The first thing I ever cooked was instant noodles. The memory is Proustian - the rip of the packet, the salty tang of powdered stock, pale orange, brown, pink packs of Koka bought from the Indian store down the road. Not only was it the first thing I cooked (cooking being the act of boiling water, putting a solid wedge of dried noodles in, and poking with a fork) but it was also the first piece of food I was able to put my own personal stamp on. At some point I realised that I did not just have to follow the instructions on the package, I could pimp my broth with an assortment of seasonings and ingredients. The way I learnt about spices was to climb onto a chair and open the unlabelled jars in my mother’s cupboard, seeing which ones worked and which ones didn’t (ground ginger, chilli powder, white pepper - yes, paprika, cumin, ground coriander, ground clove - no). I started to chop ginger, spring onions and garlic into the broth, as if I was a chef creating a stock. I added mushrooms, egg, melted cheese slices. In my most disgusting moments, I would cook Richmond sausages by boiling them in plain water, until their jellied outer layer peeled off like foreskins and they turned the water milky white, before adding the stock and noodles. It was objectively terrible but it was delicious because it was also mine, a reflection of all my good and all my bad taste in a single bowl.
Feroz Gajia is also someone who knows about good and bad taste. Out of the 500 meals or so I had last year, I reckon Feroz must have been at least half of them. Meeting him was in some way like meeting a doppelganger, someone with pretty much exactly the same strange likes and dislikes, who had been to all the restaurants I had (and had strong opinions on them), but who, unlike me, could also explain in depth why things do and don’t work. As a writer and eater, he’s equally at home dissecting a kaiseki meal as he is a Crunchwrap from Taco Bell; as a chef he can make something super traditional and correct yet he can also combine two packs of instant noodles and put it on as a special. And yes, he was doing this way before your favourite movie came out.
I’ll write about Feroz’s cooking another time, but the guide he’s put together is a demented insight into his process and an unapologetic defence of the packet noodle, not as a cheap, sustaining, store-cupboard food, but on its own terms, as something with a capacity for deliciousness which hasn’t yet been fully explored. This is not a ranking of noodles - there are other places for that - but more a manual on how the creative and bored cook during this pandemic can transform instant noodles into deviously simple feasts through lateral thinking and a complete disrespect for cultural boundaries. The packet instructions are merely one route; the variations are infinite.
Beyond Ramdon: 1001 Things to do with Instant Noodles
If Ramen is synonymous with 36 hour tonkotsu broth and instant noodles with terrible student living, then Ramyun lies somewhere between the two, a shorthand for the unashamed celebration of packet noodles. Every part of Asia has its own fiercely individualistic instant noodle culture but the fervent consumption and innovation in South Korea has propelled their “ramyun” to cult status amongst those in the know. With the persistence of hallyu (a local term to describe the proliferation of Korean pop culture around the world) has come a reinvention of the mainstream image, still recognised as a cheap source of fuel (e-sports) but also as a meal (Korean dramas & movies), point of social bonding (mukbang), status symbol (Korean celebrity endorsements) and an accepted talking point without stigma.
The breadth and depth of dessicated noodles on the shelves of Asian supermarkets is mindboggling, and to truly appreciate the great and the good available is a lifetime pursuit or at the very least worthy of an article of its own. If you can't wait for that please do check out i-ramen (tontantin on youtube) who has tested over 6000 different packets of ramen, as well as Ramen Ratings and The Ramen Rater.
This guide, however, is not about rating noodles, but for making whatever packet of instant noodles you have in the cupboard that little bit better/different. It starts off basic and becomes a little more involved as you go.
Almost all of the ramyun you'll buy will have a single puck of fried then dried noodles. Taking the simple step to break your ramen into two pieces (do it before you open the packet!) will give you shorter noodles and less chance of burning your tongue as you race to beat the noodle bloat and save your shirt from the inevitable soup spray. You can also forgo cooking them at all for a quick snack. Break the noodles into tiny bits inside the packet, open the seal and toss the seasoning over the pieces and shake like you're in an Asian McDonald's. This method of eating ramyun is so popular that it now comes in snack bags of pre-seasoned noodle bits.
I'm not going to tell you to buy Evian or Vichy Catalan for your ramyun, that would be ridiculous. (although it doesn’t hurt if you have a Brita filter on your kettle). Far more important is realising the amount of boiling water the packet recommends you use is just a guideline. If you cut the amount of water by a third you'll have a more intense soup in the bowl and even if you have a packet that asks you to dump out the water before adding the sachets, the amount of water you use will alter the firmness of the noodles you end up with.
