Easy Ramen, Instant Joy
Updated: Jun 5
Asians love packaged ramen. Here find a guide to the best instant noodles and the story behind why Asians adore them so.
Ramen is not romantic grandmother’s food. It is commercial to the core. Ramen, in Japan, was an early 20th century creation, because previous to that, Japan’s diet was vegetarian and fish. The meat, chicken, and hooves required to make a ramen broth would have once been repellent. These ramen shops, like first French restaurants, were evidence of capitalist modernity, and served soup for the hard-working, middle classes. Even today, ramen is not special occasion food. You slurp it in twenty minutes around the corner from your office.
Still great ramen takes dedication. Cork chef Takashi Miyazaki (who once had a dream to open a ramen counter) said that to make Tonktatsu ramen from his native city of Fukuoka requires 48 hours to simmer the stock. Happy ramen is one that is labor intensive for the chef, but anonymous and convenient for the customer. What happens if you don’t work or live near a decent ramen bar?
"Asians view great soup noodles as not a privilege but a right."
In 1958, the first instant ramen was created in Osaka by a Taiwanese man, Go-Pai Huk, who, when he moved to Japan, changed his name to Momofuku Ando. (His name the New York Korean-American chef David Chang would later borrow for his restaurant empire.) Ando, who founded the company Nissin, deep fried blocks of ramen noodles and combined them with magical flavor packets, thus cementing what was best about ramen -- tasty, quick, cheap. Packaged ramen crystalizes, via scientific trickery, the illusion of long-simmered umami comfort that can be had in mere minutes.
My Asian friends – who view great soup noodles as not a privilege but a right -- love instant. Eva Pau from Asia Market on Drury Street confesses to eating it frequently. Chef Nick Wang calls ramen “rong-yi mian” which means easy noodles. This is particularly relevant in Ireland, where actual ramen options are few, but the instant varieties are dazzling. In Asian market aisles, the Indonesian brand Indo Mie jostles for space with Thailand’s MAMA, the well-respected, delicately flavored Japanese Itsukui ramen, and a 15-euro self-cooking Haidiliao ramen.
In that instant aisle, Korean ramen reigns king, which makes sense because Koreans consume more instant ramen per capita than the rest of the world. Eva Pau laughs because I love the Korean brand NongShim Shin Black, which I think of as the BMW of ramen. Like a BMW, it was pricey and glamorous when it came onto the market, but that was years ago, and is now only cherished by the middle-aged.
“You are so out of touch!” she says. The brand that the kids are all eating, she tells me, is Samyang’s HOT chicken flavor ramen, which also comes in 2x Spicy.
But whatever your ramen, one should always remember the classic Japanese ramen movie, Tampopo. In one of the scenes, a “ramen master” tells the other to seduce his bowl of noodles, just as if it was a demure lady in a boudoir. “First caress its surface with your chopstick tips to express affection,” Such is ramen’s allure. It may be cheap, it may be had for pennies, it may be commercial. Yet even when it comes in a foil packet for a euro, it is a thing of exquisite beauty and, as such, deserves to be wooed with respect.
Itsuki is excellent Japanese instant ramen that is available in all the Dublin Asian shops. A smidgen more expensive, this is the Audrey Hepburn of the instant ramens, substituting punch and salt for grace and tact. The noodles are not deep-fried, but fine and delicate.
Look for the Hokkaido Shio, Tokyo Shoyu, and the best, which is the Kyushu Tonkatsu. Dress it up with scallion, corn, curls of ham, nori, sliced fish cake, and a dollop of butter.
NongShim packet hack. Add half a NongShim packet (which has anchovies, green onion, and hot pepper) to whatever you are cooking like a Korean jjigae stew, stirfry, or heck, even scrambled eggs, for that umami punch.
Jjapaguri/ramdon from Parasite. Everyone went wild after a crucial scene in Boon Jong-ho’s movie Parasite featured “Jjapaguri” a NongShim classic of two of their noodles, their Neoguri and their Chapghetti mixed into one dish. (In English-speaking countries this was translated as ram-don.) Neoguri is a thick ramen noodle in a seafood broth; Chapghetti is the instant ramen version of jjajyangmyeon, the Korean version of a Chinese noodle dish with pork and black bean sauce. Stir them together and they are heaven. Parasite tops this with the enormously expensive Hong-Woo beef for the class polarity that defines much of the film. In Ireland, you can substitute Japanese Wagyu, available at Asia Market and Han Sung.
Perfect Instant Ramen
Roy Choi is a Korean American chef in LA. His “Perfect Instant Ramen” recipe, which ran in the New York Times, asks you to make ramen, crack a (great) egg in it, pull the noodles on top, take it off the heat, put a slice of cheese (cheese, especially American, is a common ingredient in Korea after 1950), and cover for two minutes. Garnish with butter, scallions and sesame seeds. I also like slivered nori.
The result is a bowl of noodles swimming in rich broth and a pillowy egg that when you pierce it, oozes orange.
Budaejigae, or Army Stew is, as its name implies, a product of the Korean War and GI food supplies. Kimchi, Spam, sausages, hot dogs, beans, and bacon mingle with ramen. Think of it as a dirty fry-up with spicy soupy noodles; trust me, you will want to lick the bowl. You can find excellent renditions like this one from Maangchi, but many have you make our own anchovy broth and sauce.
If it is 2 AM (the ideal time to eat Army Stew) who has time for that?
So, get ready two packets of Korean ramen. In a deep-sided pan with a lid, layer streaky bacon, sliced hotdogs, sliced Spam and one can of Heinz beans with a hefty amount of kimchi and sprinkle the ramen seasoning packets on top. Add water to cover and bring to a boil and then let simmer for 8-10 minutes. Add the noodles, cover, and cook until the noodles are soft, 2-3 minutes. Take off heat, layer optional cheese slices and cover until cheese is slightly melted, approximately one minute. Sprinkle with green onion and sesame seeds.
Set yourself ablaze with the viral YouTube Fire Noodle challenge, using Samyang’s HOT Chicken Flavor Ramen. Tip: if you eat the noodles at a normal rate, they are very tasty.
Accesorise ramen with a drizzle of sesame oil, maybe a smattering of bean sprouts, kimchi, or nori, and slices of ham, omelet and fish cake, a shower of scallions, and maybe Chinese charsiu barbecue pork.
In a ramen rut? Stock your pantry with miso, sesame oil, chili bean paste, Asian pickles, nori, pickled daikon, kimchi, sesame seeds, Sriacha, shichimi, Raiyu, chicken stock and hon-dashi.
Fancy more ramen hacks? This one, starring Korean ramen, is one of our favourites.