So I guess I'm on a mini-crusade to restore dignity to what I feel are unjustly besmirched processed/convenience foods, and in terms of general-disdain-to-awesomeness ratio, instant ramen is without question deserving of advocacy. Though the whole "starving college student" onus seems to have shifted to easy mac and cheese as of late, many view instant ramen as a quasi-food, good only for its convenience and low cost. But the enlightened know that a package of decent ramen, an egg and some leftovers combine for a damn fine repast, and usually for under a dollar.
"Ramen" is the Japanese pronunciation ("ramyun" in Korean) of an undetermined Chinese term, possibly "la-mien" (stretched noodles) or "lo-mein" (boiled noodles). Ramen differs from other noodles in that an alkaline solution is used in the dough, which lends the noodles a firm springy texture and imparts a yellowish hue. Ramen noodles are generally thin to allow for fast cooking, and the characteristic crinkles are possibly the result of fresh straight noodles being squeezed into balls for storage.
Like many great foods, ramen was originally a working-class staple, and became popular in Japan via Chinese immigrants; they are also called chuka soba, or "Chinese noodles." In Japan, the dish exploded in popularity and variety. Flavor preferences came to vary by region, city, even neighborhood, and ramen shops eventually resorted to terrific levels of culinary rigor to separate themselves in the hyper-competitive milieu. Secret recipes utilizing dozens of ingredients and several days of cooking time have elevated the once utilitarian broth into something of an art form (as illustrated in the cult-classic film Tampopo).
Unfortunately for us in the States, ramen shops don't enjoy the same market saturation as say, sushi bars. Even in cities with large Japanese populations, good ones are hard to come by, and Orlando is totally SOL. Making ramen from scratch is really difficult (trust me on this), but luckily instant ramen is widely available, inconceivably cheap, and can be truly delicious. For this we have one brilliant individual to thank, the late Momofuku Ando (see "Fall of the ramen empire," Jan. 25, 2007).
Born in Japanese-occupied Taiwan, Ando invented a method of pre-cooking, drying and then flash-frying noodles that enabled mass production, prolonged storage and rapid preparation. This also put to use a massive influx of cheap U.S. wheat flour, a result of the post—World War II rebuilding effort. Hooray for cultural clusterfucks! The use of powdered synthetic compounds (the much-defamed MSG and its many variants) allowed for an inexpensive powdered base that simulates the savoriness of long-simmered broth. Global adoption ensued.
The problem with this method is the frying, which imbues the noodles with cheap, unhealthy oil. In fact, when I was a kid I remember a scandal involving a Chinese manufacturer that fried their noodles in used motor oil. In any case, I like to pre-boil the noodles, rinse away the oil, and then proceed with fresh water. Lots of brands now sport "non-fried" noodles, so choose those if fat content is a concern. Also, the MSG and MSG-like compounds send sodium content soaring, although actual allergies are exceedingly rare. Claims of being MSG-free are mostly semantics; bet on all containing some form of it. The best solution is simply not to drink all of the broth. But as anyone who's gotten lost in the reverie that is a steaming bowl of noodles can attest, that ain't so easy to do.
If the breadth of your ramen experience consists of the standard flavor tetrad of beef, chicken, shrimp and, of course, the ambiguous, quaintly offensive "Oriental," a trip to an Asian supermarket will be a revelation. There, entire aisles are devoted to the genre — at Super Oriental Market you'll see more than 70 varieties, with flavors ranging from user-friendly Chinese roasted pork to deeply satisfying Korean spicy kimchi to downright intimidating Taiwanese pickled mustard.
Indeed, instant ramen, especially (but of course not exclusively) among Asians, is regarded as a legitimate culinary category. It's a sort of raw material, a blank canvas if you will, and it rarely goes untweaked.
The standard add-on is egg, scrambled and drizzled into the boiling broth — bang, protein. Then it's a matter of what's in the fridge, but chopped scallions, frozen spinach, even deli meat or canned tuna works well. And if you've got some kimchi, you're freakin' golden. Some brands include dehydrated vegetables or even seafood, all to re-create a meal in a bowl like you'd find at a ramen shop. It's a weird hybrid of snack food and home cooking, a treat or delicacy even. People who've only ever had Top Ramen or Oodles of Noodles understandably tend to reject this concept. But the good stuff can elicit a powerful, gnawing yen. Sometimes you just gotta have some ramen.
Take, for instance, Thanksgiving 2003. The annual post-turkey family yoot (Korean dice) tournament was underway when my uncle made a grand entrance bearing, inexplicably, a half-bushel of steamed crabs. And crabs you gotta eat hot, so the gambling was paused while we piled crustacean atop fowl in our gullets. But as many Korean parental types will tell you, a meal just isn't a meal until you've had some kimchi, so about an hour after the second feeding of the night, my mom voiced a craving for some instant ramen (dressed up for the holidays in kimchi, scrambled egg and leftover asparagus). All of us unhesitatingly agreed that a third meal was in order. Apparently there is a separate stomach for dessert for some, and ramen for others.
