The Gift of Noodles.

My friends, my loyal readers... I am stunned, absolutely stunned, at the parcel which I have just unpacked. A while back, fellow Seattle-ite Patrick McK. informed me that a whole bunch of ramen – collected from three different stores! – was on its way to my humble abode. It would have been here much sooner, but it was delivered not to my flat but to the front office, and they helpfully gave not a single lick of indication that it had arrived. Once I was able to open it up, I took some photos.

Not only were the noodles were packed in there rather well, but there was a two-page letter sitting on top. I skimmed it, and then had to highlight some segments. From first to last, I address these.

  • "the world's most addictive ramen" – That's a tall order, there. We shall see!

  • noodlely goodness – Is noodlely a word? You bet your sweet bippy it is now.

  • fake mushroom – This caused the gears in my head to skip a tooth. Why would anybody try to fake a mushroom?

  • Oh, and treat the chili powder with respect. I like hot foods and even then I sometimes cut the amount of chili I add to it. – Ah, Pat, I do appreciate the warning, but that's just not how we do things in the Muppet Labs my orbital space station New Ramen City. I'm always obligated to use everything in the packet as directed. On the second eating of the same flavour, though, I'll adjust as needed. If it's too hot, I'll report on the flavour, but it'll get a five rank in heat and if I can't finish, I might even slip a six in there!

  • TVP chunks – Ah, the magic words. Is there anything that textured vegetable protein can't accomplish?

Forwearned and forearmed, I proceeded to lay out a spread of the bounty. Note that the bottom row is from a variety of brands, but the rest of the packets are all from Indomie, a company specialising in Indonesian fare including instant noodles. That's, like, a million hundred packets of ramen! Also pictured is my little arctic fox, Diamond, attempting to claim one of the "Mi goreng" packets.

These are tears of joy, dear friends. Such a gift of ramen is so far beyond anything I could have asked or anticipated! My promise to all of you is that I will review each of these with photos (though, I might not bother with photos for every single Indomie packet review, just a few notable ones.) This will be a great time for noodle enthusiasts.

Also, as promised, Pat deserves a huge shout-out, and a link to his LiveJournal. Dude, you are the absolute best.


Thai Kitchen: Noodle Cart "Toasted Sesame"

Brand: Thai Kitchen: Noodle Cart
Flavour: Toasted Sesame
Format: plastic tray
Packets: three
Identifiables: loose noodles, oil, flavour powder
Sodium: 0.54 grams

Instant noodles are weird.

This is no surprise to anybody, of course, but the more of these reviews I write up, the more I notice it myself. There's a lot of flavour variety, not all of it good, and myriad methods of preparation. In this case, it's a straightforward "served dry" style. I've had these noodles before, but this time I'm going to tell you all about them... as a warning.

Now, I like convenience. The tray has in it a fork, which is always a big bonus for anybody wanting to prepare their noodles in the field or in the office. One can either pour boiling water in and wait or put not-boiling water in and microwave the whole tray, uncovered. The former always seems to leave the noodles a bit crunchy, so I don't know why they bother listing it first. I poured water in to cover the noodles and set it to microwave for three minutes.

In three minutes, my microwave had a thin puddle of water in it and my noodles were foaming. Good start! I attached the lid – it attaches rather securely, I must add, so this was done right – and drained the water through a U-shaped slot in the corner. This went swimmingly well. I sprinkled the "seasoning" packet over the cooked noodle mass, then the oil. These went fairly well also, since the packets are well-pinked.

My roommate was watching as I stirred the noodles, and my wife happened to be home for lunch. My wife said, "I don't want to bias your review, but that smells pretty funky."

My roommate added, "Yeah, smells stale."

Ah, but this only emboldened me! I mixed the noodles and flavouring, and then took a bite. Well, they tasted stale, also. Imagine, for a moment, that somebody has developed sesame-flavoured Play-Doh and extruded it into noodles with a few bits of peanuts and reconstituted carrot for texture. I had no trouble imagining this as I ate. That is what we call an unfortunate impression.

Also, I made the mistake of not eating fast enough. The noodles got cold very quickly and became a glutinous mass that was near-impossible to separate. I found myself picking up most of my lunch in one beige lump and shaking it to try and get most of the noodles to separate from the few on my fork.

This is a legitimately imported product of Thailand, in the same way that Foster's Lager is Australian and Dragonball Z is Japanese. I think they send it to the United States because they hate us.

Also, this one depressed me. No parody lyrics today.

Numbers: packaging 4, preparation 3, heat 2, flavour 2, overall 2
Music: Yoshito Hirano - Advance Wars: Dual Strike (DS) - Sasha's Theme


Shirakiku "Sanukiya Udon: Katsuo"

Brand: Shirakiku
Flavour: Sanukiya Udon: Katsuo
Format: cardboard bowl
Packets: four
Identifiables: noodle loaf, soup base, veggie bits, fish bits
Sodium: 1.52 grams

I've got my ramen, I've got my ramen
I'd like a million noodles all around my bowl
I want my chopsticks to eat my ramen
So it can warm me up from inside as well
It's got my slurping up and slurping down
And slurping in and slurping 'round

Stumped? Wait for it....

A week's gap? Well, I was a little gun-shy after some adventures a few days ago when my stomach seemed to rebel after eating that last batch of ramen. Might have been the change in weather, might have been canola oil (I think I'm slightly allergic to it!) but whatever it was, it's all okay now and I'm not deterred from this job at all. Well, okay, I was a bit concerned – what if I had to give up ramen? – but I get the feeling that things are gonna be all right.

Well, okay, I had that feeling, then I opened up today's ramen bowl. I bought the thing at World Market, which prides itself on having overpriced goods from all over the globe. Normally I stick to getting Australian ginger beer and then getting the heck out of there before I spend my paycheck on furniture from Cambodia or something, but I saw this and I had to know.

Let's start with the obvious. There are four pouches. One has what I've termed a "noodle loaf", which is to say a vaguely rectangular mass of pre-cooked thick noodles. The others have standard liquid soup base, pretty good veggie bits (with little round things like naruto but plain pink-outlined white circles instead, I'm sure those have some fancy name), and fish flakes. Not fish food, of course, but dry flaked fish, like the seafood equivalent of bacon bits. The ingredients list that packet as having tuna, bonito, and anchovy. Yum!

The noodle packet was more difficult to open than I'd have liked. It had a tear-notch, but in my attempt to tear across without mangling the semi-brittle noodles too much more than they already had been, I ended up tearing off only one corner, which is insufficient to get the loaf out of the plastic. Another attempt ripped half the plastic off the front, but still not enough of an opening. Such comedy! I didn't reach for scissors, so it's not down to a rank two for packaging, but the bowl would have gotten a four if not for that absurdity. Pretty much the same happened with the soup base packet, and... I don't want to talk about it.

I added hot water up to the line – marked on the outside, but also ridged on the inside – and stuck the mass into the microwave for three minutes. Strangely, the directions insist on not adding the dried ingredients to the bowl before cooking, but after. I'll never understand why. Once nuked, I added the veggies and fish to the bowl and stirred. As expected, it smelled of soy and fish and veggies, but in a really tasty way. The result was soup: brown broth, large friendly noodles, tasty-looking veggies, and fish which kind of dissolved into bits that stick to the noodles as they are lifted up out of the bowl, which is perfect. Also, some of the veggies turned out to be soy crists which had bloated into nasty amoeboid sponges with a texture I simply didn't care for. Oh well.

I dunno what's with the package art. It's two guys with weird hair testing the tensile strength of noodles by pulling them from cups of Pepsi drawn from a washtub or something. I will say that the whole noodle bowl experience does taste pretty good and feels fairly authentic, though not quite worth the five bucks or whatever it was I paid for the bowl.

I'm eating Japanese, I think I'm eating Japanese, I really think so
Eating Japanese, I think I'm eating Japanese, I really think so

Yeah, I went there.

Numbers: packaging 3, preparation 4, heat 1, flavour 4, overall 4
Music: The Vapors - New Clear Days - Turning Japanese


Nissin "Chow Mein with Shrimp"

Brand: Nissin
Flavour: Chow Mein with Shrimp
Format: plastic tray
Packets: three
Identifiables: noodle brick, soup base, flavour powder, dried shrimp and pimiento
Sodium: 1.44 grams

Look around, noodles done now
In the bowl is a crazy taste of ramen

(apologies to Paul Simon)

Mini-review here, no pictures, just a quick ramen blab. I saw that these Nissin bowls were on sale at the local QFC, so I bought one of each available flavour. Today, I decided I didn't have an hour to spend on a full review, so I grabbed one and prepared. My notes:

1. Oh, look, the icons next to the instructions tell you exactly how to prepare it. If I'm ever too drunk to read, I can still make the stuff!

2. There's a shrimp packet. That's awesome.

3. In my haste, I managed to tear the lid off in such a way that a bit of the cellophane inner liner ended up in the food. Easily removed, but a note of caution.

4. I can't tell what flavour this is, but it's decent, if a bit more salty than I'd like. It's closer to Italian than anything else, which really isn't what I expected from something labelled "Chow Mein". It didn't move me like the teriyaki beef, but it's a neat change of pace from typical Oriental-themed fare.

5. It was one-and-a-quarter U.S. dollars. Not precisely college-staple-level cheap, but cheaper than some of the import bowls I've had. If they eschewed some of the fancier aspects of the packaging, I'll bet they could drop the price significantly and make a killing.

All right, so there's a Chicken and a Thai Peanut to look forward to later on. (In time-time-time, see what's become of me!)

Numbers: packaging 4, preparation 4, heat 1, flavour 3, overall 4
Music: The Bangles - Hazy Shade of Winter (hey, I like the cover)


Ottogi "Jjajang Noodle"

Brand: Ottogi
Flavour: Jjajang Noodle
Format: brick-in-packet
Packets: three
Identifiables: noodle brick, veggie bits, oil, flavour powder
Sodium: 1.20 grams

I ain't happy, I'm feelin' glad
I got ramen in a bag
I'm hungry but not for long
My taste buds are going strong.

(apologies to Two-D)

I had help on this one. My lovely wife elected to assist me on yet another experiment, a world-changing experiment (I'm certain) in ramen enjoyment. Armed with my Joker Pair of IKEA chopsticks (one cyan, one black) I ventured forth!

Three packets. Three! I thought this might be a simple review this time, but no, it taunted me. One flavour packet, one veggie packet, and one oil packet. A known combination, yet alien to most noodles destined for Western audiences. I allowed her to prepare according to directions, and I shall share the second half of those directions with you, valued readers.

2. Turn off the heat and drain water, leaving 7—8 spoons of water, add powder soup and oil stock to the noodle, stir well and serve.

Take a breath! That was a lot for one sentence.

Here, hunched over this bowl.... I usually don't take too close a look at my ramen, and this ramen should be noted as an exceptional example of why. It is, quite frankly, disgusting to behold. Thick, muddy ichor surrounding reconstituted vegetables. Most people would not want this... ah, but the taste!

Dark, beefy, with some soy, some onion, definite black bean... this is why I enjoy jjajang, however it's spelled. It's kind of like a dark beer. This is a fairly decent specimen, a little bland, but also not too salty, which is important. The noodles are a bit long for this kind of sauce, as they cannot be slurped with any sort of decorum. They defy decorum. It's like instead of boiling in water, you have to expose them to decorum and they absorb that and become cooked. Boil decorum, add noodles, stir, serve.

The dish does, however, taste better than it looks.

Numbers: packaging 4, preparation 2, heat 1, flavour 3, overall 3
Music: Gorillaz - Gorillaz - Clint Eastwood


My wife and one of our flatmates were enjoying that commonest of prepare-in-package ramens, Nissin "Cup Noodles: Chicken Flavor". (These have the local short name of "cup noodle". My favourites are the ones with little dried prawns in.) As said flatmate finished her noodles, my wife suggested:

"What you do now is, you take the still-warm broth from that, pour it into another cup noodle, and fill the rest with hot water and let it cook. You get double-strong broth that way."

I stared in abject horror. I married this... this... defiler of ramen?

"I call it 'hot-brothing'," she gleefully admitted. "Or, alternatively, 'chain noodling'."

I consider this to be anathema, which means wonderfully demented and dementedly wonderful. Does anybody else do this? What names do you have for this unthinkable act?

I feel like I've somehow lost my innocence.


Ottogi "Ramyon Bokki"

Brand: Ottogi
Flavour: Ramyon Bokki
Format: cardboard bowl
Packets: two
Identifiables: noodle disc, veggie bits, soup base
Sodium: (amount of sodium in grams, not milligrams)

I can't seem to face up to the facts
I'm brave and hungry and I can't relax
I can't sleep 'cause my mouth's on fire
Don't judge me, noodles are my desire

(Apologies to Talking Heads)

This'll be a short one, friends, 'cause there's not a whole lot to tell. It's a pretty standard bowl with a slightly sub-standard lid (it tore as I tried to open it, but in its defence, it also has to be easily punctured by chopsticks – keep reading) and two Korean-labelled packets inside, one of dried veggie bits (it has a spiraly thing in it, so it must be good!) and one of soup base. The noodles are dead average for ramen, and the cooking directions are nothing special: add boiling water, wait four minutes. So I did.

That's when things diverged slightly. The instructions indicated an area on the lid to be poked open (the markers are conveniently chopstick-sized) such that the noodles could be drained. I did so, carefully, nearly scalding myself despite that caution. This sort of thing is always tricky. Then I added the barbecue-sauce-like soup base. All of it. When something says, "Adjust amount to taste," I just do what any good American would do and add the entirety of said ingredient and plan to sue if things don't turn out well.

They turned out well. The resulting sauce tasted more like somewhat sweet kimchi than anything. In fact, it actually reminded me more of kimchi than any ramen I've had thus far labelled "kimchi flavour" so I'd call that a win. It's pretty darn spicy – not intolerably so for me, but it might be for most people I know – so it's a high four, but a four nonetheless. Darn good showing for Ottogi!

I hate to say it, but if I've made any error with Batch Two: Revenge of the Noodle, it's that so far they've all been pretty good. Not much revenge so far, eh?

Spicy Ramen
Qu'est-ce que c'est?
Hot hot hot hot, hot hot hot hot hot hot, better
run run run run run run run away

Numbers: packaging 2, preparation 2, heat 4, flavour 5, overall 4
Music: Talking Heads - Rock Band 2 (X360) - Psycho Killer


Myojo Chukazanmai "Japanese Style Noodles With Soup Base: Soybean Paste Flavor"

Brand: Myojo Chukazanmai
Flavour: Japanese Style Noodles With Soup Base: Soybean Paste Flavor
Format: brick-in-paper-packet
Packets: two
Identifiables: noodle brick, flavour powder, soup base
Sodium: 3.16 grams

Maruchan, Maruchan
Does whatever a ramen can
Is it good? Listen, dude
It is cheaper than real food
Look out! Here comes the Maruchan!

(apologies to Stan Lee)

All right, so the brand isn't Maruchan, but practically everyone has eaten Maruchan already and it fit the song, so cut me some slack. In fact, today's brand wouldn't fit in any song, except maybe one of the hyper ones that you hear at the start of any given cartoon aimed at the too-young-to-know-better (or too-otaku-to-have-sense) set. I tried finding a shorter brand name, but to no avail. This stuff is straight from Tokyo, baby.

