Rising prices for instant ramen, pickles hit low-income Chinese

Even street-food vendors are hiking prices, driven by the rising cost of raw ingredients like pork and coriander.
By Qian Lang for RFA Mandarin
2024.06.06
Rising prices for instant ramen, pickles hit low-income Chinese A man shops for instant noodles at a supermarket in Beijing on April 6, 2011.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP

As food prices rise and the Chinese economy sputters, people have increasingly been turning to foods associated with life on a low income.

But even a key staple of a low-cost lifestyle -- instant ramen -- is going up in price these days, leaving many wondering where the price hikes will end.

Often paired with a fried egg and spiced up with chili oil or pickled mustard tuber, instant ramen has long been a quick and cheap meal for anyone on a budget or in a hurry.

More recently in China, the trio of instant ramen, mustard tuber pickle and a can of soda have been jokingly referred to by social media users as "the poor man's set meal."

But recent media reports indicate that even instant noodles are getting more expensive, with major manufacturer Master Kong putting up the recommended retail price from 2.8 yuan (39 U.S. cents) a portion to 3.0 yuan (41 cents) a portion, making the "poor man's set meal" cost nearly 5 yuan (69 cents) per person, according to a report in the state-backed China News Service.

"Basic foodstuffs like instant ramen, pickled mustard tuber and soda pop have all gone up in price," Beijing resident Guo Li told RFA Mandarin in an interview on June 3.

Meanwhile, the price of a 500 ml bottle of Coca-Cola has risen from 4 yuan to 4.5 yuan.

And Chongqing Fuling Zhacai, one of the best-known pickle-makers in China, now recommends charging 3 yuan a bag, up from just half a yuan cents in 2008, while reducing the portion size from 80 grams to 70 grams.

Street food

Life is also getting harder for the countless noodle stalls and other vendors of street food, as the price of raw ingredients goes through the roof, according to a resident of the eastern province of Shandong who gave only the nickname John for fear of reprisals.

"Usually, people who eat at street stalls go there because it's cheap and they are poor," John said. "But recently I found out that the price of coriander has risen to 15 yuan per pound, while pork has risen from 13 yuan to 17 yuan a pound, while wonton skins have gone up by 20%."

ENG_CHN_EXPENSIVE RAMEN_06052024.2.JPG
Fuling Zhacai -- pickled root vegetable -- is seen on sale at a supermarket in Beijing on August 14, 2013. (Wang Zhao/AFP)

"Everything's going up very fast; pickled mustard tuber, instant ramen and soda pop have all gotten more expensive lately, which is very stressful if you're poor," he said.

"Nobody is forced to buy a house or a car, but you've still got to eat," John said.

Some people have taken to buying flour and making their own noodles at home, according to Guo Li.

"People can't afford to eat out, so they buy ingredients and cook them home, including buying raw noodles or rolling the noodles themselves," he said.

Guo said he knows several families who once counted themselves among the upper middle class in Shanghai, but who are now tightening their belts amid the economic downturn, despite government attempts to get them to consume more.

"Due to failed investments and increased debts in recent years, they have no choice but to start eating instant ramen and pickled mustard," Guo said.

Fruit and vegetables

Fruit, meanwhile, is fast becoming a luxury item.

"A large watermelon used to sell for 30-50 yuan, and now it costs nearly 100 yuan," Guo said.

A resident of the central city of Wuhan who gave only the surname Zhang for fear of reprisals said many people she knows are struggling to find affordable food.

"People are having a hard time. The price of vegetables is rising, as well as everything else," Zhang said. "We poor people can't afford them."

"I bought a couple of large pork bones this morning for more than 20 yuan," she said. 

A resident of Jiangmen city in the southern province of Guangdong who gave only the surname Chen for fear of reprisals said it was the same where he lives.

"Prices have been rising for a long time, since before Lunar New Year [in February], and they just keep going up all the time," Chen said. "There's little we can do."

"We just have to find a way to survive and make do," he said.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

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