Culture //

Orientalism by the Cup

Naaman Zhou investigates the mystery of so-called ‘Oriental’ flavouring.

It’s late, my local supermarket is running a promotion, and I look like a cult member stocking up for the Rapture. I am in the aisles buying 12 different types of instant cup noodle. A shop assistant, green-aproned and shuffling sideways, follows me and passive-aggressively removes every empty punnet I leave behind.

The next day I write an inappropriately casual email to Food Standards Australia & New Zealand (FSANZ), the trans-Tasman authority on food regulation and labelling. I inform them that Oriental noodles have always confused me. The branding is vague and unquantifiable. “After all,” I tell them, “‘Oriental’ isn’t a foodstuff, it’s a geographical direction.”

The two biggest brands in the Australian market, Maggi and Fantastic, both produce flavours that are simply marketed as “Oriental”. From a consumer rights standpoint, the word seems terse and needlessly opaque, adjacent as it always is to the farmyard simplicity of “Beef” or “Chicken”. What animal, plant or carbon-based lifeform are Oriental noodles supposed to taste like?

According to FSANZ, this type of labelling is governed by Section 1.2.2 of the Food Standards Code. This allows any description as long as it is “sufficient to indicate the true nature of the food”. I ask FSANZ if the word “Oriental” is enough to satisfy the “true nature” provision, but do not receive a reply in time for publication. One can only assume from the flavour’s longevity that legally speaking, the answer is yes.

Looking for more specificity, I read the ingredients list. I discover that my Fantastic cup lists the main component of “Oriental flavor” to be “Oriental flavourings”. FSANZ tells me that the same “true nature” test applies to the ingredients list. They further inform me that under the statute, the word “flavour” can effectively stand on its own without the need for detail. “Flavourings can be declared by the word ‘flavouring’ or ‘flavour”—a piece of circular logic that traps me in an impenetrable noodle-based Hades, presumably as ironic punishment for some earlier misdeed.

Of course, the idea of Oriental being a discrete flavor is obviously inauthentic. When Nissin Foods of Japan invented the instant noodle in 1958, its debut flavour was Chicken. Vietnamese pho is made from slowly simmered beef bones, Japanese tonkotsu from pork. The fact is, the most common Asian broth is bog-standard Beef or Chicken. There is no secret flavour base that only Asians have access to—they eat the same boring animals as everyone else. The poor old Oriental is effectively stateless.

I email the noodle companies, asking if they can decipher the numbers and chemical strands of their own ingredient lists. I want to know what the expert opinion is on what real-world food Oriental is supposed to taste like. They do not reply.

I decide to conduct a double-blind taste test in the Honi offices instead. Peter, Tim and Rebecca consume a degustation of four different flavours, separated into 12 unmarked, colour-coded cups. Peter reports that the first flavour, Fantastic’s Crispy Bacon, tastes like “salty chicken” before Tim identifies it as Beef. The whole table agrees (Peter: “It’s salty. I guess salt is a working-class approximation of beef”).

The competitors

The second cup is Suimin’s Oriental Chicken. Rebecca identifies it as “potentially the Oriental one”, Tim describes it as chicken with a “very strong salt-water aftertaste” and Peter calls it “Non-oriental, straight-up, white-bread, primary school chicken, like the chicken-flavouring on green chips.”

The third cup contains Suimin’s standard Chicken, which everyone proclaims as “the closest approximation of chicken” to date. Peter states that he now believes all instant noodles exist on a continuum between Chicken and Beef, and begins drawing a diagram to prove it. When asked to compare the two chicken flavours, the editors are unable to refer to any discernable foodstuff, saying that really, salt-content is the main difference. Rebecca thinks that one contains soy sauce, but isn’t sure which.

The final cup, Fantastic’s standard Oriental, provokes outcry. Rebecca exclaims “what the fuck is this?” upon her first spoonful, while the others can only conclude that it “isn’t chicken”. After some thought Peter says it reminds him of Mi Goreng and Tim says it tastes like what is generally marketed to him as Oriental. “My conception of this flavour is literally based on the sachet of white powder you get in Mi Goreng. Salt and MSG,” says Peter. The editors describe it variously as: “the least identifiable”, “the most middling flavor—neither a strong approximation of Beef nor Chicken” and “possibly plant, possibly mineral”.

Upon the final reveal, Peter asks if Oriental flavour simply consists of added salt. Frankly, this could very well be the case. With no official word from the companies, and no training in food science, I study the packaging and notice that Maggi’s Oriental and Suimin’s Oriental Chicken both make mention of “soy sauce powder” as a middling or minor ingredient. But of course, the soy sauce in its final state—dehydrated, particularized and wrung out through a centrifuge—doesn’t really taste like soy anyway.  For the majority of our testers, it was just another hyperactive salt-umami hit, indistinguishable from the carefully manufactured chaos.

As was perhaps obvious from the start, the hunt to uncover this flavour has revealed what is basically a fiction. The advent of the Oriental noodle is canny, conveniently vague-but-not-too-vague marketing—a desultory piece of handwaving that says, “Hey remember how you like Asian food? Yeah this totally tastes like that. No we won’t tell you what’s in it”.

It’s exoticism and homogenization rolled into one – the brainchild of shonky food science and marketing puff at its most casually racist, a pan-Asian Frankenstein. It’s sad to imagine that Edward Said died without knowing that the most perfect example of Orientalism exists in a suburban Woolworths –just add 250 ml of boiling water and you get Othering in a cup.