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The Instant Obsession: the many flavors of ramen noodles

2:40 PM on 04.30.2008 // Dale North

Who doesn't love ramen noodles? They're cheap, convenient, and often delicious. And how else can pocket change and a cup of hot water come together to equal a full meal and a happy belly?

The World Instant Noodles Association says that Americans slurped down over 4 billion packages of the fast-cooking wonderfood in 2007, earning them the rank of number 4 in the world for instant noodle consumption. Only China, Indonesia, and Japan rank above the US in noodle love. Worldwide, we knocked out over 978 billion hot bowls in 2007. I'll wait for you to wipe the noodle splashback off your face.

Sure, there's a lot of slurping going on. But are we, as Americans, missing the best that instant ramen has to offer? Is there something else out there besides beef and chicken-flavored noodles?  Put on some hot water, as we're about to reconstitute your appreciation of instant ramen flavors.

Hit the jump to continue. 

Ramen is simply noodles in broth. In its lowest form, it's a brick of noodles that a poor college student pops into the microwave. At its best, ramen is served with freshly made noodles, handmade broth, and a host of fresh toppings. The latter is delicious, but definitely doesn't fall under the "instant" category. We'll save those for another time.

The dish originated in China, and was eventually introduced to Japanese by the Meiji era. It quickly became a popular dish there, but it took the invention of the instant noodle in the late 1950s for ramen to achieve its worldwide appreciation.

We have Momofuku Ando to thank for that. After World War II, Japan was short on food. The government urged the Japanese people to eat bread, but Ando thought that they might prefer noodles. The United States was sending over wheat flour, and after some experimentation, Ando found a way to use this cheap flour and bring noodles to the masses. In 1958, he perfected a method of flash-frying cooked noodles and named them Chikin Ramen, as they were chicken flavored. About ten years later, he created his masterpiece: Cup Noodles. By the 1970s, instant ramen became a Japanese export, enabling the whole world would witness the instant miracle.

These days, Americans can walk into any grocery store and come back out with chicken-flavored food for a week for about five dollars, never once thinking of our beloved Mr. Noodle for his gracious gift to the world. Families can be seen at exiting mega-warehouse stores with months worth of red and orange Maruchan "bricks." Broke students, people on the go, and families on a budget all sing the praises of ramen. And now, with noodle consumption numbers at an all-time high, ramen fans are enjoying an almost endless array of flavors and styles.

Your typical American grocer stocks beef, chicken, pork and possibly "oriental" flavors of instant noodles. Bigger ones branch out; I've seen cheese, roast and even barbeque. Being the inventors of the food, Nissin is naturally a major player. Their Top Ramen line adds shrimp, picante beef, and chili to the regular flavors, and their Cup Noodles line matches those and adds a nasty sounding Creamy Chicken flavor to the mix. Nissin even has a diet line of ramen, offered in three flavors. 

Maruchan is just as popular, offering many of the same flavors as Nissin. Their Chicken Mushroom flavor is pretty tasty, as is the Lime Shrimp. And, while the instant yakisoba (Japanese fried noodle dish) from Maruchan is something I enjoy, many I've talked to do not share my opinion. I think that their tastebuds are not ready for that yet. 

Korean food company Nong Shim is moving up in the noodle space with their instant bowls and Shin Ramyun. They call it gourmet; I call it slightly different. The spicy bowl definitely lives up to its name. If you can find the Kalbi flavor, try it; it doesn't taste quite like kalbi, but it's delicious.

The last of the main players (as far as America goes) is Sapporo Ichiban. "Ichiban" means "number one" in Japanese, and I think that these are the best tasting instant ramen flavors overall. They have the usual flavors, and also add miso and original/soy to the mix. The broth is really tasty in many of these. And, while not exactly ramen, try their kitsune udon if you come across it. It comes complete with dehydrated bean curd.

Noodle connoisseurs may branch out into foreign brands, by way of importing or Asian food markets. Since instant ramen is cheap, upgrading to newer and different flavors won't cost that much more, and at worst, you'll be paying about $3 for a fancy import bowl. Splurge!

NOT instant.

I'll start with a recommendation for my absolute favorite: Nissin's Yakisoba flavor instant ramen. These, along with many other Japanese brands, have a slightly different preparation method. Water (220ml) is poured into a skillet, and the noodles are placed in that water until it is completely absorbed. With this flavor, a yummy flavor packet and a smaller packet of nori (seaweed) are included to be mixed in after the noodles are done. This comes out mostly dry, with no extra broth in the skillet. Sure, it isn't really fried noodle yakisoba, but the sauce is wonderful. It tastes a lot like Bulldog tonkatsu sauce. My favorite importer, Maruwa, sells a five-pack of these delicious noodles for $5.49. The sometimes domestically available Sapporo Ichiban "chow mein" tastes similar, and is prepared in the same fashion.

In Japan, the instant bowl flavors get pretty crazy. One time I picked up a triple-sized okonomiyaki ramen UFO at a konbini. Okonomiyaki is a table-cooked cross between pizza and pancake, and usually has meats and cabbage in it, and is topped with mayonnaise. It's a weird (but good) enough dish on its own, but the combination with ramen is mind blowing. One bowl I tried had a sort of puck of vegetables and unknown lumps in with the noodle brick. It also included packets of flavor, fish flakes, and even mayo. As you can guess, the finalized combination looked horrendous, but surprisingly, it tasted great. I can't find the variety I tried at any food importer, but Nissin recently announced a slightly better looking version.

Of course, you don't have to resort to importing or Asian food markets to spice up your noodle diet. By simply adding your own vegetables, spices, and meats, you can make your plain "oriental" flavor ramen look and taste like a real meal. Adding a bit of soy or maybe some sliced pork from leftovers can really take your meal up a notch. And, if you feel like frying, cut up some cabbage, onions, and meat, and fry up your own yakisoba. If you ask me, yakisoba is ramen noodles at their best. I finish my creation off with tonkatsu sauce -- that will be our little secret, right?

Are you ready to go bravely into the wide world of instant ramen now? Places like the ramen blog and The Official Ramen Homepage can help you on the way. Net stores like Asian Food Grocer and Maruwa have noodle selections large enough to keep you eating new flavors for months. And, if you're ever in Yokohama, be sure to check out the Ramen Museum. I hear there's another in Osaka.

Mr. Noodle, Momofuku Ando, died early last year at the age of 96. They say that he ate ramen until the day he died, preferring his original Chikin Ramen over everything else out there. 

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Dale North, Associate Editor
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