Ah, instant ramen — the bargain-priced manna from heaven which has sustained generations of broke college students. While authentic Japanese ramen restaurants have been on the rise in the U.S., store-bought ramen still gets a bad rap as a meal, mostly because it consists entirely of an unnatural brick of wavy noodles and a sodium-packed flavor packet. It’s not fine dining, to be sure, but getting a meal for a quarter in this day and age is an astounding value — especially when it’s so damn simple to turn each of them into a hell of a meal with only a little extra work.
That’s right: To upgrade instant ramen, the recipes are surprisingly easy.
Let’s be clear: Unless you’re prepared to simmer pork bones for a full day to make ramen’s beloved tonkotsu broth, you’re not going to recreate completely authentic ramen (besides, if you’re doing that, you might as well spend that day making homemade ramen noodles, too). Likewise, unless you’re going to find some pork belly and braise it in a mix of soy sauce, sake, garlic, ginger, and sugar for an hour, then refrigerate it overnight, you’re not going to get the meltingly good chashu pork that stars in traditional ramen. But there’s plenty you can still do to upgrade your instant ramen.
We’re used to thinking of instant ramen as a dish so simple and low-class that it doesn’t deserve to be spruced up, and if we’re eating it, we don’t deserve it to be any tastier than the aforementioned flavor packet. This is a damn lie, because both you and ramen deserve better, and can be better without much effort at all. After all, what is ramen but noodles and soup — two foodstuffs that allow a nearly infinite amount of incarnations and adaptations.
Let’s start with the soup. Naturally, using chicken or beef broth to do your boiling instead of water is an easy swap that will add a bit of flavor, especially if you’re making chicken- or beef-flavored ramen. Soy sauce has a natural umami-esque quality that will help make any broth richer. Many mainstream grocery stores have some form of miso, whether it’s in instant miso soup mix or miso paste itself. Dump it in your broth and you have a salty-savory facsimile of one of Japan’s standards, miso ramen.
Speaking of toppings, nothing raises instant ramen’s game like adding something to the basic noodles and soup. The possibilities are pretty much endless, beginning with traditional toppings like corn, bean sprouts and green onions, all ramen staples that should be incredibly easy to find. If your grocery store has an international section, it’s likely you can find nori, the sheets of seaweed also used to make sushi rolls. Other traditional ramen toppings like pickled ginger, fermented bamboo shoots and fishcakes may force you to run to the nearest Asian supermarket if you have one. But why be a slave to tradition?
You can add a bit more nutritional value by tossing some frozen mixed veggies into the broth while it boils, bringing it into the realm of vegetable soup. Thinly sliced carrots and strips of cabbage wouldn’t be out of place, especially if the cabbage was pickled. By the same virtue, Korean kimchi adds such a delicious, tart brightness to ramen that it’s starting to make its way to regular ramen restaurant menus.
Chances are, however, what you’re looking for is to get a bit more protein out of your ramen, and luckily, it’s almost as versatile in this regard. Bacon is hardly a substitute for chashu, but it can bring a somewhat similar meaty pork taste. Sliced chicken breast is a supremely natural addition, as is sliced beef if you happen to have it. Throwing a basic hot dog into the mix isn’t going to excite your taste buds, but you’ll have better luck and a better meal if you use tubed, sausage-like meats, like bratwursts and mettwursts. (Just don’t use breakfast sausage unless you want it to almost instantly disintegrate in the liquid.)
Unexpectedly, Spam is a rather popular ramen companion; if that sounds weird, though, please remember that there are plenty of poor and/or lazy cooks throughout the country who are just throwing straight-up slices of Oscar Mayer deli meat in their ramen bowls — which also isn’t the worst idea in the world, frankly.
Perhaps the simplest way to add protein is with an egg. I don’t mean going through the trouble of soft-boiling an egg as a topping, I mean dropping it into the soup as it cooks. You have a few options here:
- Just crack an egg in it while the ramen is boiling, stir and watch it cook like Chinese egg drop soup — although you’ll want to make sure the yolk is broken up before it fully cooks.
- Bring the heat down after the noodles are cooked and whisk an egg in a separate bowl. Slowly pour the egg into the ramen while stirring vigorously so it becomes part of the broth instead of immediately cooking in it.
- Once the noodles have fully cooked and the flavor packet’s been put in, push the noodles to the side, creating a hole in the middle. Take the pot off the heat, crack an egg in the center and cover the pot. Wait a couple of minutes and enjoy your ramen and its poached egg.
But why bother with ramen soup at all? Why not boil those tasty noodles, and use them to create pasta dishes instead? You can substitute ramen for practically any noodle, and use it to make anything from spaghetti to chicken alfredo to tuna casserole to lo mein. You can make practically any pasta side-dish to accompany meals with ramen, or swap it for rice in recipes like stuffed peppers or curries. Put it in lettuce wraps, coleslaw, or add a pat of butter and a bit of melted Velveeta to make a perfectly serviceable “ramen n’ cheese.”
Or just take it out of the package and get a big ol’ bite of it. It’s not bad! And it’s not bad for you, either, since the noodles come precooked. It may look like a brick, but ramen isn’t rock-hard and nearly inedible like spaghetti or other Italian noodles. It’s incredibly crunchy, of course, but it honestly feels and tastes a lot like eating a tall stack of unsalted Pringles, if the pringles were made out of strands instead of a processed potato chip. To add flavor, smash the ramen, put it in a resealable bag with the flavor packet and shake. You can eat those as a snack, or use the pieces to add crunch and flavor to salad and dishes like chop suey, in place of traditional “chow mein noodles” which are meant to be sprinkled on similar dishes and are absolutely no more or less edible than pre-boiled ramen.
If that sounds insane, well, that’s possibly because you haven’t heard of the Ramen Burger, created by Keizo Shimamoto. It uses ramen in place of the bun by making the cooked noodles with egg, molded in a bun-like shape, refrigerated briefly to help it stay firm while it’s fried in oil to make a golden, crispy burger platform. You also probably haven’t made pizza with a ramen crust — just mix the cooked noodles with egg and parmesan, spread it to an even level in a pan or skillet, add your toppings, and bake. Or skip the eggs and cheese and just bake the ramen. Once it’s browned, cover it in melted chocolate and nuts for dessert.
Some of these recipes might sound horrifying to you, or at least demented. That’s fine, and feel free to keep to your no-frills, ramen soup lifestyle. But the fact that real people have made and eaten all of these things proves instant ramen can be almost anything, all for about 25 cents. All you need to do is open your mind — and your mouth.