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May 9, 2006

Eat Your Heart Out—May 9, 2006

When I tell people that I am a college student, I am often confronted with the reply, “Oh, you must eat a lot of ramen noodles.” Ramen noodles are a type of Japanese noodle made from water, wheat flour, and alkaline salts, and are usually light yellow, wavy, and somewhat stiff. In Japan, they are served in soup, usually with some type of meat topping. However, when Americans think of ramen noodles, the likely image to come to mind is that of instant ramen noodles, which are created by making the noodles, then frying, steaming, and air drying them. This allows them to be quickly rehydrated with boiling water to create a soupy meal. Instant ramen noodles are cheap and easy to make, and thus are considered to be part of the average college student’s diet.

The Nissin Corporation was the first company to produce instant ramen noodles. The company was founded in 1948 by Momofuku Ando, who saw the need to produce an easy-to-make ramen product to feed the masses following World War II. In 1958, Nissin introduced “Chicken Ramen,” the first instant ramen. According to Nissin’s website, it was first considered a luxury item, since Japanese grocery stores sold fresh Japanese noodles at one-sixth the cost of the new instant ramen noodles.

Today, China is the biggest market for instant noodles, with consumption up to 27.7 billion packs per year, though other Asian nations contribute significantly to instant ramen noodle consumption. On a recent trip up to the Asian supermarkets along Argyle, I found instant noodle dishes in a multitude of flavors and packaging. In addition to the Japanese instant ramen, I saw Korean, Thai, and Vietnamese versions, and in my undying quest to seek the best of esoteric food products, I decided to conduct a Pan-Asian instant noodle taste test. I am not a big fan of Nissin’s instant ramen noodles, as I think they are lacking in taste, so I decided to exclude them from the test.

Similar to Nissin’s chicken ramen is Sapporo Ichiban Chicken ramen ($1.19 at the 55th Street Co-Op) which does not have too much taste other than starch and salt. However, it featured fairly realistic tasting dehydrated vegetables and is also available in most supermarkets.

I was a big fan of the Shin Cup ($1.49 at the 55th Street Co-Op) by Nong Shim, a fiery Korean ramen noodle accented with lots of dehydrated vegetables including shitake mushrooms, scallions, and carrots. There were strong accents of peppers and chilis, and the vegetables actually tasted like vegetables.

Also manufactured by Nong Shim is the Bowl Noodle Soup Kimchi flavor ($0.65 at Tai Nam) which I was originally very excited for since I enjoyed the Shin Cup noodles, and because I have a huge fondness for kimchi. Alas, I was slightly disappointed when the noodles did not have a pronounced kimchi flavor, but rather just a musty aftertaste.

The Mama tom yum instant noodles from Thailand ($0.60 at Tai Nam) was one of my favorites, with strong lemongrass and chili flavors, though it was deemed too spicy by some of my fellow testers. In addition to the standard instant soup pouch and oil flavoring packet, it also contained “dried shrimp,” although it was difficult to determine whether these were real shrimp, as they tasted like nibs of rubber.

Pho Ga ($0.75 at Tai Nam), made by Vifon, was the best instant pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) of the bunch, with wide rice noodles and a mild chicken flavor. However, it was slightly disconcerting to learn that the dish contained 95 percent of my daily sodium intake—a whopping 2,268 mg. A similar Pho Ga produced by Mama ($0.25 at Tai Nam) was comparable in taste, but contained noodles that were reminiscent of plastic. However, you can’t beat the price of 25 cents for dinner.

I had originally decided to purchase the Dosirac Mushroom flavor noodles ($0.65 at Tai Nam) because the packaging featured a possessed looking, uniform-clad Korean woman on the cover holding a package of instant noodles. I also liked how the ingredient list contained “mashrooms” instead of mushrooms. However, what these noodles had in kitsch appeal they lacked in substance. The noodles had no significant flavor other than salt (in terms of sodium, this dish came in second with 1,830 mg sodium) and was the most akin to Nissen’s Top Ramen.

Of course, these are just a few of the instant noodle soups that are out on the market. In the world of instant Asian noodles, the possibilities seem endless. However, due to the high levels of sodium found in the soup, I wouldn’t recommend eating ramen daily. (Although the noodles themselves contain little sodium, so this problem could be avoided by eating the noodles and forgoing the soup.) But the Japanese eat 45 packets of instant ramen noodles per year (per individual) and they still are healthier than we are. So perhaps, as most things in life go, moderation is key.