Paldo "Hwa Cup"

Brand: Paldo
Flavour: Hwa Cup
Format: paper cup
Packets: one
Identifiables: noodle frustum, veggie bits, flavour powder
Sodium: (amount of sodium in grams, not milligrams)

Yes, it's good to see you again also, but let's get down to brass tacks, shall we?

Instant noodles are one of those little underrated joys of life. Instant noodles that come in a convenient cup are doubly so. It's no wonder that when somebody comes up with a popular taste, the next logical step is to put it in a cup. For Nong Shim, this meant converting Shin Ramyun into Shin Cup. For Paldo, it meant creating a whole new flavour and putting it in a cup that looks like Shin Cup. They call it Hwa Cup.

The Hwa Cup stands tall and proud like the Shin Cup, and the art on the cup looks highly similar from first glance. It has a strong red-and-black theme and large, imposing-looking brushed kanji ("spicy" for the Shin, "fire for the Hwa). The font choices are similar. Honestly, it looks like it's meant to draw in people who really wanted Shin Cup and found this to be twenty cents cheaper on sale. That's clever, but slightly disingenuous, I'd think. Regardless, it's worth a try, and since I got one with my Ramenbox....

The catch with the paper cup is that the foil lid is securely glued to it such that the cup deforms on trying to remove it. A little finesse and patience see it liberated cleanly, but there's such a thing as too secure. Once inside, a cluttered-looking foil packet sits on top of fewer noodles and more veggies than expected. Once the packet is dumped into the cup, it takes only a cup of boiling water and three minutes to get fully cooked ramen.

The broth is surprisingly dark red-brown and moderately oily. It carries a spicy vegetable taste which isn't bad but comes off as slightly hollow because of all the added glutamates; without any particular meat or mushroom flavour to back them up, they seem a little artificial, but not bad. The noodles are a little more rubbery than I'd expect, and their flavour is also slightly unusual in a not-quite-normal way that I can't describe very well. Maybe it's from all that soy peptide.

The final verdict? If you're looking for a vegetarian equivalent to the much-beloved but beef-based Shin noodles, Paldo's Hwa noodles are a bit less spicy but well worth looking into.

Numbers: packaging 2, preparation 3, heat 3, flavour 4, overall 4
Music: Gershon Kingsley - Music To Moog By - Pop Corn


Sapporo Ichiban "Chowmein"

Brand: Sapporo Ichiban
Flavour: Chowmein
Format: brick-in-packet
Packets: two
Identifiables: noodle brick, flavour powder, dried seaweed
Sodium: 0.94 grams

Let's be reasonable, dear friends. None of us is about to read a label that insists on splitting three-and-a-quarter ounces of noodles between three servings, and especially not if the noodles are as tasty as these. Get a packet and make certain that it's all yours. After the disappointment of the first Sapporo Ichiban noodles I tried I was ready for something cheap, but these blew me away.

The packaging is somewhat more handsome than those other noodles, for a start. It's still somewhat garish and blocky, but in a friendly way. The directions are unusual, though; instead of a number of minutes, the noodles are to be stirred in merely one cup of boiling water until they absorb it all. This turns out to work rather well in practice. Then one mixes in the seasoning packet (the foil one misleadingly labelled "soup base") and top with dried seaweed (the translucent white packet which reads "Green Laver".) The end result is a bowl of noodles coated in a dark brown sauce and little green specks on top.

The flavour is fairly close to perfect. There's the same sweet-umami-salty combo familiar to all the "Mi goreng" noodles I've reviewed, and the seaweed complements it perfectly. There's even just a hint of spice, but not enough to scare off anyone with a low tolerance for such. It actually tastes somewhat of Worcestershire sauce, which isn't a bad thing... and looking at the lengthy ingredients list, that's actually in there. The noodles are firm and well-textured, and they carry the sauce well.

If you haven't yet put together a Ramenbox, there's still time to fill one at the grand opening prices (and with the discount code of CHEAPERTHANFOOD) so I highly recommend this as one of your choices. (In fact, my first Ramenbox is running out quickly....)

Numbers: packaging 3, preparation 2, heat 1, flavour 5, overall 5
Music: Wave Master - Sonic Advance 3 (GBA) - Sunset Hill Act 2


Wu-Mu "Spicy Flavor Tomato Ramen"

Brand: Wu-Mu
Flavour: Spicy Flavor Tomato Ramen
Format: brick-in-packet (times four)
Packets: two (times four)
Identifiables: noodle brick, dried veggies, flavouring sand, chili oil
Sodium: 1.78 grams

My wife elected to come home for lunch and join me in a ramen review. Naturally, I thought back to the previous Wu-Mu offering and decided to try the other four-pack of theirs. That way we could each have our own bowl. This one takes up three slots in a Ramenbox, which is fair given how much ramen is in it. It's a friendly package, though typographically insane; there are six different typefaces in use for the English text and four for the Chinese!

The directions for cooking are similar, also, including having to dig around in the Chinese text for the amount of water. Amazingly, this one recommends 600cc of water, which means quite a bit of broth. The packets – which really do have to be cut apart to be used – are in a similar configuration, with the foil one holding dehydrated veggies and some flavouring powder and the clear one holding a bright red-orange oil. The noodles themselves are slightly orange also on account of having tomato paste as one of the ingredients. This is where the lycopene comes in, as proclaimed on the front of the package.

