14 Sep / Instant Ramen History and Hacks
I may only be slightly exaggerating when I say that instant noodles are synonymous with starving college students.
I’m sure even you dear reader have recollections of huddling over steaming Styrofoam cups, shoveling curly noodles into mouths and slurping soup between cramming for midterms and/or a late-night party at your bestie’s.
Yes, it’s back to school, and hungry co-eds short on cash all around the country are likely stocking up on instant noodles, or instant ramen as they’re more commonly called in the U.S., to stash in dorm rooms. Super cheap (I bought some on sale for $1/6-pack!) and quick to cook, it’s no wonder they’re an instant hit, pun intended.
According to the World Instant Noodle Association (WINA), over 4.2 billion packets (packages/cups) of instant noodles were consumed in the U.S. in 2014, making us the sixth largest consumer of instant noodles out of 43 countries.
So how did instant noodles reach this zenith of popularity?
Instant noodles was invented by a Taiwanese-Japanese man named Momofuku Ando (1910-2007). The food shortages after World War II spurred Ando to develop a noodle product that could be consumed anytime, anywhere and could help feed the masses.
Legend has it that after several unsuccessful attempts at drying and rehydrating noodles, he dropped a bundle of noodles into his wife’s hot tempura oil during dinner prep. Lo and behold, he discovered that frying dehydrated the noodles, giving them a longer shelf-life and also creating tiny holes that made them cook more quickly. In 1958, Nissin (the noodle company founded by Ando) started marketing the world’s first instant noodles, Chikin Ramen (Chicken Ramen).
When Chikin Ramen first hit the shelves, it was deemed a luxury product because it cost about six times more than fresh noodles (udon) at the grocery store. But its unique and convenient preparation method won over consumers and soon more than 10 competitors also had products on the market. Prices dropped and instant noodles became a booming business.
Ando’s next great invention, Cup Noodle–instant noodles packaged in a heat- and water-proof container, the epitome of convenience foods–came out in 1971 and is credited with sparking the popularity of instant noodles overseas.
Today, instant noodles are marketed and produced worldwide under several brand names. There are also dozens of flavors to choose from including creole-style to masala and chili crab.
However, a bowl of instant noodles isn’t exactly a balanced meal. One package of Nissin Top Ramen’s Chicken flavor contains 380 calories, 14 grams of fat and 1,820 mg of sodium. Where’s the protein, where are the vegetables?
Taking this into consideration, I’ve devised several hacks over the years to make my bowl of noodles tastier and more nutritious with little effort. There are two ways to go about it.
1. Add-ons can be cooked in the same pot as straight-up insant noodles:
- Break an egg into the pot of boiling noodles for instant, easy protein. Or slice up a hardboiled egg to top off the cooked noodles.
- Add thinly sliced chicken, pork or steak to the pot. Or form ground meat into meatballs and plop them into the soup.
- Cook chopped broccoli, carrots, or cabbage, or even easier spinach, together with the noodles.
2. Toss out the flavor packets and use the following from-scratch flavoring ideas instead:
- Make a soup base from miso (any kind will do) or use store-bought or homemade broth.
- For a tangy “dry” noodle dish, cook the noodles as usual and drain. Mix some ketchup (and a squirt of Sriracha if you choose), a little Chinese black vinegar (balsamic vinegar will also work) and a dash of sesame oil and toss the noodles in it.
- For a quick noodle salad, mix 1 tablespoon of creamy peanut butter with some soy sauce and sesame oil, plus a squeeze of lemon juice or rice vinegar, and toss together with noodles.
While instant noodles may be a staple food for college students, it’s also handy to have in the pantry when you want a quick dinner for one, or as a mid-day snack. And there are so many easy ways to doctor it up and make it a little more nutritious!