News: Instant Noodle Recall

In the interest of safety, I'll repeat this rather relevant bit of news here:

In the United States, Jin Mai Lang brand instant noodles are being recalled. The reason given is that federal regulations regarding product inspection have not been met. This means that the health risk is low, but may be present. Just thought my readers should know. And no, I haven't reviewed anything by this brand yet.


Wu-Mu "Dr. Noodle: Shiitake Flavor Spinach Ramen"

Brand: Wu-Mu
Flavour: Dr. Noodle: Shiitake Flavor Spinach Ramen
Format: brick-in-packet (times four)
Packets: two (times four)
Identifiables: green noodle brick, dried veggies, salt, spotty oily stuff
Sodium: 1.24 grams

This morning, I woke to find my wife eating ramen for breakfast. It turns out that she couldn't help herself when faced with a large, friendly package with a large, friendly line-art doctor on it. I'm not sure what this means for our relationship, but speculations about that would have to wait. At any rate, this is why the pictures of the package appear after having already been opened.

One of the types of instant noodle offered by Ramenbox is a large green-hued package by the Taiwanese "Dr. Noodle". It takes up three slots in a Ramenbox, but since the package turns out to hold a plastic tray with four individual ramen bricks and (more or less) separate packets for each, it's a good deal. Once the package is open, the choice is yours; you can share with friends by making all four packets at once, store the rest in a sealed container for later, or even put them in small plastic sandwich bags to bring to work. This is an economical way to do ramen.

The amusing part – or the frustrating part, depending – is that the English text on the package is somewhat troubled. The entirety of the directions are as follows:
  • Stir 1 piece of noodles in boiling water.

  • Stir 3 minutes.

  • Add the spice of source and stir 1 minute, then you can enjoy the delicious ramen.

This meant that from that moment forward, I would think of Ramenbox as "the Spice of Source". It also means that I had no blinking idea how much water to boil! I had to pull aside the flap covering the illustrations to find the Chinese directions, and then decode the Chinese numerals before the "cc" unit notation. It turns out that 500cc is the recommended amount, which works out to a little over two Imperial cups. Once boiling, I slid in one of the healthy-looking green-tinted noodle bricks. (The packaging is fairly clear on the health benefits of noodle bricks which aren't fried, even offering a chart of fat levels, though I can't help but wonder how concerned they really are about health if they're using hydrogenated oil in the flavour packet. Ah well.)

The flavour packets aren't precisely singular. They come in pairs. Two of the pairs are foil packets with dehydrated vegetables and salt in them; the other two pair are translucent and show some sort of dark brown fluid with white oily spots throughout. They're well-pinked, though separating one half from the other for each pair requires either scissors or a willingness to be very, very careful about tearing them apart by hand as my wife apparently did.

The flavour is... green. There's spinach and cilantro to spare, here. The shiitake adds some depth, but this noodle is definitely all about the greens, and that's in no way a bad thing. The noodles have a suitable mouthfeel, neither too firm nor too mushy, and the occasional mushroom or carrot bit livens up the appearance if not the texture. The broth is somewhat oily, however. In total, I'm not sure I can really put this on my recommendations list, but I'm not scratching it off, either. It would be a nice change of pace from meat-flavoured ramen with little vegetable influence, but if you're picking these up, there's a wide range available anyhow. I look forward to trying this brand's other offering.

"You can set your mind at ease, because we can guarantee your expenditure!"

Numbers: packaging 3, preparation 2, heat 1, flavour 3, overall 3
Music: Faith No More - Album Of The Year - Pristina


Ve Wong "Mì Bò Hu'o'ng Cay Kháu Vị (Artificial Peppered Beef Flavor)"

Brand: Ve Wong
Flavour: Mì Bò Hu'o'ng Cay Kháu Vị (Artificial Peppered Beef Flavor)
Format: brick-in-packet
Packets: two
Identifiables: noodle brick, oily sludge, veggie bits, flavour powder
Sodium: 1.71 grams

Today, I wanted to get one more review in before I'm on holiday for a week. I dug around the Ramenbox I received, looking for one of the scarier packets... just for you, my valued readers.

There's a backwards cultural conditioning we have which insists that "natural" is better than "artificial". Food science has come a long way, hwoever, so this isn't always the case. Artificial flavourings were one primitive mockeries of their inspirations. Now, the artificial can sometimes taste even better to us than the original because it's consistent, controllable, and much less likely to turn or spoil. Still, people have their old habits, and that's why most packaging downplays the presence of artificial flavours as much as the law will allow. Ve Wong takes a different approach. They come right out and say, "This flavour is artificial peppered beef. You'll like it." The question is... will I?

The unusually shiny packet has silver-finish areas in the background and a very modern-looking grid which may be orange to signify beef, or may simply be orange because it's cheerful. How frequently does one see words bearing two apostrophes, outside of dubious fantasy novels? Frequently, when one is reading Vietnamese; that explains the odd title of this post (which may or may not show up properly, depending.) The package also has plenty of Chinese on it, which means your humble ramen-blogger has no hope of translating it. The Vietnamese, though, works out to "fragrant plant beef flavour noodle," I think. That's close enough to "peppered beef" for me!

The packet's contents are slightly thicker than the average. There are plenty of noodles inside, in a brick which seems slightly more cooked on one side than the other. That seems natural enough. One of the inner sachets is labelled "flavouring oil" and contains a grainy, orange-and-brown oil mixture with a strange vaguely-beefy scent. The other sachet holds light-coloured powder and dessicated veggies of varied types. It's all as straightforward as the average ramen, except that the directions for cooking include both in-the-pot (boil everything together with two cups of water for two minutes) and in-the-bowl, which I followed. That simply meant opening all the ingredients into the bowl, adding two cups of boiling water, and letting stand covered for three minutes. Who don't more ramen packets have these sort of instructions? They'd make my life much easier.

The results? Yet again, I finish lunch before the review's done, and even completely forget to get a photo of the finished product. The noodles have a good texture and slurp easily. The broth is a bit on the salty and oily side, but slightly spicy, full of convincingly beefy flavour and satisfying bits of cabbage and such. Dark brown bits of flavoured soy protein added the visual effect of beef in the dish, but little texture. Overall, there's nothing to fear from the artificial flavouring, and I recommend this ramen rather highly.

Corporate shill postscript: Remember, if you want to order some, head to Ramenbox and look for it there. Use the coupon code "CHEAPERTHANFOOD" to get it for ten percent off!

Numbers: packaging 3, preparation 3, heat 2, flavour 4, overall 4
Music: Nintendo Sound Team - Yoshi's Cookie (SNES) - High-Speed Baking Action!


Unif Tung-I "Chinese Onion Flavor"

Brand: Unif Tung-I
Flavour: Chinese Onion Flavor
Format: cloud-in-packet
Packets: two
Identifiables: noodle cloud, oniony oil, flavour sand, dried chives
Sodium: 0.88 grams

This being the bonus ramen I got with my Ramenbox order, it only made sense that I review it first, yes? It's of a brand I've never even seen before, which is a huge bonus and a sight for this noodle blogger's sore eyes.

The packet's look is basically a primer in imported ramen visual design:

  • solid fields in bright primary colours – no gradients here!

  • poorly-kerned text in myriad fonts (not Myriad, which is one specific font) – I count seven, not including two for the company logotypes and one for the bar code

  • near-inexplicable line art – the fellow on front is clearly making ramen, but the directions on back look like a four-year-old's drawing of toaster pastries and a UFO

  • overhead photo of dolled up ramen – this one's got all kinds of meaty-looking stuff and a pea-pod! I'll have what they're having....

  • inner packets haven't a lick of English on them – not that this matters because they all go in at the same time

Turning this pale ivory cloud of gossamer rice threads into lunch is fairly straightforward. It starts with two cups of boiling water, though it's here that I trip up. Two cups of what size? This would seem to be eight ounces, but I've also seen packages give a metric equivalent that worked out to six ounces per cup (as in teacups) so I erred toward the latter, expecting that the worst to happen would be over-strong broth. The directions proceed: cook for three minutes (and the package notes specifically, don't overcook them) then stir in the contents of the well-pinked packets and serve. One packet holds a semi-solid oil with gritty bits in it, and I recognise this as being the same oniony oil experience so often in other instant noodle packages. The other holds what looks like sand but is certainly flavouring powder and salt, along with dried chives. Once stirred into the just-boiled noodles and broth, the oil and sand dissolve nicely and the chives reconstitute.

