Ramen Hacks: Easy Ways to Upgrade Your Instant Noodles
[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]
Ramen in the U.S. has come a long way. Once known only in its 10-for-a-dollar instant-lunch form—a staple of offices and dorm rooms all around the ’80s and ’90s—high-end real ramen shops are springing up left and right on both coasts and everywhere in between. As a half-Japanese kid in the ’80s, I grew up eating instant ramen at least once a week, and it still holds a special place in my gut. The real stuff is great, but sometimes only the add-hot-water pack will do.
That said, my tastes have changed and expanded considerably over the years, and sometimes that little flavoring packet just isn’t enough. As such, I’ve spent a lot of time devising ways to upgrade my ramen in cheap, easy ways. Ghetto gourmet, if you will.
As a card-carrying member of the Ramen Transmogrification Society of Greater New York,* it is my duty, my honor, and my privilege to share with you some of our methods and recipes.
* Our membership is pretty thin right now—care to join?
The easiest way to quickly upgrade a bowl of instant noodles is with ingredients that require no extra cooking. I’m talking simple sauces and condiments like:
- Miso paste
- Chili bean sauce
- Thai curry paste
- Japanese curry powder
- Fish sauce
I’m a condiment hoarder (I’ve got a whole double-layered shelf of my fridge plus the entire door and a full pantry cabinet devoted to them), so this is a particularly easy thing for me to do. The key is not to go overboard with too many different competing flavors. I often make this mistake after long nights out, assuming that when it comes to hangover cures, more is better. Not the case. Keep it simple. Bear in mind that if you’re using a salty condiment, you should omit some of the seasoning packet. You can also add:
- Spices like white pepper, Sichuan pepper, or chili flakes to the finished dish; or try adding a cinnamon stick, star anise, and coriander seeds to the simmering broth (remove ‘em before serving!).
- Fats like toasted sesame oil, chili oil, or an animal fat (pork, chicken, or duck are all awesome).
- Citrus juices—a quick squeeze of lemon or lime right before serving can go a long way to brightening flavors.
But imagine this scenario: you’re in college, the power went out in your dorm room, and you obviously had no choice but to finish all the beer in the fridge rather than let it warm up. You’re hungry, but you can’t use the water kettle. Keanu Reeves pops up in your brain and asks: What do you do?