Let’s take a walk through the center aisles of any grocery store in America, past the dried pasta and canned soup, down the “ethnic” aisle, to the section stacked with instant ramen. Chances are, there will be at least four flavors: 1) Shrimp: tasty sea crustacean, check. 2) Chicken: renowned edible fowl, check. 3) Beef: delicious meat from bovines, check. 4) Oriental: Um, excuse me? No, come on… really?
What on earth is “Oriental” flavor? Is it ramen that tastes of carpet? Because other than rugs, this is the only current use of that descriptor I can think of that doesn’t raise eyebrows. From the time that I was one of just two Asian kids in my suburban Chicago elementary school class, I’ve been instructed that that term is “not okay.” And yet, two of America’s largest makers of instant ramen—Maruchan and Nissin—continue to sell “Oriental”-flavored products.
So, seriously, what is Oriental ramen? Let’s examine both the name and noodles themselves.
On that first point: Asians don’t like to be called Oriental. Most races of non-white persons—as well as many white minorities—have historically been labeled with certain terms that are now considered antiquated or pejorative; you can probably think of a handful. If you’ve ever had an uncomfortable conversation with your grandparents about, say, our current president, you know what I’m talking about.
Now, imagine seeing those words slapped onto labels and used to describe food. Food that you see at the grocery store. In 2015. In our post-racial society, no less. How is a food item supposed to taste like an entire continent of people? Because “The Orient,” if you take its definition at face value, isn’t just limited to East Asian countries like China, Japan, and Korea. India and Pakistan are part of the Orient. Freaking Turkey is in there. So for starters, the idea of a unified flavor of “Oriental” is fairly absurd.
But what about Asian? Isn’t that term just as bad as far as lumping different and diverse peoples together? And what’s the big deal, anyway: doesn’t “orient” just mean “east?” You don’t see Westerners getting all huffy about being called “Westerners!”
Yes and no. Not really the same. “Asian” is a geographical term. It’s like “European.” Sure, Asian can be misused like any other word, but it lacks the loaded-ness of “Oriental,” which conjures up images of Fu Manchu and dragon ladies and opium dens and Jerry Lewis. According to Clement Lai, professor of Asian American Studies at California State University Northridge, “Oriental conjures up false and negative stereotypes and continues the perception that Asian or Asian American is exotic, foreign, and not a part of mainstream America.”
Beverly Kim, former Top Chef contestant and current owner/chef at Parachute restaurant in Chicago, adds, “The word oriental contributes to the misconceived notion that Asians come from one big country. It minimizes the nuances in each Asian culture. “
When in history, then, did that tipping [1. Which is not a place in China, according to a sign in a bar in Austin, Texas I visited some years ago] point arrive? When did we really begin to swap Asian for Oriental? For fun, I went to Google Books and made an Ngram of the words Asian and Oriental, charting the usage of those words in books between the years 1900 and 2000.
The word Asian took off around World War II, blowing by Oriental during the Civil Rights Movement in the late-1950s, and thoroughly surpassing it by the unofficial end of that movement in 1968. That makes reasonable sense, given the era of Black Power/Yellow Power. The word Oriental, on the other hand, has been in a slow, steady decline since the late 20s. Maybe instant ramen companies just haven’t gotten the memo yet.
Which brings us to the question of the noodles, and what exactly “Oriental” tastes like. Let’s assume that the manufacturers are attempting to evoke the Far East: China, Japan, Korea. Setting aside the fact that these countries all have wildly different cuisines, what are the flavors associated with that part of the world? How does one try to make something taste Oriental?
Sophie Deterre, food scientist at Afineur, explained the process of engineering certain types of flavors: “You have thousands of compounds in front of you, and you know the properties of all of them, and you have to smell or taste them and train every single day to be able to make the right combinations… It’s like people who create perfume. You have a panel of experts, people who are trained to test and already have the specific references in mind. And then they say ‘Okay, we’re close to the beef taste,’ or ‘This is more like a chicken taste.’”
The ingredients on a package of Oriental-flavor Top Ramen are a list of difficult-to-place chemicals and compounds with the occasional recognizable food item popping up. Disodium succinate and sodium tripolyphosphate, anyone? MSG is in there, as is hydrolyzed soy protein, garlic powder, and, third to last on the list of twenty-nine ingredients, is the exceedingly vague (yet somewhat promising) word spice.
Linda Chung, VP of Marketing for Nissin Foods USA (maker of Top Ramen) described Oriental flavor succinctly to me via email: “There is no standard definition of oriental flavor. For Top Ramen, the flavor profile can be characterized as a combination of soy sauce and ginger.”[2. Notice how she doesn’t capitalize the “o” in “oriental?” When describing objects—rugs, pearls, noodles—that capitalization is not necessary. It’s typically employed when describing people, countries, or cultures.]
I bought a bunch of Oriental-flavored Maruchan and Top Ramen instant noodles and they tasted, for all intents and purposes, identical. They were very salty, of course, like all ramen, but they both had a pleasantly spiced, vaguely soy/vaguely beefy broth. They tasted brown. Brown-flavored, like the mystery goop you’d get on some chow fun noodles at a seedy Chinese take-out place. I wanted them to taste terrible, as that would allow for more ranting, but they didn’t.
In the end, Chung was fairly spot-on: soy was the most immediately nameable flavor, and ginger was the most prevalent spice. The soup was slightly greasy, but not overly so. So folks, there you have it: Oriental things taste like soy and ginger. Crack an egg and toss a slice of American cheese in there and you’ve got yourself a decent little snack.
But is it fairly representative of the “Orient?” Can the palates and cuisines of over four billion people be grouped en masse and distilled down to… soy sauce and ginger? And is that really better than just labeling it “soy sauce and ginger flavor”? The term Oriental has the effect of tremendously, incorrectly simplifying the eating habits of a huge number of distinct and diverse peoples. For a corollary, imagine going into a grocery store and seeing a product called “Western Civilization Flavor” that tastes like French fries and ketchup.
For her part, Chung was straightforward about her company’s continued use of the term: “At Nissin Foods we believe that oriental is the correct use of an adjective that refers to objects, not people, related to or situated in Asia. The term continues to be in common usage for food and products throughout the U.S. Our oriental ramen flavor has been around for over 30 years and is part of Nissin’s heritage. To date we’ve received no consumer complaints regarding our description of this flavor.”
I suppose, then, that I will be the first person to lodge an official complaint. I’m not one for p.c. zealotry. But words do matter, and Oriental is inextricably linked to a certain era and specific attitude—of colonialism, exoticism, and alienation. If we can relegate these antiquated terms and attitudes to the past, to quote Edward Said’s seminal academic text Orientalism, “then we shall have advanced a little.” After that, maybe we can tackle the issue of engineering a tastier instant noodle. Because, let’s be honest here, there’s still some work to do there, too.