Instant Ramen Isn't Just For Broke College Students
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, while imparting 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 so many great foods, ramen was originally a humble 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 vastly 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 here in Baltimore we are 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. Born in Japanese-occupied Taiwan, he invented a method of precooking, 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-WWII 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 to simply not drink all 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 Lotte Plaza in Ellicott City I stopped counting at 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. (See citypaper.com/eat for tips.) Some brands include dehydrated vegetables or even seafood, all to recreate 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 '03. The annual post-turkey family yoot (Korean dice) tournament was just underway when my frequently tardy 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 gluttonously 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.
Giant Food Supermarket, 601 East 33rd St., (410)649-4180
Above average selection of mostly Korean brands and "bowl" ramen
Mt. Vernon Food Mart, 815 N. Charles St., (410) 727-2595
Good selection of mostly Korean brands
Potung Trading, 321 Park Ave., (410) 962-1510
Very good selection of mostly Chinese brands
Asia Food, 5224-28 York Road, (410) 323-8738 (Currently undergoing renovation)
Good selection of Chinese and Korean brands
HanAhReum Asian Mart, 800 North Rolling Road, Catonsville, (443) 612-9020
Very good all around selection, though many are available only as multi-packs or cases
Lotte Plaza, 8801 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City, (410) 750-9656
Excellent selection, nearly all available individually
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 generally 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 1/2 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.
|Neoguri (Korean): Thick (fried) noodles in a very spicy, satisfying broth with a separate pack of dehydrated vegetables that include mushrooms and seaweed.||Ssallamyun Ddukgook Maht (Korean): Thin noodles made with both rice and wheat flour (not fried), very pleasant slightly chewy texture, but prone to overcooking, broth is very clean tasting, not spicy, slightly sweet and creamy with beef and onion flavor and a subtle white pepper finish.||Myojo Chukazanmai (Japanese): Exceptionally resilient thin noodles (not fried), with an aromatic non-spicy, porky, gingery broth, comes with a separate pack of a salty, garlicky, and slightly spicy oil and a soy sauce mixture which is best used sparingly.||Sapporo Ichiban (Japanese): Probably the most widely recognized and distributed Japanese brand, thin, somewhat softer (fried) noodles with a classic savory brown broth flecked with dehydrated scallion.||Wu-Mu Steam Ramen 4-pack (Taiwanese): The steamed then dehydrated noodles(not fried) are somewhat broad and flat with angular wrinkles, clean, slippery and resilient, broth is redolent of roast pork, star anise, cooking wine, clean and clear with some lingering savory filminess, comes with a separate oil packet containing spicy oil and solids that taste oddly like a cross between carrot and melon.|
Bring 2-3 cups water to boil
Add only the noodles to the water
Boil for 2 minutes, then rinse thoroughly
Add the package recommended amount of water to a pot and bring to a boil
Add any dry packet ingredients and your rinsed noodles, and bring back to a boil.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. Meat: Any cooked meat works well, such as deli meat and 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 Sappor Ichiban Ramen.
4. 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 Worcestshire 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.
5. 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.
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 straight-up 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 action 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 to compel noodles upwards, thus one actually inhales sharply with one's lungs, drawing a bite of noodles into one's mouth. In this way I've actually eaten an entire 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
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