[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?
Here’s the answer: Just crunch up the noodles in the bag, tear off a corner, add the seasoning packet, hold the torn corner and shake it up, then consume. Lick your fingers clean after this one. It’s like eating Cheetos, but with delicious “Oriental flavor” fingers instead of “orange cheeze.”
Let’s face it: Ramen ain’t health food. But it’s pretty simple to add a bit of roughage to your starch.
- Quick cooking vegetables like baby spinach, romaine lettuce, bean sprouts, thinly sliced cabbage, watercress, and scallions (amongst others) can be stirred into the soup right before serving. They should wilt in a matter of seconds.
- Longer cooking vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, snap peas, snow peas, shredded carrots, and whatever else your heart fancies can be added to the noodles as they’re cooking. It may take a bit of finagling to get the timing just right, but I have faith in you, young grasshopper.
- Frozen vegetables can work great—corn and peas in particular fare well frozen (often being significantly better than their fresh counterparts!). I like to thaw them out by running them under hot water straight out of the tap for 30 seconds or so. They can then be drained and added directly to the hot soup just before serving.
Ramen are pretty much all starch and fat (with most inexpensive ramen brands, the noodles are dehydrated by deep-frying them!). What about adding some extra protein? Eggs are cheap, delicious, and in most cases, can be cooked directly in the same pot with the noodles or the broth. Here are a few simple ways to do it. The World Society for Ramen Egg Cookery (an organization which I founded, chair, and am the sole member of) has divided ramen eggs into 5 levels. It is unadvisable to attempt a higher level process until you’ve completed each of the levels preceding it.
- Level 1: Hard boiled eggs are the easiest—just add the eggs to a pot of cold water, bring it to a boil, then drop in your noodles. The egg should be pretty perfectly hard boiled in just about the same time that it takes to cook the ramen through.
- Level 2: Soft boiled eggs are a tad trickier, because they involve a time. Drop them into the pot after it’s come to a full boil, start a timer, and pull them out after 3 minutes for super-soft, or 5 for a fully-set white and semi-liquid yolk. I like to cut the eggs open and stir the yolk into the broth as I eat it.
- Level 3: The egg-drop method creates small curds of egg blossoms that float in the broth and coat your noodles. Lightly beat an egg in a small bowl. Once your noodles are cooked, swirl the noodles and hot broth gently around the pot. While the broth is moving, slowly drizzle in the beaten egg. It should set into fine ribbons.
- Level 4: Poached eggs will never come out perfectly shaped, but who really cares? Just cook the noodles until they’ve just started to separate from each other (about halfway through their total cooking time), pull the pot off the heat, break a raw egg into the center, place the lid on the pot, and let the whole thing sit for a couple minutes until both the noodles and eggs are cooked.
- Level 5: Fried Eggs require the use of an auxiliary pan and heat source. This is hyper-advanced stuff, and not to be trifled with until you’ve mastered all of the first-level egg techniques.*
* Not really. It’s still pretty darn easy.
Simple Simmered Meat
Flank steak with scallions.
Thinly sliced meats can be cooked in a matter of seconds directly in the pot. Chicken breast, pork tenderloin, or flank steak are all great candidates. I like to pick the pieces up one at a time and swish them back and forth in the hot broth until cooked while the noodles are simmering, then set the cooked meat aside and put it back on top right before serving. Cured meats like ham or bacon are great as well, as are cooked meats like leftover chicken or steak, or hot dogs. Want something really interesting? Add a bit of shredded beef jerky as your noodles cook. It lends a nice smoky saltiness to the broth, and achieves a really delightful tender-chewy texture.
And that’s about it for the basics of ramen cookery. Once you’ve mastered all of the simple methods, upgrading your noodles is simply a matter of combining various techniques to achieve delicious end results. The most obvious ones are simplified, ramenified-versions of classic East Asian dishes. A dash of fish sauce and lime juice along with some beef and herbs quickly converts a bowl of noodles into a delicious Faux Pho (pictured up top). Add some shrimp, fish sauce, Sriracha, and coconut milk, and you’ve got yourself a quickie-version of Thai style Tom Kha Goong.
Stir-fried beef and snap peas.
With care, you can even make drier stir-fried or cold noodle dishes. The key here is to stop cooking the ramen just before it’s completely done, then drain it. It’ll continue to soften a bit from the residual heat, as well as cooking further when you stir-fry it or add a hot sauce. As with all stir-fries, the goal is to have your pan hot enough before adding ingredients that you get a nice quick sear before anything can overcook or turn to mush. When stir-frying ramen, I like to use part of the seasoning packet as a marinade for my meat. Cook the meat and vegetables in a hot skillet with oil before adding then noodles and whatever sauce you’d like (plain old oyster sauce with a touch of sesame oil is an easy crowd-pleaser). I like the simple combo of flank steak with snap peas.
Fake ramen-based Pad Thai also makes use of this technique, adding fish sauce, peanuts, vegetables, and a touch of lime and tamarind paste (if you’ve got it) for a quick, easy stir-fry that’s actually better than most of the oversweetened, gloppy stuff you get from second-rate Thai restaurants. Do things right, and nobody will recognize your ramen when it’s wearing its new Thai hat!
Aloha Ramen combines Spam, pineapple, and a fried egg for some authentic, hyper-traditional Polynesian island flavor. Instant luau—just add hot water! Peanut butter and coconut make for a great chilled ramen salad, and you can get in touch with your inner Chinese-American steam table by throwing together a simple ketchup and pineapple-based sweet & sour sauce (Sriracha optional).
Of course, there’s no reason to stay in Asia here. Ramen takes well to Western flavors as well. How about some cheesy chili ramen or a poutine-like dish of toasted raw ramen with gravy and mozzarella? (Use real curd for authenticity’s sake, or just go with the shredded stuff if you’d prefer.) Stir together cooked ramen with a simple gooey cheese sauce, or if you’d prefer, just a block of microwaved Velveeta thinned out with a bit of water, then pop the whole thing in the toaster oven for a Ramac & Cheese with a melty center and nice golden-brown crust.
Remember when Spaghetti Tacos were a thing? Well, here come Ramen tacos to take their place. Adding a pack of crunched up ramen noodles to the beef filling in a standard American taco kit add bulk, texture, and a whole boatload of fun! (and yes, that’s fun! with an exclamation point!). Go Go Ramacos!
Canned soups can be bulked up nicely with instant ramen. Cream of mushroom, onion, whatever you’d like will work, but my favorite is to add a can of creamed corn, some sliced bacon, and perhaps a shot of heavy cream or milk to a pot of simmering ramen for an instant sweet and smoky corn chowder. A sprinkle of freshly sliced scallions completes this elegant soup, from a more civilized age. Wear a jacket, and don’t let your tie dip into the bowl.
But for the ultimate in fusion-comfort food, Ramen-topped shepherd’s or cottage pie is the way to go. Mashed potatoes can be a pain in the butt to make for such a simple dish. Why not just boil some noodles, and use them as your pie crust instead? The top of the noodles dry out and become super-crisp under the broiler, while the noodles underneath remain tender. It’s a uniquely delicious textural contrast, and one that I believe can help bring the world together.
Of course, we’re barely scratching the surface here. Ramen may be one of the cheapest foods in the supermarket, but with imagination and a bit of cross-cultural, cross-class love, it can be one of the most versatile staples in your pantry.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.