begin.
The fewer the stars, the better.
Tongyi Laotan Pickled-Pepper Beef Noodle
统一巧面馆老坛泡椒牛肉面 (红油味)RMB3.50, 110g
The brown-orange broth of the first sample of the bunch gave our hesitant testers false hopes. "Hmm. Smells OK. It's a bit sweet. This one is OK," said one. "The noodle is good," said another, rejoicing. "I have to say, not bad. Better than I thought!" But then came the doubts: "What is this? There are mini cubes of something." "These pickled chili peppers look like worms." And finally: "This one'll give you heavy la duzi."
Master Kang Shrimp (blue bowl)
康师傅鲜虾鱼板桶面 RMB3.50, 127g
One of the few non-spicy noodles we tried, the transparent grayish-brown broth was slightly sweet, very salty and peppery, and had "loads of baby shrimps floating it in," according to one reviewer. In addition to generously sized pieces of seaweed, and some carrot and chives, the broth was distinctly not oily—making this one seem almost healthful. Almost. "The flavor's not very strong, but for a change, if you eat a lot of fangbian mian, this one will be nice."
Baijia Original Hot & Sour Flavor Sweet Potato Noodles (red cup)
白家正宗酸辣味粉丝 RMB3.50, 65g
If you're looking for a meat-free instant noodles (and by that we mean meat-oil-free), this is probably your best bet. Claiming to be a "green food product," the tender sweet potato cellophane noodles (clear, chewy noodles instead of the standard curly white ones) soak in a hot and sour broth. There's not all that much substance to it, even on the skewed scale of instant-noodle nutrition, but at least its flavor is, in the words of one reviewer, "close to the real thing."
Guangyou Braised Crab Flavor with Chili Sweet Potato Instant Vermicelli (red cup)
光友新e族香辣蟹粉丝 RMB1.90, 60g
When we poured the hot water into this bowl, it turned ever-so-slightly red. Much more salty than spicy ("seawater" is how one tester described it), the flavor seemed to grow on our reviewers, starting with a ho-hum "It's OK. The noodles aren't as bad as the other ones" and progressing to an enthusiastic "Actually it's pretty good!" Perhaps most of all it was appreciated as a palette cleanser in between rounds of hot oiliness.
Master Kang Mushroom Chicken Noodles (green bowl)
康师傅香菇炖鸡面 RMB3.50, 127g
Widely recognized by foreigners as the crème-de-la-instant-noodle-crème, the slightly sweet, slightly sour, "real chicken soupy kind of flavor" was described as having a "complex flavor." Others were stronger in their feelings for the green bowl: "I think it has a little bit of ground-up angel juice or something," said one. "Mmmm, fucking deliciousness. That's such a decent flavor. So familiar. It's like going home. I call it huijia mian."
Tongyi Old Chengdu Dandan Noodles (red and pink bag)
统一巧面馆老成都担担面 RMB2.50, 112g
One of the last noodles that we sampled nearly pushed one of our tasters over the edge. "They all taste the same now!" he cried. "I can't do this. My heart is weighed down by this shit. It's not full. I feel depressed. These noodles make me depressed. I don't want to do anything. There's like a hole in my heart that can't ever be filled with noodles." The noodles? They were "very red."
Tongyi Tomato and Egg Noodles (pink bowl)
统一巧面馆西红柿鸡蛋 RMB3.50, 118g
The only tomato and egg soup on our list, the package of this one claimed "Local Flavor!" The red-orange oily broth didn't look much like any fresh tomato-egg noodles we've had in Chengdu, and the small chunks of dehydrated egg didn't help matters. It was slightly acidic, slightly spicy, and had mysterious "crunchy bits." Eating it was like covering uncharted territory: "Is this egg? Ew, that was egg." "That was clear." "No, that was lettuce." The nicest thing anybody had to say about it? "Doesn't make me want to vomit or anything."
Master Kang Pickled Turnip Old Duck Soup (cyan bowl)
康师傅酸萝卜老鸭汤青 RMB3.50, 127g
This "herbal wannabe" was a thin brownish soup served with a small package of pink pickled turnips. It lacked odor, taste, and really anything besides salt, water, and noodles.
Baijia Pickled Cabbage Fish Flavor Instant Sweet Potato Noodle (yellow and green bag)
白家酸菜鱼粉丝 RMB3.30, 105g
This batch of noodles was the most mediocre of the bunch and entirely unmemorable to boot. It was "too salty" and "nothing tastes pickled. It just tastes like cabbage and water and noodles." On top of that some of those noodles were "chunky."
