Obviously, instant noodles have a strong hold on many Asian cultures. Pay a visit to your local Asian market’s instant noodle isle and look at the diversity of styles and tastes. Now notice that above the isle (or maybe above the refrigerated section), the boxes of unopened noodles that are typically purchased by families by the case.
For mainland China, there is one noodle brand that is far and away the most popular. This is the Kang Shifu (康師傅), “Chef Kang”, aka “Master Kong” brand. Strangely, this brand is often hard to find in the US. In Philadelphia, it seems like several months go by without this brand at all, and then all of a sudden you can find them in large 5-packs for a limited time. More strange is how the most popular flavor in China, red braised beef noodles (红烧牛肉面 – here is a link to a Baidu page on the noodle), is never one of the offerings.
When I first lived in China, back in the mid to late 90’s, I didn’t have much money. That is to say I’ve eaten my share of student canteen and Chinese instant noodles. These noodles were also a convenient quick snack when traveling in China’s far-flung regions or on long train rides (as there is always boiling water available at hostels/trains/hotels).
Around that time, Kang Shifu noodles became one of the most popular instant noodles in China. The company behind Kang Shifu, Taiwan-based Ting Hsin, quickly became the largest Taiwanese company doing business in Mainland China. Ting Hsin is now an international group with a large food and drink product empire, including the Weichuan brand, which the company acquired in 1998.
Why did Kang Shifu become so popular? Something that makes this brand’s noodles interesting is that there are generally three small flavoring packets inside each package. One is the powdered spices for the soup base, with copious amounts of MSG like in most/all instant noodles. Another is an oil packet that often has dehydrated meat included. Finally there is often a dried vegetables packet, with carrots, green onion, and other things. The spiced meaty oil and crunchy vegetables make this kind of unique.
The flavors are very heavy, spicy, numbing, with lots of MSG. And it is tasty and addictive. Surely they’ll soon be gone.
We can only occasionally get this brand in the US for some unclear reason. That said, the image of the happy “Chef Kang” can be found all around, on restaurants and knock-off brands.
Here he is on the business card of my favorite pulled noodle shop in Philadelphia, Nanzhou Hand Drawn Noodle:
A favorite hot pot restaurant “Noodle Express” (now long gone) from my previous home of Madison, Wisconsin also had a huge image of this “happy chef” in the window.
Below, here he is again on an advertisement for a another relatively new pulled noodle restaurant (and frozen yogurt shop!?), “iGreen” 蜀香蘭州拉面 (notice also the confusion between traditional and simplified characters the shop’s name implying Mainland Chinese unfamiliar with traditional characters) in the Chinese language newspaper for the Philadelphia region, Metro Chinese Weekly:Why do restaurants, particularly noodle restaurants, push this image? Does it somehow make the restaurant’s noodles more legitimate? Whatever the reason, Kang shifu has had an amazing influence in China.
Update 01 Mar 2015: Here are a few more images for you with Mr. Kang, the happy chef as a copy: