This article is part of a series on Uncommon Connoisseurships. See also:
“Ramen is a traditional Japanese noodle dish,” explains Adam Richman, host of the Travel Channel’s Man vs Food, as he enters Los Angeles’ most legendary ramen house. “But here at Orochon Ramen, they serve an extremely uncommon, and extremely spicy, interpretation.” Richman goes on to conquer, in less than thirty minutes, the massive, fiery bowl known only as the Special Number 2, winning the restaurant’s challenge and landing his name on its so-called Wall of Bravery. “If you think ramen is just a 99-cent cup of dehydrated noodles, then you’ve obviously never been to Orochon Ramen,” Richman proclaims.
And though I have been to Orochon — I’ve tried the real thing — I’ll nonetheless here explore ramen’s distant, dehydrated cousins. I too, like Richman, consign Top Ramen — the infamous high-school snack of chicken, beef, and ignominy — to the distant past. Venturing further, though, I’ve discovered the world of genuine imported packaged ramen — a world startlingly diverse in flavor and style. Packaged ramen too deserves a reappraisal.
All ramens feature a block of dehydrated noodles as well as one or a few packets of additives. The noodles and the additives, together with water, are placed together in a pot and boiled. We’re left with a steaming bowl of deliciousness.
Most noodles look unremarkable at first glance. They come fixed in a brick, sometimes square and sometimes circular. Usually they’re light and tan; sometimes they’re brown. Cooked ramen noodles vary in texture and thickness. High-quality packaged ramens tend to feature thicker, chewier cooked noodles.
Every ramen contains at minimum a packet of soup base. Usually it comes in powdered form; mixed with water, it produces the broth. The soup base is important, as the broth is one of the primary means by which high-quality ramens distinguish themselves. Broths vary significantly across ramens.
Many ramens — especially the better ones — include further additive packets. Some ramens include a packet of dried vegetables. Other ramens contain a packet of liquidy soy-like sauce. Still others contain a packet of solid, oil-based paste. These extras serve to further enhance the ramen.
Now I’ll more closely explore a few interesting varieties of packaged ramen. I’ll sort roughly in order of increasing complexity and quality.
Some people enjoy adding additional ingredients, such as eggs or meat, to their ramen. For our purposes, I’ll avoid doing this. I’d like to describe these ramens as they stand. All of the ramens shown below were obtained at our local Asian grocery. Let’s go!
Unif 100 Spicy Beef Flavor
This first ramen will serve as a warm-up, and a warning. These are marketed as instant noodles. Ramen purchasers should heed this designation – and avoid it.
The distinction is this. These noodles are cooked by adding boiling water and letting sit. Most ramens are cooked over time in boiling water. Out backpacking in nature? Snacking during a hurried lunch break at the office? Simply lack a stove? Go with this ramen. Otherwise, don’t.
The good news is that these here are about as good as instant noodles will get.
The broth appears noticeably, and perhaps unappealingly, watery. But it tastes quite good. It’s spicy, with flavors of ginger and red pepper. Red pepper flakes are visible. Unusually, this ramen includes a packet of solid, seasoned fat-based paste, and in the cooked soup oil bubbles are visible on the soup’s surface.
The noodles are very poor. This is the price we pay for instantaneousness. They’re very thin, both literally and texturally. They’re soft and formless.
Sapporo Ichiban. Japanese Style Noodles and Shrimp Flavored Soup
Sapporo Ichiban is fairly standard fare, as far as ramen goes. This brand goes way back, and my mom recognized it from college. But this old staple is surprisingly good.
The ramen’s flavor pack contains, in addition to the usual soup base, a few tiny flakes of what appears to be green onion. (That was nice of them! They don’t add to the flavor.) The broth tastes almost overpoweringly of ginger, though a base of standard chicken broth can be detected beneath. The alleged “Shrimp” flavor is nowhere to be found.
Sapporo Ichiban’s noodles could be described as “cakey” – eggy, and somewhat sweet.
Karami Ramen. Spicy Chili Flavor
The Karami Spicy Chili ramen is perhaps the best among a somewhat non-remarkable trio comprising Chicken, Beef, and Spicy Chili flavors. These each feature a narrow square block of noodles and a lone soup base pack.
The Karamis boast the distinction that their noodles are non-fried. This perhaps explains why the noodles, before cooking, are unusually flexible – the block bends rather than breaks. The cooked noodles’ consistency is less cakey, and more slippery. They’re not excellent, and their non-fried-ness doesn’t add noticeably to their quality.