The result did turn out to be a strong, salty broth and perfectly-cooked rice noodles. In fact, the noodles fell apart just right to be picked up in small wads by the chopsticks provided by Ramenbox — and only once writing this did I realise that I'd neglected to photograph the completed cooked product, so instead I took a picture of what little was left over. You get the idea; imagine that but more of it, but only for a brief time. I found myself eagerly slurping up the simple, slightly-peppery onion broth and noodles with the sort of zeal that belongs only to the good stuff. When I find myself wanting another bowl right after the first, that's how you know it's a winner, friends, and this one is a winner. Even more so, it's what Lucky Me! was trying to be and completely failed at.

This just goes to show that even taking into account the "free food tastes best" phenomenon, good stuff can come in generic, unremarkable packages.

Numbers: packaging 3, preparation 2, heat 1, flavour 4, overall 4
Music: DOKAKA - We Love Katamari (PS2) - Katamari on the Rocks


Corporate shilling, in my blog? It's more likely than you think.

I already mentioned it once but now that I've had the chance to experience the service myself I find myself compelled – both by first impressions and by the deal I made with their marketing guy – to tell you lot all about Ramenbox. Simply put, this is an online shop specialising in ramen first and ramen only. The procedure is simple:

  1. Go to the website at www.ramenbox.com. Isn't it pretty?

  2. Select a tray with a certain number of slots. This will be what you fill with tasty instant noodles.

  3. Peruse their respectable selection of ramen (I've reviewed about half of them before, and there are some reviews on their site!) and add the ones you want to your tray. Each ramen takes up a certain number of slots; most of them take one, but large ones can go up to three.

  4. Check out, wait for shipping, and receive ramen.

But wait, there's more! The tray I received showed up with a bonus package which contained a few pairs of classy branded chopsticks (the square sort that always split unevenly, but that's part of the charm), a few packets of sriracha hot sauce, a cute Ramenbox sticker (maybe I'll put it on my PC case... or my laptop, if they pay me with more ramen) and – perhaps this is just because they're buttering me up – a super-secret bonus packet of ramen which I'll also be reviewing today. Looking at the spread I'm admittedly impressed. Every item I ordered was expertly packed in the tray (they must have a Tetris expert on the payroll) and the tray itself is a handsome cardboard deal which would sit conveniently on a pantry shelf.

Now, several people have asked me why they would order from Ramenbox when they have a nearby international market. I can offer several good reasons. The selection is pretty much guaranteed to have stuff you've never seen before and would enjoy. Some people don't live anywhere near a decent international market and really shouldn't have to suffer one more packet of Maruchan. Most of all... if being able to command ramen to be delivered to your doorstep isn't cool, then nothing on this blue space-rock is. Push button, get ramen. Oh, and another bonus: If you use the coupon code "CHEAPERTHANFOOD" then you get ten percent off the cost of the entire order just for being readers of this ramen blog. What more could you possibly ask?

Ramen junkies, these folks will hook you up. Seriously. Their slogan is "savor the choice" but I think it should be "We'll hook you up, ramen junkie." And they will.

That free ramen was totally worth the six bucks and the advertisement.


Knorr "AsianSides: Teriyaki Noodles"

Brand: Knorr
Flavour: AsianSides: Teriyaki Noodles
Format: paper pouch
Packets: zero
Identifiables: noodle pieces, flavour powder, veggie bits
Sodium: 1.58 grams

This packet bills itself as a side dish, but I know instant noodles when I see them. If the marketroids at Knorr want to pretend that this food is somehow Asian, then it gets a review. Teriyaki flavoured? Definitely.

The first thing I notice on the package – besides the photo of perfect, if truncated, lo mein on the front – is that the cooking directions are simple, but booby-trapped. They start with one and a half cups of water, then immediately suggest a tablespoon of vegetable oil. Even if the word "optional" is right there in parentheses, that's always a little troubling. Is there some need for oil that couldn't have been served by, I don't know, adding more oil to the manufactured noodles, or parhaps a small packet inside like any other instant noodle? Oh, I get it; this is meant not for starving teens in college, but for busy people who are making dinner for other busy people. Of course they have vegetable oil just sitting about, waiting to come to life in a dish! We're supposed to be Alton Brown or something Vegetable oil! Fancy.

