“Love it or Hate it, You Can’t Not Try it!” —Nissin Foods marketing material, 2021
As I sit here at my desk, a powerful bouquet keeps pulsating from the styrofoam cup to my right. The scent of warm, cozy fall spices that should theoretically be filling my office with autumnal vibes has grown more dense as my lunch has cooled and congealed, and now when I lift the cup to my face, I’m hit with an odor so familiar that I can’t seem to shake it, even after 17 months of working from home: it’s the precise smell of the office microwave somewhere around 2 p.m., after a string of 15 coworkers has reheated various leftovers for lunch. Notes of splattered sauce, expired spices, overcooked cardboard packaging—it’s all right there. And yet, none of this is enough for me to recommend that you pass on Pumpkin Spice Nissin Cup Noodles. No, I’d prefer that everyone taste these odd gimmicky noodles, so that we might decide once and for all what we even want out of Pumpkin Spice flavor in the first place. Nissin is right: love it or hate it, we can’t not try it.
It’s important to remember that Pumpkin Spice is not only a highly divisive flavor, but that the “pumpkin” part of Pumpkin Spice is almost beside the point. “Pumpkin doesn’t really taste like much,” professional flavorist Marie Wright told The Takeout last year. “But pumpkin spice is a comfort flavor, a nostalgic flavor... cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and good pumpkin spice has allspice as well.” In short, Pumpkin Spice is all about how the pumpkin is dressed—if there’s any pumpkin present at all, which isn’t necessarily the case.
When it comes to this latest heat-and-eat product, it’s clear that “Pumpkin Spice” aims to supply a general feeling more than any specific flavor profile. In a list of more than 30 ingredients on the Pumpkin Spice Nissin Cup Noodles nutrition label, both sugar and brown sugar pop up as ingredients well before anything else we associate with Pumpkin Spice flavor. In fact, the unspecified ingredient “spice” shows up third to last in the list, and “powdered pumpkin” is only slightly ahead of that.
In our eager discussion of what these noodles might taste like, our staff was split on whether the product would attempt an all-out sickly cinnamon-y sweetness in an uncanny impersonation of a Starbucks #PSL, or take a more culinary approach, marketing itself as “Pumpkin Spice” while aiming instead for the flavors of a more savory pumpkin curry. Neither guess was right—but also, both were.
Nissin has, it seems, attempted to split the difference between the two. If you’re really focused, you can detect the onion power, garlic powder, and paprika peeking out from the jumble of ingredients with every bite, colliding with the pumpkin and the sugars to form a confusing licorice-like note that hangs around as an aftertaste. Cinnamon isn’t present on the label, but the idea of cinnamon comes through via some combination of sweet tapioca starch, corn syrup solids, and, I dunno... the egg white? There’s a lot of alchemy inside this cup that I’m not qualified to speak on.
A serving suggestion on the label reads, “For an even more satisfying Pumpkin Spice experience, try topping with whipped cream after microwaving.” I didn’t have any whipped cream on hand to try this out, but a big dollop might do something to mask the strange licorice taste. Yet even if it doesn’t, the slightly distracting level of lingering sweetness might be something the PSL and these Cup Noodles have in common.
I don’t want these noodles to taste any closer to a pumpkin spice latte. What I want is for a pumpkin spice latte, typically a little too sweet and syrupy, to taste a little more like these noodles: earthy upfront with a smack of sugar on the end. That said, I don’t want the noodles to taste the way they currently do. I want the noodles to be earthy and spice-forward without any sweetness besides what squash can provide. So I guess what I’m saying is, I don’t want Pumpkin Spice to be a one-size-fits-all proposition. The intricacies of this flavor profile should be adjusted to best suit the item that is being Pumpkin Spiced. If the tenets of Pumpkin Spice were a bit less rigid, maybe skeptics wouldn’t be able to make blanket statements like “I hate Pumpkin Spice things,” because each new product would present a new opportunity to balance the flavors rather than reiterating them. A utopia where Pumpkin Spice was given careful thought and attention—what would that world look like?
If you want to taste these noodles for yourself, they’ll be available at select Walmart locations starting in October. Head here to learn more. Now, if you’ll have to excuse me, the air in my office has grown so thick with the smell of fall comforts that I might have to evacuate for a while.