Hello Chou Chou! Goodbye Dal-Bhat?

High on a pass, a day´s walk east of Bhojpur in Nepal, porter Krishna Bahadur Limbu slurps up a bowl of noodles before heaving his doko of grain and heading up the hill, towards market. In Kathmandu, housewife Meera Sharma prepares packaged noodle soup for her three school-going children. "The kids love it and it needs less fuel," she says.

Throughout the hills, pre-cooked noodles in brightly coloured packs, bottled soft drinks and factory made biscuits are bringing sweeping changes in the eating habits of the Himalayans. Taking cue from attractively-packaged and slickly-marketed instant foods in neighbouring India, Nepali manufacturers of noodles are targeting middle class urbanites and rural consumers. Sizzling commercials on Nepal TV depict junk food enthusiasts nibbling noodles, as today´s culinary role models.

Dhindo vs. Fast Food

To be sure, noodles are not yet about to dislodge the staple dal and bhat from the Nepali home and hearth, but nutrition experts warn that junk food has made sufficient inroads to pose risks of widespread malnutrition. Manufacturers and consumers say that packaged foods save time and fuel, which is crucial, during these times of acute kerosene and firewood shortages. Besides, a packet of noodle costs NRs7, while a meal of rice, dal and curry in a modest eatery can cost upwards of NRs l5. The noodles need only two minutes in boiling water to cook, whereas a traditional puri and aloo snack requires ten times as much time and fuel.

Himal asked the porter in Bhojpur why he was not eating the traditional rice or dhindo (millet and buckwheat paste). Limbu´s reply sounded like a radio commercial: "Light to carry, easy to cook, they need fewer utensils and they taste better."

But while saving time and perhaps, even money, experts say the new junk foods are reducing nutrition intake. An adult´s minimum daily requirement of 2,400 calories is hardly met by a diet dominated by noodles, biscuits and soft drinks, according to an expert. "Noodles are not bad provided they are prepared with plenty of vegetables, eggs, meat and beans. But by themselves, they definitely cannot substitute for a balanced diet," he says.

But for most noodle addicts, adding such ingredients defeats the purpose of an instant two-minute meal. Most rural consumers simply boil the noodles and add the powdered spices that come with the packet. Surveys have shown that 70 percent of Nepali children are severely malnourished. Up to 20 percent of them are said to suffer from third-degree protein deficiency. Warns an official at the Central Food Research Laboratory: "This condition is sure to deteriorate if more children eat noodles as a whole meal."

Binod Chaudhary of Nepal-Thai Foods, which produces the "WaiWai" and "MaMa" brand instant noodles, disputes these charges: "Being wheat-based with at least 14 percent protein and 10 percent fat, the noodles are highly nutritious."

Marco Polo's Return

 Krishna Acharya of Pokhara´s Gandaki Noodles Factory says: "We are proud to have changed the eating habits of Nepalis within a short span of six years." Gandaki is the maker of the "RaRa" brand noodle and has recently brought Marco Polo a full circle, as it were, by introducing macaroni, spaghetti and vermicelli in the Himalayan market.

Fierce competition and the challenge of convincing a nation what to eat, has prompted both organisations to spend heavily on promotion. Voluptuous noodle lovers grace television screens and radio jingles exhort Nepalis to devour the stuff anywhere, anytime. Packaging material is printed in Singapore and adds 8 US cents (NRs2.20) to the cost of each packet.

Despite the costs and newspaper warnings about the high content of monosodium glutamate (ajinomoto), more and more Nepalis seem to have become noodle junkies. Sales have wriggled up from 10,000 packets a day in 1985 to 25,000 a day in January 1989. Gandaki sells most of its noodles in rural areas. The ads seem to have worked like magic – the crinkly packets are now found from tea-shops in Jogbani in the eastern Tarai to trekking lodges below Thorung La in Manang at 5,400m.

"Our sales are rising by 20 percent every year. Noodles have become as common as jeans," says Acharya. The denim analogy seems to reflect a marketing strategy that proselytises the public to emulate eating habits of alien consumer cultures or glamorous screen personalities. Gandaki and Nepal-Thai both launched door-to-door sales and gave away free samples. Gift coupons could win noodlers television sets, motorcycles and even tuition fees for their tots!

Gandaki Noodles´ production of noodles jumped from 200 tons to 700 tons in a five-year period. It earned NRs30 million in that time and spent up to 25 percent of its net earnings on promotion in Nepal and in India. Both brands had made inroads into the Indian market until the Indo-Nepal trade dispute put a stop to it. But despite jabs from critics and nutritionists, who call pre-cooked noodles junk food, the product seems to have filled the need for fast, easy-to-prepare and fuel-saving meals. Despite the assertion of anthropologists that peoples´ eating habit is the most difficult thing to change, Nepalis seem to be attacking their WaiWais and RaRas with the same relish, as they do their gundruk and bhat.

Prakash Khanal is a science writer based in Kathmandu.

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