I used safflower oil. Hey, no trans fats!

Once the oily water was at a boil, I poured the package contents in. This consisted of noodles, what appeared to be the noodles; weight in flavouring powder, and small withered bits of dehydrated carrots and leeks. The noodles started tumbling in the boiling water, but the vegetables all clumped up at one end and formed an unsettling dark green menace which slowly bubbled toward me. I knew that I had only one hope for survival. I grabbed a spoon and stirred the rapidly rehydrating plant matter in with the rest of the dish. Dispersed that thoroughly, it couldn't possibly retain cohesion enough to strike! That's right... the world saved once more by the Electric Keet's quick thinking.

After seven minutes' simmering, the liquid in the pot had reduced to a thicker sauce-like consistency. It was then that I realised that the (optional) oil was far from (optional); it would mean the avoidance of several minutes of trying to scrape burnt noodles off of the pan. I slid the meal easily into a bowl, and thought... wow, perhaps that really is two servings' worth as the package insists. Then I remembered that I was making lunch, not a side, and I dug in hungrily – after two more minutes' waiting as directed on the package. Seriously, nine minutes of preparation? That's two to three times most instant noodles, and reaching macaroni-and-cheese levels of agonising wait.

The noodles end up having a rather sturdy consistency, which is good but entirely different from ramen. The sauce is nice and satisfyingly thick. The flavour is... well, it's typically American teriyaki sauce, a little too salty and corn-syrup sweet. It wasn't bad, but it felt excessive. Do they think we can't taste things otherwise? It wasn't excessive enough to keep me from finishing the bowl before I finished the review, though, and that's usually a good sign.

The same company making "AsianSides" also makes "PastaSides", "FiestaSides", and "SidesPlus". Those are for different blogs, however.

Numbers: packaging 3, preparation 2, heat 0, flavour 3, overall 3
Music: Taro Bando, Hajimi Wakai - F-Zero X (N64) - Dream Chaser


Tradition "Instant Noodle Soup: Vegetable Style"

Brand: Tradition
Flavour: Instant Noodle Soup: Vegetable Style
Format: styrofoam cup
Packets: zero
Identifiables: noodle frustum, dried veggies
Sodium: 1.26 grams

When I speak of non-English written languages on ramen packaging, they tend to fall within a certain group. Given the origin of instant noodles, it makes perfect sense that the most common are Korean, Japanese, Thai, and Chinese. I'll occasionally see French or Arabic as translations for export to a wide spectrum of different nations. Today, however, I find myself looking at perhaps the rarest of the lot thus far, Hebrew.

Hebrew? Yes. Granted, there's not that much of it, but this cup of ramen prides itself on being not only kosher but pareve, meaning it doesn't count as either dairy or meat. This cup is a standard paper-lidded add-boiling-water-and-wait-three-minutes deal. The only unusual factor about it is that a stiff cellophane ring keeps the paper lid on, but it has no visible perforations and, out of desire to keep from tearing the weaker styrofoam cup, can only be removed by cutting.

Having grown up in a half-Jewish family, I keep wanting to make off-colour jokes about all of this, but now that I'm a corporate shill (or will be once those codes show up tomorrow!) I have to be careful not to offend anybody.

What I certainly can say is that being kosher may redeem this foodstuff in the eyes of Orthodox Jews, but the rest of us would be happier with other options – Maruchan, even! This ramen's flavour is underwhelming, more blandly cardboardish then anything. The noodles have an acceptable texture. The vegetables add a little taste, but there's honestly not much to detect here flavour-wise other than salt and monosodium glutamate. Less than halfway through the cup, I gave up and squirted some off-brand sriracha in there so it would taste like something, and that worked. Steer clear of this one unless you're trying to impress Uncle Moshe.

