Ramen noodles are the foodstuff of legend. Before they were a packet of instant, dried-and-fried noodles microwaved by college students, they were painstakingly pulled by Japanese chefs that exactingly honed their craft. Now, this trendy food has barrelled its way into the average American diet, advanced by chefs like David Chang and Ivan Orkin. In the meantime, it’s been refined, that packet of sodium-laden seasoning replaced by simmering tonkotsu broth and dried veggies superseded with the finest of foraged herbs.
But still, the appeal of a packet of instant ramen is undeniable. Almost anyone who has lived on a meager budget has a nostalgic taste for ramen noodles, and I am no exception. My own taste for instant ramen actually started when I was a kid, when my mom would pick up packets as snacks to feed her two ravenous kids. When I first moved out on my own, I survived for actual months on little more than instant ramen and cigarettes. Even now that I’m doing (somewhat) better financially, I still find myself with a frequent craving for the salty, savory snack. Often, I refuse to indulge myself as I do an imaginary inventory of the bucket of salt and creepy chemicals that linger behind those colorful packets.
But when I do fire the kettle and boil a packet of noodles, which is happening more and more these days, I’m almost instantly satisfied by those empty calories, perhaps more so than if I’d chosen a “healthy” option. Even though I’ve long left behind the nuclear-orange macaroni and cheese mixes and frozen pizza snacks (for the most part), I’ve still always thrown a package of instant ramen into my shopping cart on every single trip. There’s a reason for that, and it’s easy to explain.
Sure, it’s not the healthiest choice. Instant ramen is (probably) packed with more sodium than some actual salt mines, and the noodles have been dried and then par-cooked via deep frying which results in a pretty staggering fat content. But you know what? Instant ramen is fucking awesome, and there’s no reason why I (or you) should have to justify its presence on the regular shopping list. Because of ramen, anyone can make an easy meal in three minutes if they’re able to boil water and follow instructions.
My love of instant ramen sits directly at odds with my love of slow food. There’s nothing I enjoy more than braising a hunk of meat or nursing a soup all day, but even I, a wannabe Ina Garten, get too tired to cook. When that happens, instant ramen is there for me. It’s there for me when I’m so hungry that I’m about to collapse (or commit a major felony), and for that, instant ramen deserves to be celebrated.
Of course, my snobby interest in food has led me to even bigger ramen discoveries. A few years back, while sweating it out at a Korean spa, I discovered ramyun, the spicy, chili-laced soup that quickly took over my obsession. Now, I schlep to an Asian grocery 15 minutes away to stock up on cups of Shin Ramyun, inarguably the best Korean ramen of all time. Sometimes, I even allow myself to splurge on the Shin Black, an upscale version of the noodles that comes with a packet that creates an indescribably creamy and rich broth.
But for the most part, I stick with good ol’ Maruchan Ramen. Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly like the Barefoot Contessa, I’ll cut up some fresh scallions (on the bias, duh) and add to the broth at the end. Maybe I even drop in a little sesame and chili oil, like I’m preparing something out of the Momofuku cookbook. Other times, I’ll drop in a fresh egg procured from the farmers’ market until it’s cooked perfectly. But most often, I’ll take my ramen unadorned — salt and fake beef flavor only, please.
There is a certain shame in eating ramen for lunch (or dinner), that’s for sure. Even just pulling one of those packets out of the cupboard can feel like failure. When you ask people what they’re eating and ramen is on the menu, they’ll say “just a cup o’ noodles” or hang their head in shame as they hold up their styrofoam cup of instant Maruchan. We’ve painted ramen noodles into a sad little corner — they’re okay for broke college students, but once you’ve grown up, you’re supposed to have progressed on to pasta all’Amatriciana and red wine. Or at least that’s what they tell us.
I refused to be ashamed of my love for instant ramen, even as I make fun of myself for liking fast food burgers and mechanically-separated chicken nuggets. I’ve started to take food too seriously, and as a result, I’ve deprived myself of things I enjoy. When savored occasionally, ramen noodles can totally be part of a wholesome, generally healthy diet. Your doctor may disagree, but I’m here to tell you that it’s the truth.
So go forth, and buy those ten-cent packets. It’s okay to call them dinner, when in reality you’re just slurping noodles out of a cup over your sink. Ramen is good, ramen is great, just put some damn ramen on your plate. That is, of course, assuming that you feel like it.
Amy McCarthy is Paste’s Assistant Food Editor. She also unabashedly enjoys Velveeta queso dip and other crimes against food. Tweet her your guiltiest pleasures @aemccarthy.
Image: BigBirdz, CC BY