The broth is good, if also standard. It’s salty, and spicy, in a “tingly” way, and red and black pepper flakes are visible. The spiciness kicks in only after a few seconds, and the broth’s primary chicken flavor is not overpowered.
MAMA. Hot & Spicy Flavour
This rare, obscure, and rather poorly marketed ramen is excellent. Its origins are unclear; its packaging includes both Chinese and Thai and it may be of Thai origin.
Its unique flavor packet features two side-by-side embedded compartments: one contains soup base; the narrower one contains red chili flakes. This permits one to control the degree of spiciness. There’s also a separate packet containing vegetables: mainly green onions, but also shiitake mushrooms!
The broth is rust-colored, and the green onion flakes emerge prominently. The taste of red peppers is dominant. This taste hits right away, and it’s strong, perhaps to the point of non-subtlety. The soup leaves behind a rich oily residue on the bowl.
The noodles are a rich beige. These noodles are very good! Their flavor is more subtle, and they’re very chewy, very substantial to the teeth. This is a mark of quality.
CHACHARONI. Chinese Soybean Paste Ramen
Hailing from the deepest depths of the Asian grocery, this ramen is highly unusual, and I suspect that most American Top Ramen dilettantes have tasted nothing like it. Not salty or spicy, this ramen instead features a dark, nearly black broth with a sweet, soybean flavor.
This ramen contains two packets. There is no powdered soup base. One packet contains little balls of what appears to be tofu, as well as pieces of white onion. When the soup is cooked, the onions expand to true, substantial, recognizable pieces of cooked onion, which is impressive. The other packet is full of viscous, black soybean paste. Squeezed out of the packet, it has a consistency like apple sauce. When the soup is stirred and cooked, the broth is very dark: a nearly black, dark chocolatey color.
Unfortunately, the taste is not great. As I mentioned, it’s not savory, salty, or spicy. It tastes like soybeans with some sugar in them. The flavor is somewhat weak. The noodles seem overcooked, even after being cooked according to the package’s directions. The whole thing is very banal. Bland, bland, bland.
SHIN BLACK Noodle Soup
The legendary SHIN black bowl is the cream of the packaged ramen crop. This one is somewhat better-known among informed ramen circles; nonetheless, this reputation is deserved. The broth is a standard, though very good, spicy orange red-pepper affair, and the noodles are good and chewy. It’s also large – the SHIN bowl takes 500ml of water, compared to the usual 400ml, and it’ll fill you up handily.
The block of dehydrated noodles is unusually yellow and thick, and it’s also circular (for whatever reason, this tends to be associated with quality). One packet contains soup base. The other contains various vegetables: scallions, onions, mushrooms, pepper, garlic, and even kelp. These vegetables play a substantial role. They’re visually appealing: varied, natural, and colorful. They also retain genuine textures: the shiitake mushrooms are soft and spongy, and the kelp retains its characteristic sliminess. The vegetables have a bite.
There’s no mistaking the broth’s spiciness. Beyond this, the broth has a subtle taste of fish – not altogether unpleasant. The broth is appropriately salty. There are no fat bubbles on the surface; rather, the fat is interspersed nicely with the broth. The broth has an opaque, slightly milky look.
The noodles are very good. They have the exact right amount of chewiness. They taste slightly sweet, though, again, not unpleasantly so.
The varied world of packaged ramen can teach us a thing or two. For one, it seems to confirm something I’ve noticed lately: Even topics which seem trivial often conceal a wealth of reasonably interesting information. (One friend of mine knew almost everything about the architecture of baseball stadiums built in the 1990s.)
This particular topic is no exception. Japanese (genuine) ramen is highly complex and varied, and I could only wish to know its intricacies. Ramen, though, is perhaps uniquely suited to cheap, packaged imitation, in the sense that its most distinguishing elements – namely broth and noodles – are relatively amenable to dehydration and packaging. This gives us an uncommon opportunity to try a vast variety of flavors just by walking down the Asian grocery aisle (and without cooking, in fact!). I should add an obligatory disclaimer: I in no way believe that I’m coming close to the quality and complexity of real ramen.
And in a way, this phenomenon lies at the heart of connoisseurship. Even in objects of our everyday pleasure and indulgence – like wine or chocolate – we can, if we’re astute, patient, and interested, find a world’s worth of nuance and subtlety. This is the connoisseur’s desire. Unexpectedly, packaged ramen too offers this opportunity.
So how does connoisseurship differ from other forms of intellectual exploration? We might get a chance to please our senses in the process. Enjoy!