Numbers: packaging 2, preparation 4, heat 0, flavour 2, overall 2
Music: Isao Tomita - Holst: The Planets - Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity ~ Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age


Koka "Spicy Black Pepper Flavour"

Brand: Koka
Flavour: Spicy Black Pepper Flavour
Format: brick-in-packet
Packets: three
Identifiables: noodle brick, flavour powder, oily sludge, dried veggies
Sodium: 1.29 grams

Some time back, I visited friends in Boston, and at one point we found ourselves in an Asian market. This is always a good chance for me to sniff out strange new varieties of instant noodles, and that is indeed where I found the now-infamous "porc cubes". Alongside those, I found this smartly-designed packet of a Singaporean brand I'd never heard of before, Koka.

The packet does its best to appear like a modern, healthy food. Among the claims highlighted in bold are: "non-fried", "no trans fat", "low fat", and the most amusing, "no MSG added". I can't help but think that I've mentioned before, but monosodium glutamate isn't some scary chemical. It's a bit of salt with glutamate wrapped around it. Glutamates naturally occur in meats, yeasts, and many vegetables; they are what give that fifth flavour we call "umami". MSG doesn't give people headaches any more than salted beef will. Interestingly, the ingredient label for this packet does list "hydrolysed vegetable protein" which is basically a vegetable extract chosen specifically to be loaded with the same stuff as MSG. This is commonplace. Anyone who thinks they've been avoiding MSG has almost certainly been pratically chugging the stuff under a different name. (Now you know!) Also, the front of the packet claims "less than 3% fat" while the back boasts of "1% fat". Granted, this is a fair cut from most ramen, but one wonders why they can't get numbers straight.

Preparation is as straight-forward as most of these sort of packets go. There's a specific call for 350ml of water to boil the noodles in for three minutes, and that does turn out to be just about right. Along with the noodles are the sachets, one of which is a double-decker of the sort that Indomie adores. One of the halves has powder and the other liquid, but the packet is reasonably well-pinked, so it's possible to do this without a scissors for assistance and avoid the mess. These are mixed in after the noodles are cooked.

The last packet is labelled "garnishes" and has a little blurb on one side about what's inside, complete with mojibake (this is an informal term for character shift in digital text as a result of a change of encoding; now you know!) on the word "season's". The summary is that the contents change on a seasonal basis. Apparently the season of manufacture involved large amounts of garlic, which would make it a favourite season of mine, to be sure. The garnish is added to the noodles last, and though there's no instruction to stir it together, it seemed like it simply ought to be.

The noodles definitely take on a strong black pepper flavour with the accompanying long-lasting "heat" of piperine. (That's the chemical in black pepper that gives it bite in the same way capsaicin does in chili peppers. Now you know! I'm just a regular font of knowledge today.) There's also a rather impressive garlic component. Neither of these are bad things in my book, but I'd definitely warn ramen novices that this is not the nice, safe, bland "Oriental flavour" of the more common eight-for-a-dollar brands. The rich broth soaks into the noodles until what's left is a thick sauce similar to the Indian-style Maggi instant noodles, and that sauce is mighty powerful. The garnish adds yet more garlic, a boon to garlic junkies everywhere.

The verdict? If you like chajang or other dark, rich flavours, definitely seek this one out.

Numbers: packaging 3, preparation 2, heat 3, flavour 5, overall 5
Music: Ippo Yamada - Mega Man Zero (GBA) - Neo Arcadia

I find myself compelled on multiple levels to add a special segment called simply, "Electric Keet Sells Out." Last Friday, I recieved a very polite and enthusiastic e-mail from the director of marketing for an interesting new service called Ramenbox. It's like an online grocery, but specifically geared toward instant noodles, featuring a special system whereby one buys by the tray and individual prices are replaced by a number of slots per item. The prices are more or less comparable to the average international market, even once shipping is factored in. They have a decent selection, it seems, and about half of the items there are ones I haven't yet reviewed.

Now, I gather that I'm supposed to help them leverage the integrated opportunities of the value-added blogosphere paradigm to synergise real-time mindshare or something. In return for talking about the service, everybody wins, because not only will my loyal readers find a code for ten percent off their entire Ramenbox order, but I personally get a completely free (for only six dollars!) tray of ramen I can then review for this blog. There's no downside here, right?

As soon as the codes and tray of ramen arrive, I can post the discount code here for you lot, and I'll even give a full review the service. Stay tuned and tell your friends to start reading, because Cheaper Than Food is getting even cheaper!