I read the back of the package, dodging Japanese all the way. Aside from finding that it contains "soy, wheat, fishes and milk ingredients", I spotted the directions. They read, quite simply (and as verbatim as possible):

1. Add noodles to 2½cups boiling water. Simmer 4 minutes, stirring occasionally.
2. Remove from heat. Mix in contents of both dry and liquid seasoning packets.

That's it. Nowhere does it say "enjoy" or "serve" or even just plain "eat". Was the assumption that I would know what to do with it once I got the rest done, or was this omission perhaps a subtle warning? Japan, like the southern U.S., is a land riddled with foods which seem to have been devised primarily for the purpose of placing bets. I found myself in a gamble.

Upon opening the paper wrapper – no, really, it's glossy paper, like dry soup mixes often come in – I found a depressed-looking (read: slightly trapezoidal) yellow noodle brick and two packets labelled entirely in Japanese. The noodles went into Johann's boiling water, and almost instantly I detected a somewhat eggy smell, even though there's nothing egg-related in the ingredient list. I spent four minutes wondering if I had been taken in by a flashy package once too often. Once the time was up, I tossed in the flavour powder, squeezed the paste-like red-orange contents of the soup base packet into the pot, and stirred.

A familiar sesame-and-soy scent tickled me. The little dishes of sauce often served with pot stickers? Yeah, that was precisely the smell of the finished soup. Good news for those who enjoy that stuff, because this is like a bowl full of an orange-coloured noodle-soup version of that oily, sweet goodness, complete with sesame seeds and little bits of onion. Once my chopsticks got going, they didn't stop. The odds may have been against me, but once more, I triumphed. About the only downside is well, this stuff is incredibly salty, and as tasty as the broth is, it's very oily, so the gamble with taste may end up being a gamble with, uh... well, let's just wrap this up and say: With great ramen comes great responsibility.

Have you ever actually listened to the lyrics to the Spiderman theme? Oh, man.

Numbers: packaging 3, preparation 2, heat 2, flavour 4, overall 4
Music: Ramones - Saturday Morning Cartoons' Greatest Hits - Spiderman


Nissin "Chow Mein: Teriyaki Beef Flavor"

Brand: Nissin
Flavour: Chow Mein: Teriyaki Beef Flavor
Format: plastic tray
Packets: two
Identifiables: noodle brick, veggie bits, soup base
Sodium: 1.50 grams

Hot water to the line, three minutes' cooking time
Things to taste, no time to waste – Ramen Rainbow!
I can eat anything!
So come and take a ramen break – Ramen Rainbow!

(apologies to Geordi LaForge)

Let's talk about packaging. Actually, I'll write about packaging and you can read and respond when the post is over, dig?

I could get into the differences in visual style between products meant for overseas markets and products meant for the United States. It'd be interesting to perhaps three of my readers, and really, I'm not quite a graphic design expert, so it'd be absurd. I can go on about the functionality of a package, however, because I have to use it. When I saw that the cooking instructions for this particular dish were printed on the wrinkly cellophone near the seam on the back of the package, I cringed. Good luck getting the wrapper off and keeping those directions intact, Keet.

Amazingly, the cellophane wrapper practically obliged my efforts to open it, and it came apart very neatly right along the seams, leaving the instructions intact. When I flipped the package over, I saw the very same instructions printed both in English and Spanish right on the lid, so even if I'd torn that cellophane open like Cookie Monster, I'd have been just fine. It's almost like somebody actually planned ahead for this. Spooky.

I pulled the lid halfway back (a little tough, but the lid didn't tear apart so it's okay), emptied the packet of dried veggies (they always smell like the pellets one feeds to guinea pigs) into the tray, poured in room-temperature water (as directed, go fig) up to the fill line, and set it to be mauled by microwave energy for six minutes. If only the package had come with a plastic fork included, it would have earned a five, simply because all that was needed was a microwave. Once cooked, I opened the liquid packet and poured it in. There was a little clear liquid – certainly oil – and then a brown ichor which smelled of teriyaki sauce, but not the disgustingly sweet sort. I stirred, then sampled.

