If you are like me, you can mark out the boundaries of the phases in your life with packages of instant ramen.
When I was young and poor, instant ramen was a source of cheap calories, a meal that fit into a budget centered more around the procurement of twelve packs and drum sticks than nutrition. My ramen intake centered on packets of Maruchan brand instant ramen, bought by the case for less than a few dollars and stashed into "my" cabinet in a kitchen shared with three other people and the bands that floated in and out of our basement studio.
When I was young and not so poor, instant ramen was a source of quick calories that fit a schedule centered around long work days and commutes that consisted of walking, buses and subways. For stowing lunch and dinners away in messenger bags and desk drawers, my ramen preference became noodles in styrofoam cups. The all-in-one package was easy and quick, cleanup consisted of rinsing off a pair of cheap chop sticks in the water fountain down the hall from my cube before tossing them back into a drawer for another day.
Now I am older and more middle class than I'd like to admit. As such, instant ramen has not been a part of my life beyond quick moments of recall when I happen to catch that scene in Elf when a poor Zooey Deschanel tucks into a bowl after a day's work. For me, Deschanel captures the visage of "every person," at the beginning of the journey twoard whom they will eventually become, sitting in the same position in front of the tv, in the same secondhand chair with a blanket tossed over the back to hide tears and stains in its well worn fabric, the same bowl of instant noodles doing its level best to compensate for a diet that's been missing since you've moved out of your parents' home.
I've been thinking about noodles since issue one of Lucky Peach, a new quarterly magazine from David Chang, made its way into my mailbox. From front to back, the issue is all about ramen. Actual ramen, found in small, out-of-the-way noodle joints. Bowls of ramen served in cities to far away for even my lunch hour because sadly, there are few, if any authentic bowls of ramen to be found in St. Louis.
Sandwiched in the middle of the ramen issue of Lucky Peach is an article by by Ruth Reichl called "Instant Ramen Showdown", a quick-and-dirty analysis of the best of the best when it comes to packaged ramen noodles. Reichl's piece got me thinking about instant ramen and I set out to do my own instant ramen showdown, with a twist.
Instead of just finding the best instant noodles - Reichl did an excellent job of that in her research - I would look at the best flavors within her top pics for those who insist on digesting noodle-based sodium bombs, a easy and tasty way to step up your instant ramen at home and then finally I would attempt to make a bowl of instant ramen that would satisfy my desire for real ramen here in St. Louis.
Over the course of a month I consumed eighteen different styles and flavors of instant ramen sourced from Global Foods Market in Kirkwood and Jay's International Food in South City. In addition to noodles that did not make Reichl's list I completed a sampling of flavors and noodles from her top picks; Sapporo Ichiban Japanese style noodles, Nong Shim shin ramyun and Myojo yakisoba noodles.
Step One - My Picks For Best Flavored Instant Ramen:
For my money, Sapporo Ichiban is fine for weekday lunches at your desk, but it is the worst of Reichl's picks, however in her defense she did not care for them much either. The noodles reminded me of Maruchan and Top Ramen and the flavor packets were unbelievably salty, rendering any individual flavor like miso, chicken or beef more of an afterthought than a highlight.
Instant noodles and flavors from Nong Shim and Myojo proved to be vastly superior to Sapporo; however superiority comes at a price. Nong Shim rings the register at $0.80 a package and Myojo breaks the bank at $3.00 vs around $0.50 for a package of Sapporo.
My personal favorites were the Spicy Gourmet from Nong Shim and Oriental Flavor Noodles from Myojo.
The noodles from Nong Shim were thick, chewy and my favorite for flavor, however they did not hold up as well over time in broth vs the noodles from Myojo. Flavoring for the Spicy Gourmet comes from two packages; the first is a soup base, the second a collection of dried vegetables. The soup is spicy, but not to the point of discomfort. Salt, while abundant, is not the dominating flavor.
The yakisoba from Myojo were thinner but of the highest quality of all the noodles I sampled, reminding me the most of noodles you would find at a ramen shop. The package recommends eating these noodles without a broth (many times yakisoba is stir-fried and served as a warm noodle dish) but I found the flavors originating from four small packets (a viscus clear oil, soup base, seasoning and dried vegetables) made for a broth that nicely complemented the noodles.
In the end I was looking at noodles as much as broth flavors and for me (as well as Reichl in her article) the noodles from Myojo came out on top. While they are not as tasty overall as the noodles from Nong Shim, they held their shape and texture in longer exposures to broth and that would be key to the next steps in my search.
Step Two - The You Can Do Better Instant Ramen
Now is the part where I suggest that you buy instant ramen and throw away everything in the package except the noodles in an attempt to make a dish that while not "instant" is more acceptable for a solid weekday meal. The inputs are simple, store-bought (or better yet homemade) broth and a selection of simple vegetables.
Cooking is simple, exchanging broth, in this case chicken, for water is a vast improvement. Skipping the packaged dried vegetables gives you a chance to get more substantial veggies into your diet, and for this dish I used a mix of sweet and hot peppers, thinly sliced scallion and chiffonade cut nori. For a depth of flavor I added a small dose of soy sauce and chili-spiked sesame oil at the bottom of the bowl before ladling the noodles and broth in.
Step Three: How Close Can You Get To Ramen Shop Quality At Home?
Having found a great instant noodle and played around enough to get a great bowl of soup at home, I began to wonder if I could come close to the bowls of ramen that we are so lacking here in St. Louis. What follows is not an everyday noodle dish, but it should be.
While there are dozens of combinations of items that can be added to a bowl of ramen, I wanted to focus on a set of specific flavors that for me make the ultimate at-home bowl of noodles, using ingredients that took a traditional Asian dish and crossed it with the mid-western United States.
First off, this is a double broth soup (fish and chicken) built on top of soy sauce and chili-spiked sesame oil. I had fish broth frozen in my fridge from a recent bouillabaisse I had made for friends. The chicken broth was from Whole Foods and fortified with bones and trimmings from the crispy chicken thighs that were included in the dish. The heady combination of chicken, fish, soy and spice is deep in flavor and satisfying to the soul.
For proteins I selected skin-on chicken thighs that I deboned before crisping in olive oil and bacon fat and smoked pork shoulder saved from a recent bbq celebrating my son's second birthday. Removing the bone from the chicken thighs allowed me to make slices of the meat while perserving its covering of super crisp skin. It is a simple preperation that adds yet another level of flavor and texture to the dish. In my mind the addition of chicken also was a head nod to the egg, which I left out of this version.
For vegetables I again used hot and sweet peppers, scallion and nori. I added thin sliced radish to pay a visual homage to kamaboko, which is often found in bowls of ramen.
Many thanks to Jonathan Pollack for his help with the pictures you see in this post. Each image says more about what I was trying to accomplish with this project than I could put into words. For all my complaining about eating packages of instant ramen, he makes even the bare bones version look tasty as hell.
I hope you enjoyed this look at just how far you can take instant ramen at home. At a minimum I hope it makes you think twice about just dumping packets of seasoning into your bowl.
I had a blast taking this experiment to its extreme, although the whole process made me long for someone else to prepare me a bowl of really good ramen. While my days of eating instant ramen out of nessesity might be over (hopefully I'll never be that financially strapped again), I've been motivated to make these soups a regular in our weekday meal planning. I hope you do as well.