Then again, let's talk about the package. It's full of slightly askew English and odd claims. One corner of the front of the package states, "Approved by BSI ISO 9001 and excellent food GMP in Taiwan." We generally don't think about everyday food being approved by any particular organisation unless it's meat, and even then, we tend to just assume. It's a bit eye-opening to see it out in the open like that. On the side, a line reads, "Credited as model company for sanitition." Well then. I feel safer already.

The noodles are fairly average in texture and taste. The broth absorbs well into them, lending a rather spicy blend of tomato, sesame, and coriander flavours. Coriander being the same thing as cilantro, the sensitive folks may want to steer clear; my wife turned out to not care for that aspect of the flavour. I enjoyed it, though there's a rather odd slightly skunky aftertaste I just can't seem to place. The vegetables consist mostly of pepper rings, though there are bits of carrot in there and a mushroom labelled in the ingredients list as "Jew's Ear", oddly enough.

I'll enjoy the rest of these noodles, but next time I'll likely use less water.

Added note: Make sure you wat it when it's hot. Don't let it stand and cool down at all, because the flavours seems to mutate into being... kind of barfy, really. I don't know if I should dock it a point for that....

Numbers: packaging 2, preparation 2, heat 3, flavour 3, overall 3
Music: Sigur Rós - Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust - Góðan Daginn


Annie Chun's "Udon Soup Bowl"

Brand: Annie Chun's
Flavour: Udon Soup Bowl
Format: plastic bowl
Packets: three
Identifiables: noodle mat, flavouring liquid, brick-o-stuff
Sodium: 0.92 grams

I've been eating instant noodles for a long time. I wasn't quite raised on them, any more than I was raised on Lucky Charms or hot dogs or any of the other lifespan-shortening foods I ate when young. I do recall my father preparing the ramen and throwing extras in. He'd add a little dried seaweed here and there, or minced onion, or perhaps chopped up bits of mystery lunchmeat, or whatever seemed like it might go in nicely. He'd been to Korea, and apparently he'd learned the wise ways of turning several bits of cheap food into something a little more interesting than any single component would have been. Now I'm older than he was when he started getting really creative with ramen, and I appreciate the technique more than ever.

This, friends, is why it seems absurd to read the label of a higher-priced fancy instant noodle like Annie Chun's Udon Soup Bowl – the one that proudly proclaims that it includes all-natural vegan bok choy and shiitake mushrooms in an earth-friendly biodegradable bowl – and see that it suggests adding more shiitake or some sliced tofu or cooked shrimp or chicken for "an even more flavorful soup". Who keeps spare cooked shrimp just sitting around? And at this price, shouldn't there already be plenty of mushrooms?

Nonetheless, I took a break from my Ramenbox and, at the encouragement of one of my loyal readers, reviewed one of the bowls I'd received from Pat McK. so long ago. This one has outer packaging meant to invoke the rich colours of an expensive Japanese restaurant. Once the cardboard sheath is off and the cellophane is removed, an ivory-coloured bowl opens to reveal a sealed packet of thick pre-cooked noodles, a fuchsia-coloured packet with liquid soup base which turns out to be mostly soy sauce, and a white packet with a brick of dehydrated stuff. What stuff? Authentic Japanese stuff, most assuredly.

The instructions are confounding. They're readable enough, being in plain and error-free English, but I will reproduce them here with commentary in parentheses:

Microwave Cooking Directions: (I usually worry when these are listed first.)
1. Place noodles in bowl and pour a cup of hot water over the noodles to soften. (They didn't soften. How long was I supposed to steep them?)
2. Using lid, drain water from noodles. (Does this mean the cooking is done?)
3. Add soup base and toppings to moistened noodles. (The toppings are more like one single topping brick.)
4. Add 1 to 1¼ cups of water and loosely cover with lid. (Not the same water I poured out, then? And why isn't there a measuring line inside the bowl?)
5. Microwave on high for 1–2 minutes, until noodles are hot. (I gave them a minute and a half and they were still sort of tepid. One minute? Not likely.)
6. Stir well and enjoy! (The stirring is necessary, as the topping hadn't completely separated into bits.)
No microwave? Add 1 to 1¼ cups boiling water to soup base, toppings, and noodles. Cover with lid and let stand 2 minutes. (Wait... isn't this easier? Wouldn't this make more sense? How do the microwave directions help at all?)

The result is a bowl of softer noodles in medium-dark brown broth, a splendid array of vegetables, and some things that might be intended to stand in for fried tofu but come across more like drowned pork rinds. The flavour is... confusing. On one hand, there certainly is plenty of the much-heralded umami component, that essential fifth axis along which all tastes are measured. On the other, the noodles taste and smell more like soggy Play-Doh than anything one would eat past the age of four. I don't recall udon tasting quite like this before. I'll have to refresh my memory at one of those expensive Japanese restaurants I mentioned. Unfortunately, the flavour is further sunk by stale-tasting vegetables and the mystery strips. It's just not meant to be.

Overall, I can't really recommend this, but I'm open to comments from anyone else who's tried the same stuff and found it pleasant. Perhaps it must be consumed immediately after manufacture, before the Play-Doh sets. That's not the way this bowl should remind me of my childhood.

Numbers: packaging 4, preparation 2/3, heat 0, flavour 1, overall 2
Music: ott - skylon - rogue bagel