Baijia Spicey Fei-Chang Flavor Instant Sweet Potato Noodle (mustard-colored bag)
白家辣味肥肠味 RMB4.80, 108g
Before they had even been sampled, these noodles generated both fear and enthusiasm among our tasters. "Oh my God, I'm gonna try this one," said one taster excitedly—clearly a glutton for punishment. "Oh, the smell already! Holy fuck!" The chewy texture of the noodles was compared unfavorably to rubber, and the flavor described as "very Sichuan ... probably because of the MSG." The generous proportion of yellow beans was a welcome addition, although some tasters didn't even know what they were eating until after the fact. "It's intestine flavored? Oh ... that's what that is."
Guangyou Beef and Pickled Chili Flavor Fensi (red bowl)
光友粉丝泡椒牛肉味 RMB4.00, 93g
Guangyou claims to be the instant-noodle experts, but as far as we can tell, most of their expertise goes into making the most pungently stinky noodles. "Wow, that is a strong smell," said one tester as soon as we opened the lid. "I can't stand it," said another. "It smells like when I clean between my toes," said yet another. Delicious. And the taste? "The flavor's not that bad but the noodles are slimy. Like that ghost from Ghostbusters. I feel like I'm licking Slimer." There was only one dissenter, who said it tastes, "less worse" than the others. Most tasters' opinions were summed up by this comment: "The noodles are shit, and the taste is artificially sour. And there are some beans or something."
Baijia Xiang Xiang Hot and Sour Noodles (blue cup)
白家香香嘴酸辣粉 RMB3.50, 60g
We're not sure what the difference is between this and Baijia's other hot and sour noodles, besides the packaging (the outside features fuzzy cartoon characters "Diandian" and "Dudu") and the fact that this one didn't taste quite as good for some reason. The "sour" half of the sweet and sour was overwhelming, although the sesame seeds and yellow beans helped. "What I like about this soup is that they're at least trying to imitate what you can get in a shop. Maybe you don't like that soup, but they're trying. I can feel an old grandma doing this. A grandma who works in a factory," said one taster. Unfortunately, he added, "I couldn't taste Dudu and I couldn't taste Diandian."
Master Kang Strange-Tasting Chicken (orange box)
康师傅食面八方怪味鸡 RMB3.50, 140g
These noodles sat in a dark brown-red broth when we peeled back the cover to reveal our fate after the required steeping time. It was only then that we realized the extent of our instant-noodle ignorance: The noodles were to be steeped first, and then the rest of the ingredients poured in; and finally, the water drained out. We don't know how much effect that had on the final result (though we suspect not all that much), but tasters reported that it tasted like "nothing" or perhaps very "light traces of curry." On the bright side, however, "It's better than something that tastes like shit."
Tongyi Twice-Cooked Pork Noodles (Green Pepper Flavor)
统一巧面馆回锅肉面 (青椒味)RMB2.20, 108g
Everybody loves twice-cooked pork, so we had high expectations for this one. Alas, we were let down. The broth was a very opaque—almost solid-looking—orange-brown oil. And while the flavor was spicy and "very different from the others," in the words of one taster, that wasn't a good thing: "It tastes like sewer oil," pronounced another.
Guangyou Hot and Sour Flavor with Beef Rice Sweet Potato Vermicelli (magenta bag)
光友酸辣牛肉味粉丝 RMB3.90, 100g
As soon as we pour the hot water into this rather pricey cup o' noodles, a foul and pungent odor permeates the air. The water quickly becomes a dark red, diluted-blood-colored broth. This was only a hint of what was to come: "It's like rubber," says one taster. "It's bad," says another. "The noodles taste like plastic, and it smells like ass." Others were more emphatic in their judgment, simply saying, "Ew! This one I don't like! Oh, fuck off! The worst noodles ever!"
Fangbian mian is clearly the gateway drug to an all-around unhealthy lifestyle. And the downward spiral starts quickly: Even the non-Coke-drinkers were suddenly happily tossing the brown soda down their throats after sampling a few different noodles. And when it was all done, everybody just wanted to go home, plunk themselves on the couch with a bag of potato chips, and channel surf. No, pressing the remote would be too much effort. That night, one of our testers reported having nightmares. "And I'm going to blame it all on the noodles," he said.
This article was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 41 ("ice, ice, baby"). All photos by Dan Sandoval.
*Actually we did have one college-aged taster, but her opinions didn't seem to diverge significantly from the rest.