Meet the Robert Parker of instant ramen

July 25, 2013
July 25, 2013

Hans Lienesch started eating packaged ramen noodles as a child, when his mother would cook them al dente, fry them with egg and call them spaetzle. Now 38, the Seattle-area native and resident has carefully reviewed and categorized more than 1,100 varieties of instant ramen as The RamenRater, reaching global ramen stardom—and, more recently, notoriety.

Earlier this year, he earned the wrath of greater China’s instant ramen enthusiasts after excluding Chinese and Taiwanese brands from his 2013 top 10 lists (for best instant noodlesnoodle bowls and noodle cups). Then last week, he included several varieties from China on his list of the Bottom 10 Noodles of All Time.

China’s Baijia Instant Sweet Potato Noodle Spicy Fei-Chang Flavor, he wrote, has a “strong ‘dirt and urine’ scent accompanied by slimy sweet potato noodles.” That was only the second-worst on his list; the dubious top spot was awarded to China’s Baijia Single Noble Black Bone Chicken Flavor Instant Sweet Potato Noodles.

Instant ramen fans in China—who are famously protective of their country’s noodles—were displeased. A slew of television stations and newspapers in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong deemed his ratings, and the anger they caused, newsworthy:

Abuse poured in, in the form of comments and e-mails, criticizing Lienesch’s tastebuds, his nationality, his weight and his judgment.

One reader wrote:

Your reviews are similar to having someone raised on and preferring “Boones Farm Strawberry Hill” wine critiquing the world’s array of fine wines. Yes, his review would also be just a personal opinion, but alas, an opinion that is not very informed and thus easily dismissed.

Other Asian countries—notably those who have done better in his rankings—have made him something of a ramen rock star. A Korean newspaper dubbed Lienesch the “God of Ramen,” Japanese television featured interviews with him, and he’s attracted the notice of noodle manufacturers and retailers, who have started sending him noodles to review, inviting him to factories and offering up executives for interviews.

There are, believe it or not, parallels between the instant noodle industry and the wine industry when self-appointed taste master Robert Parker hit the scene in the 1970s. Preferences for instant noodles are split for the most part along country borders, with a fierce nationalistic streak defining the most ardent fans. Unlike the wine industry, most of the cross-border noodle taste battles take place in Asia. Like Parker, Lienesch is unapologetic in his ratings, defending his tasting methodology as simply being “true to my taste buds” (For more on his ratings, see below).

Lienesch’s emergence on the global noodle scene comes as the industry is undergoing a quiet, but healthy growth spurt. Emerging market countries are eating more convenience foods and when consumers with more disposable income see them as an affordable luxury. Contrary to their image in the West, where they are often seen as a cheap meal for students, instant noodles were actually invented in Japan as a luxury, since they cost far more than the fresh noodles that are ubiquitous in Asia.

Sales of instant noodles topped 100 billion packets for the first time ever in 2012, according to the World Instant Noodle Association, up 10% since 2008, with countries including Vietnam (up 24%) and India (nearly double) leading the growth.

While Lienesch’s importance to the industry can be clearly linked to marketing and branding, his website is playing a more subtle role, as instant ramen lovers from around the world debate ratings, tastes, and culinary proclivities—see for example the “hey, we eat fried pigs intestines, too” discussion on a review of the aforementioned sweet potato noodles.

“I think people see instant noodles, particularly if they’re living in the United States from another country, as a taste of home,” Lienesch said. “It’s something people really connect with – not so much a food but a memory of other times.” In a recent telephone interview with Quartz, he explained his methodology and why he doesn’t think he’ll get sick of ramen any time soon.

What are your rating rules?

If I don’t like the way it tastes, I give it a low rating. That’s it. Sometimes I hate doing it, but I’ve got to be true to my tastebuds.

That’s my only agenda. Some places have actually asked me “If we send you this can you guarantee me a high review?,” and I say “No, that’s not how this works.”

What’s your typical day like?

Basically, I wake up, my wife and I take our dogs out for a walk, I make my wife her breakfast and lunch and she heads out for work. I’m legally blind so I’m not employed.

I pick out which instant ramen I’m going to try, take a picture of the package and the contents and the back of the package. I spend an hour in Photoshop getting everything just right.

Then I go and cook it up. When I do my reviews I do it as it says on the pack, before I add anything I sample the broth and the noodles.

Then there’s e-mails to answer, people with questions and noodle manufacturers and I get lots of comments.

I eat pretty mellow stuff for dinner – we have just a salad, baked chicken and brown rice. I don’t just eat instant noodles. I take fish oil, and fiber and a multivitamin with extra potassium because it counteracts the sodium.

Do you anticipate at some point you will be “done” rating Ramen?

No. I really like doing this. The only times I don’t do reviews are when we go on vacation—and usually when we go and do something it’s noodle related. For my birthday my wife took me to Canada, we hit up Asian groceries there and brought back about 55 different noodle varieties, and those are great.

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