You can of course change the water for stock, with anchovy stock or dashi being particularly good but anyone who is that organised should probably just go all the way and make the whole thing from scratch.
This is the biggest and most varied way to modify your meal and will ensure you don't grow bored of the same thing over and over. Some are obvious, some require no preparation and some sound absurd, but for all of them the order you put them in is crucial to the end result.
Marinated meat, large pieces of seafood and ripe kimchi should all go in near the start as they will need longer cooking time and will impart flavour. If for some reason you have good cuts of meat, fry them off separately and just add any excess fat to your soup, it'll give you a textural contrast and benefit the meat.
Root vegetables and brassicas can go in shortly after the meat, just make sure the pieces aren't too big. You can also chuck in processed meat (hot dogs, spam etc) at this point unless you've got a massive pot on the go, in which case you'll want to save them till near the end so they don't overpower all the other flavours.
Rice cakes (essential for rabokki) and fish cakes can usually go in just after the seasoning mix and either before or after the noodles. When you do put the noodles in you can always chuck another packet of noodles in now if you're impatient or feeding more people.
Eggs should go in next if you don't want them overcooked. They can be kept whole or scrambled up to fortify the soup.
As the noodles start to loosen up it's time to throw in any fresh greens and soft veg you might want to add, usually sliced spring onions, bean sprouts and thinner mushrooms. To really show how classy you are you could give a nod to the Koreans by adding a slice of American cheese and watch it float like a golden dingy on the lava red rapids of your broth, the edges melting in to enrich your eating pleasure. My personal riff on this is to toast two slices of white bread, butter them and then wedge slices of mature cheddar between them to make a cheese sandwich to dip into the broth, the satisfaction in every bite is unmatched by the rest of the bowl.
Yeah... This is a little absurd, but once you've acquired an addiction to snack ramyun you can then use those pieces as croutons in your salad with some of the spice mix added to the vinaigrette. Or go even further and take your noodles out early and rinse them in cold water and then use them for a cold noodle salad along with plenty of herbs and crunchy vegetables.
Pissing off Italians
There are no more packets of De Cecco in the supermarket because people are hoarding but fear not, because you can take your Cacio e Pepe infatuation and scratch that itch by using instant noodles. Cook the noodles in less water than stated on the packet and add some salt to create a firmer noodle and then envelop in cheese and pepper, there you have a bowl of Mie Cacio e Pepe. Or you can really lean into it and add Paldo cheese ramyun to some slow cooked ragu and do a spagbol to enrage every nation (it is delicious though, make no mistake).
2020 was the year jjapaguri was made famous by the Oscar winning best picture, Parasite. A combination of two different packets of ramyun, in this case Chapagetti (a riff on jajangmyeon) and the spicy seafood packet, Neoguri. This phenomenon isn't new with jjapaguri dating back to 2013 and other weird and wonderful combos falling in and out fashion every year. My current favourite combo is taking any of the Samyang buldak range (heat level at your discretion) and combining it with Tseng's spicy sichuan peppercorn noodles for a unique mala hit.
Instant noodle fried rice
Having a mini resurgence in Japan right now, this one requires actual cooking ability but if you have any experience in making fried rice then this is an easy variant to make. You take a narrow pan and boil just enough water to barely cover the noodles you are about to add, empty the contents of the sachets into the boiling water and break your noodles into four pieces, add and then cook them till just soft. Strain most of the liquid (you can use it as the base for a side soup) and add the noodles to your pan 30 seconds after the rice has gone in, a little liquid with the noodles is fine. Cook as you would normally, getting adequate char on your rice and noodles, and then serve.
You've finished the noodles in your pot and there is plenty of soup left and you're still a little hungry, time to add in some cooked rice. Or return the soup to the hob, get it bubbling and add an extra pack of noodles, maybe live a little and choose a different variety.
The second round is just as customisable as the first if not more because you're partially satiated now and can be as obscene with your choices as you wish. If for some reason you have too much broth and you're full, keep it for the next meal, you can use it to flavour a soup, jazz up a sauce or hit it with lots of butter and create an emulsified pan sauce for whatever you're cooking up next.
Explore the aisles
The beauty of instant noodles is their low price encourages exploration and experimentation, so please don't buy a 5 pack of Shin Ramyun Black next time, buy an array and enjoy indomie, maggi, prima, tseng, nissin, samyang and the plethora of other companies putting out amazing flavours for your delectation. And for less than a sharing bag of crisps, what do you have to lose?
Feroz Gajia is a food writer and the chef patron of Bake Street in Rectory Road. He was paid for this newsletter.