Many Asians eat noodles in an unusual way, particularly noodles in a hot soup base. Some call it "slurping," but the actual method is more akin to inhaling — in slurping, a relatively tight seal is formed by the mouth around the noodles, resulting in a squeegee-like effect on the noodles and a slurping sound, with most of the suction coming from within the mouth rather than via breathing.
When eating ramen, however, it's best to not form a tight seal because the noodles and broth are hot. The loss of suction requires greater incoming airflow, thus one inhales sharply with one's lungs, drawing a bite of noodles into one's mouth. In this way I've eaten a bowl of ramen in three mouthfuls.
If you can't finish your cooked ramen and have to store it, always separate the noodles from the broth. Otherwise the noodles will absorb all the liquid and bloat into a thick mass. It's said that the very indigent sometimes do this intentionally, to at least in sensation extend the food value of instant ramen.
For even more information on ramen, check out FoodNerd.org.
A version of this story appeared originally in Baltimore's City Paper.
Where to buy ramen
- Dong-A Co., 816 N. Mills Ave.; 407-898-9227 — Good-size store with a large area of instant Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese noodles, mostly brick-style.
- 1st Oriental Supermarket, 5132 W. Colonial Drive; 407-292-3668 Large supermarket with a large aisle of noodles, including Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese and Chinese varieties.
- J.M. Oriental Market, 9421 S. Orange Blossom Trail; 407-816-6700 — Large store with wide selection of Filipino, Chinese and Japanese bowl-type noodles.
- Seoul General Market, 1416 E. Semoran Blvd., Apopka; 407-886-0112 — Not a very big store; moderate selection of noodles, mostly Japanese and Korean.
- Super Oriental Market, 2100 E. Colonial Drive; 407-898-6858 — Huge supermarket with an entire wall of noodles.
- Tienhung Market, 1110 E. Colonial Drive; 407-422-0067 — Big market with aisle of noodles, plus more in boxes in the back; large selection of Vietnamese instant pho and bun.
- Woo-Sung Oriental Food Mart, 5079 Edgewater Drive; 407-295-4077 — Large grocery store; full aisle of ramen with several different brands of bowl-packaged noodles.
Choosing instant ramen
In general, Korean brands tend to be spicy, with slightly thicker, softer noodles, Chinese brands tend to have thin noodles with mild, unctuous broth and often include a chili-flavored oil packet, while Japanese brands usually have the firmest noodles and mild, salty broth. Most brands, regardless of origin, still use fried noodles, which contain a lot of fat. If there's no English on the package, check the nutrition label for fat content. Note that the serving size is often one-half a package. Sodium content is more or less unavoidable, but note that bowl-type ramens tend to contain significantly more oil and salt than brick-style.
Cooking fried noodle ramen
— Bring 2-3 cups water to a boil.
— Add only the noodles to the water.
— Boil for 2 minutes, then rinse thoroughly.
— Fill a pot with the package-recommended amount of water and bring to a boil.
— Add any dry packet ingredients and your rinsed noodles, and bring back to a boil.
Common instant ramen add-ons
- Egg: Using one egg per packet of ramen, scramble in a separate bowl. When ramen is almost done, drizzle egg in a thin stream over surface of boiling liquid/noodles. Allow to cook for about 15 seconds, then stir gently and cook an additional 15 seconds before serving.
- Vegetables: Frozen or leftover cooked vegetables are appropriate since the cooking time for ramen is so short. Frozen peas, corn, pearl onions, mixed vegetables, snow peas and spinach all work well; larger frozen vegetables like broccoli or cauliflower do not. Chopped scallions or chives always enhance ramen.
- Meat: Any cooked meat works well, such as deli meat or leftovers. Canned tuna, salmon or chicken are good. Some unusual additions that work well are canned smoked oysters, frozen mini-meatballs and cut-up frozen veggie-burger chunks. Fried Spam slices are really good with Sapporo Ichiban ramen.
- Flavor Enhancers: If for some reason the ramen doesn't have enough salt (a common situation when extending a single package with lots of add-ons), soy sauce, fish sauce or even Worcestershire sauce works well. If you have kimchi, the juice greatly enhances any broth. Some people like to add a sour component like red-wine or rice-wine vinegar to ramen broth as well.
- Pickles: Kimchi works extremely well as a topping, side dish and flavoring agent. Japanese "takuan," bright yellow pickled daikon radish, adds textural contrast and oil-cutting acidity as a topping or side. A similar effect can be achieved with gherkins or cornichons.
Additional reporting by Leanne Comey and Marshall Katheder[email protected]