Here's where the dish truly wins. The flavour is very well balanced, beefy but soyish but oniony but just a little sweet. The flat noodles are perfectly cooked, a little toothy but not at all crunchy. The vegetables have just enough texture to add variety. About the only way I could think of to improve the dish would be to have a spicier version. Dear friends, I may have to bump yesterday's chajang down a notch. I think, given a choice between the two, I would take this one.

Remember that I found this in a standard supermarket, one of the stores that's basically a Kroger with a different name. You, the reader, can almost certainly find this stuff near you, and possibly even in several places. Buy at least one of these – comparison shop for price if you must – and see for yourself. It's good stuff....

...but, don't take my word for it!

Numbers: packaging 4, preparation 4, heat 1, flavour 5, overall 5
Music: 8bit Betty - Too Bleep to Blop - Reading Rainbow


Nong Shim "Big Bowl Noodle (Chajang Flavor)"

Brand: Nong Shim
Flavour: Big Bowl Noodle (Chajang Flavor)
Format: cardboard bowl
Packets: one
Identifiables: noodle frustum, veggie bits, flavour powder
Sodium: 2.20 grams

It's time to boil the water
It's time to cook it right
It's time to eat the noodles
On the ramen blog tonight!

(with apologies to the Muppet Show)

Welcome to Cheaper Than Food: the Ramen Break, returning from brief hiatus for the next challenge, Batch Two: Revenge of the Noodle. What else can I say? I couldn't stay away for long, not when I had that glorious stack just waiting for me, right? So I got started with the noodle bowl that made a true believer out of me long before this journal of noodley excess got started.

The lid was harder to pull off than I recall. There's a thin plastic lining inside of these cardboard bowls, and it clung tenaciously to the foil cover until I poked at it a little bit, then it separated just fine. This does mean the packaging is bumped back to a normal value; I'd have been tempted to give it better than that simply because the bowl is sturdy otherwise.

I peeled the lid halfway back, started some water to boil, and reflected on my life as I opened the foil flavour packet. One of my favourite dishes at a local Korean place in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was something they called ja jang myun (which I've also seen transliterated as "chajang myung", "jjajang myun", and "that beefy soyish noodle stuff".) I loved it then for its thick, richly-flavoured sauce, vegetables, and filling nature. How could an instant noodle bowl compare?

To be fair, it can't. One doesn't put fresh vegetables in an instant noodle bowl. The sauce will certainly be saltier. The experience of slowly sipping tea and taking in the scent of a good meal while listening to gentle chatter in an unknown language in the background simply will not be there. Especially troubling was when I removed the lid after three minutes to find watery broth and a lump of what looked like wet soil on top of the noodle mass. I would not be deterred from lunch, however, so I stirred...

...and a miracle occurred. The watery broth, once mixed with the sodden mass of soup base, became almost a thick paste just as I would expect from a freshly-made dish. Smells of beef and soy and onion came up to greet me. The vegetables were well-hidden in the chocolate-coloured sauce. I stood in my kitchen, transported twelve years back in time to that restaurant.

So, how did it taste? I put my red IKEA chopsticks to work, and soon found the results pleasing. Every bit of the smell of the dish was in its flavour, and more. True, it's rather salty, but well worth it. The veggies do have a habit of hiding at the bottom, so a quick stir halfway through the meal reveals a whole new side to it as the crunchy bits come into play. It's a satisfying meal in a way that few instant products can hope to achieve when the only ingredient added is hot water... especially for well under two bucks (if I recall correctly; I have the receipt from Pal-Do World around here somewhere.)

There you have it. Welcome back, and remember to tell your friends that in this troubled and confusing world of instant lunches, there's one place you can go for reliable and honest ramen reviews.

And now let's get things started
(Why don't you get things started?)
It's time to get things started
On the most comestible, taste contestable, gastrointestinal, noodle festival
This is what we call the Ramen Blog!

*blows trumpet, explodes*

Numbers: packaging 3, preparation 4, heat 1, flavour 5, overall 5
Music: the Muppet Show theme