Can a country’s national dish be cheap, highly-processed, packaged instant noodles, chock full of artificial ingredients? In Indonesia, the answer just might be yes. Whether it’s in trendy cafes in the capital Jakarta, roadside warungs that dot the country, or even in tiny village market stalls, the Indomie brand of noodles is everywhere, being eaten, seemingly, by everyone. It can be found in dozens of uniquely Indonesian flavors such as mi goreng, satay and onion chicken, and is a common gift Indonesians give to hosts or friends when they travel abroad.
“There is nothing compared to Indonesians’ loyalty to Indomie instant noodles as an easy, quick meal,” Dinar Rahayu, a food business analyst based in Bandung, told the Jakarta Post. “Instant noodles, thanks to its practicality, has become an iconic survival tool that evolves to follow the busy city pulse.”
“If there’s ever an official national food title, I’m 100% sure the title will go to Indomie,” said Jones Averino, an Indonesian college student, on Quora.
Spend time in Jakarta and you’ll notice a trend. Middle class, educated Indonesians spend a great deal of time eating out: often, cheap street food or Indomie. Apparently, it begins in college, when Indomie is the cheapest, easiest food for students to cook at home. But, instead of switching to healthier options, many Indonesians continue to devour Indomie even as adults. The company knows how to market as well, tapping celebrities and famous chefs to develop instant-noodle dishes like the now-famous Indomie burger or Indomie loaded fries. They even create flavors to follow the latest food trends, such as spicy ayam geprek—fried chicken smothered in chili-shrimp paste—released earlier this year.
Yet Indomie is little more than fat, sugar and a host of artificial flavors and preservatives—certainly not part of a balanced diet.
If this continues, the country will suffer. Indonesians are eating more and more processed food each year—spending on it rose considerably between 2016 and 2018—and less fresh food. Meanwhile, obesity, diabetes and other health issues connected to overconsumption of processed foods are rising fast. 24.4 percent of Indonesians are now overweight, rising 33 percent since 2014, and seven percent are suffering from diabetes.
There’s something else distasteful to add to the trend. IndoFood, the parent company behind Indomie, has endured several independent investigations that have uncovered widespread labor and environmental abuses around a key ingredient in instant noodles—palm oil. PepsiCo cut off its relationship with the company and Citibank stopped funding them.
Last February, the world’s largest palm oil certification scheme, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, suspended the “sustainability certificates” of an Indofood subsidiary following twenty violations of the RSPO’s standard.
Turns out Indonesia’s beloved fast food noodle isn’t just questionable for the country’s health. It’s not that good for the environment either.
Nithin Coca is a longtime traveler and freelance journalist who covers culture, environment, and sustainability in Asia. His feature and news pieces have appeared in global media outlets including Al Jazeera, Quartz, Engadget, Foreign Policy, The Diplomat, Vice, and other regional publications in Asia and the United States.