A man bicycles down a dimly lit street, balancing three hot steaming bowls of soup as he navigates the various pedestrians and suicidal drivers all intent on their destination. Approaching the apartment building, he enters, climbs a few flights of stairs, and makes his delivery, picking up some bowls from the previous night’s dinner. Whereas in America we would have been expecting a pizza delivery, in Japan it’s not an uncommon sight to see Ramen soup delivery.
If you ever find yourself in an “Oriental Style” kitchen, see if you can find some Miso Ramen to eat. The soup is like a more complex version of Chicken Noodle Soup, served in a huge bowl (if they do it right). Hmm. Makes me hungry typing this.
However, in free association, most Americans will think instead of a small, hard brick of fried noodles sealed in a plastic wrap with a small foil packet of soup base. In 1958, Momofuku Ando of Nissin Foods invented instant ramen noodles (named the greatest Japanese invention of the 20th century in a Japanese poll, beating out karaoke and the Walkman (!)) which allows a meal to be prepared in 3 minutes or so. Liberal application of artificial flavoring and monosodium glutamate trick the brain into believing it has indeed had a complete meal. And at 15-20 cents per packet, it beats out mac and cheese and completely decimates spaghetti as the food of choice when you just have to go out and buy a new RAID array or Wii and discover you’ve stomped your food budget (again).
For such a simple meal, however, I’ve discovered that everyone has their own special way of preparing it. A friend of mine boils the water, takes it off the heat, stirs in the sauce and lets it cool. And liberally applies pepper to the resulting soup. 50% (made up statistic) of the people who make these noodles crush the noodle brick before boiling. Various additions and subtractions have been tried, with various levels of success.
My favorite noodle cooking process is to place the brick into rapidly boiling water, then following it with what my sister and I call “Korean Ketchup” (a very spicy red sauce with a rooster on it; you can find it at your local WalMart), about three tablespoons. Allow the water to boil the brick on medium-high heat for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Take the pan off and drain, leaving about a quarter inch of water in the bottom of the pan. Return to the stove and set to medium heat. Open the flavor packet and sprinkle on the noodles. Stir rapidly to dissolve the packet in the water before it boils away, and coat the noodles with the resulting sauce. Remove from heat and pour on plate. You end up with a very strongly flavored, spicy, almost Yakisoba style ramen dish. Sometimes I add frozen fajita chicken, but let’s be honest, if I had the money for frozen fajita chicken, I wouldn’t be scarfing down ramen noodles. Goes excellent with disposable wooden chopsticks swiped from your local oriental meal establishment.
I’ve seen tons of recipes for ramen noodles, from Mexican Ramen and Cheese to an almost Rice Krispie Treat type Noodle/Sugar/Chocolate/Marshmallow recipe that tastes pretty good. Yes, the humble ramen noodle brick is so inoffensive and flavorless (by design) that it can be used as the base for nearly any food desired. So, the next time you snag a box of 15 cent plastic packets, try to come up with an exciting new way to cook them. Ramen is an art, not a science.