Afterthoughts: Instant-Ramen Just Got Way Better
The instant-noodle aisle in Don Quijote is a wonderland.
Have you eaten instant ramen lately? If you’re anything like me, the last time you tore into a pack of dehydrated noodle cake was in your lean college years, or maybe even as a kid. Instant ramen is the kind of thing where, the minute you can afford something better, there’s not much reason to go back. Or at least that’s how it used to be.
I’m not sure when exactly this happened, but sometime in the past decade or so, instant ramen got better.
I recently stumbled into the ramen aisle in Don Quijote and was blown away by the variety of instant noodles on display. I walked out of the store that day with $40-plus worth of brightly colored plastic bowls in my bag, and the resulting experimentation has sparked a bit of a ramen love affair at the office.
Some of my favorite discoveries so far:
Improvement no. 1:
Photo: Michael Keany
Fresh noodles! Dried noodle cake was a technological breakthrough back in the 1950s, but the cooked product always turned out disappointingly soggy. Nowadays, many brands of ramen come with a sealed plastic bag of noodles, still soft and fresh. Heated up, they’ve still got a bite to them. I’d even say al dente in some cases.
Improvement no. 2:
Photo: Katrina Valcourt
Different kinds of noodles! No need to settle for the anemic basic version of instant noodles anymore. You can now find fat udon, toothsome buckwheat soba, even tender pho rice noodles. The fresh versions of these are the best, although even the dried ones are a step up from what I remember from college.
Improvement no. 3:
Photo: Katrina Valcourt
Liquid soup bases! Many brands have ditched the old foil packets of salt, MSG and flavoring powder in favor of concentrated liquid broths, which are more nuanced in flavor. Some even come with supplementary packets of oil or mayonnaise to make the dish heartier.
Improvement no. 4:
Photo: Katrina valcourt
A crazy selection of flavors! Instant ramen used to come in beef, chicken, shrimp … and that’s about it. Now, there’s curry ramen, tonkotsu ramen, shio ramen, miso ramen, on and on. You can get brothless noodles too, including chow mein, Japanese cold noodles or even regular old spaghetti (complete with a light tomato-basil-and-olive-oil flavoring).
The cost of quality:
Of course, this noodle arms race didn’t come for free. One of the primary selling points of old-school instant ramen was the price—just pennies per serving. These new, deluxe bowls can cost as much as $3 or $4 apiece. Ouch. And while these new instant noodles have become more delicious, they haven’t gotten any healthier. Salt is the killer here—one variety of ramen bowl I tried contains 94 percent of the daily recommended dose of sodium.
So I may not be saving much money by eating ramen for lunch every day, and I’m going to have to slow down before my blood pressure spikes, but, for now, I’m enjoying every new bowl I try. And I haven’t even started upgrading them with fresh veggies and meat. Hmm, that gives me an idea for tomorrow’s lunch …