Maybe there's no free lunch, but instant ramen noodle soup mix comes pretty close. A package costs roughly 30 cents. Ramen noodle mixes are speedy, shelf stable and mighty filling. The downside is that "flavor packet," which is loaded with sodium, a lot of which comes from that old bugaboo MSG.
Ah, but there's a fix. Buy the instant ramen package, throw away the packet and "play doctor."
• Liquid: Use broth instead of water. Canned chicken, beef or vegetable broth improves the flavor from the get-go.
• Flavor: Add a few drops of toasted sesame oil, mirin and soy sauce. Add nickel-sized slices of ginger root. Shake in hot pepper sauce to ante up the taste.
• Protein: Add a couple of left-over shrimp, a diced piece of chicken, one big mushroom (sliced), some diced tofu, some left over duck from last-night's take-out. Or break an egg into the simmering broth and stir until it cooks into strands.
• Vegetables: Add a shake of frozen peas or corn. If you buy vegetables by the freezer bag, you can dip out as much as you want at any given time. Or give a reprise to chopped leftover veggies.
• Garnishes: Add chopped scallion, a torn spinach leaf or two, chopped parsley or cilantro, grated carrot and julienned nori. Now that makes a really good, and better-for-you, snack, no?
• Momofuku Ando was the Japanese inventor of instant ramen noodles. Faced with food shortages in post-World War II Japan, he thought a quality, convenient noodle product would help feed the masses. He started a family company called Nissan Foods in 1948. After many trials, he introduced the first instant noodle, "Chicken Ramen," in 1958. Mr. Ando soon became a legend and forever changed the culinary landscape of Japan.
The dish, in its many variations, has been an American as well as Japanese college-student and pantry mainstay for decades. The dry noodles are often referred to as "student cuisine" because of widespread use by university students with their obvious limits on kitchen equipment, time and yen.
Ron Konzak of Friday Harbor, Wash., wrote a fun little paperback, "The Book of Ramen." It's a thorough study of this kinky subject along with easy-enough recipes, although none of them are memorable. The book's value is in its ramen trivia.
• The noodles are folded, put into a mold and lightly fried. FYI, most manufacturers of instant ramen deep-fry the noodles. That accounts for the oil in the ingredient list and the relatively high calorie count.
• Each package contains 80 strands of curly noodles. If you ironed them, they'd be about 16-inches long. And each package -- when boiled, stretched out and laid end to end -- contains about 100 linear feet of noodles.
• What's in a name? Ramen noodles originated in China and there they are called lo mein. Ramen is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters.
• The instant noodles have become so popular in Japan that ramen is to the city of Sapporo what baked beans are to Boston.
• Chopsticks are the best tool with which to eat the curly noodles. If you have a hard time holding chopsticks, now, in the privacy of your kitchen, is a good time to work on technique. The graphics and directions on a commonplace mat from an Asian restaurant show you how.
First Published June 14, 2012 12:00 AM