Will alerted me that the inventor of instant noodles, Momofuku Ando, died over the weekend. I was sorry to hear it; mind you, the man was 96 years old.
Is Momofuku not the greatest name ever?
Ramen has been a long time favorite of mine, harkening back to my childhood, when they were an easy snack with what seemed at the time, like an exotic twist. I was allowed to eat them with chopsticks, an honor not bestowed upon very many other foods in our household, although twirling the noodles around a fork was equally delightful. My favorite flavor was, and probably still is, pork.
During college, especially on those long, wintery Massachusetts nights sans car, ramen (and variations of ramen) because a staple snack for all-nighters. I became particularly enamored over the kimchi-flavored "Bowl Noodle Hot", a styrofoam bowl of noodles and a little packet of delicious flavor that could warm you right to your core. I even got my mother, who lived across the country, hooked on them. At around 500 calories, they really were a decent lunch, and Mom would top hers with raw spinach, which quickly wilted and became a delightful topping. Also, they were vegetarian, which was important to both me and the vast majority of my friends at the time.
During the dorm days (and the East Coast ice storms of 1997), we students would hoard veggies from the cafeteria salad bar and add them to the kimchi ramen once it was cooked. Scallions were a nice touch, as were sliced hardboiled eggs, the aforementioned spinach, and even lettuce and other leafy greens. I balked, but one friend swore by those baby corn thingies. The best thing about the ramen, mind you, was that it was cheap. We paid roughly 50 cents per bowl of kimchi ramen, and probably 20 cents for the regular, plastic packaged stuff that you find at Safeway (or in this case, Stop 'N Shop).
When I lived in China, instant ramen was known as fangbian mian (pronounced, roughly, as fong bien mien), meaning "convenient noodles". "Ramen" is actually the Japanese approximation of the Chinese la mian, which means "pulled noodles", and could refer to pretty much any kind of long noodle made by stretching dough.
We students of Chinese got a kick out of the name, and how everytime it was mentioned, every Chinese person within earshot of our lessons would hasten to add that fangbian mian is REALLY, REALLY bad for you. MSG! Carbs! Sodium! That said, fangbian mian are de rigeur for train travel. If you are taking a train across China, fangbian mian is your best bet for staying fed. Sure, you can shell out $4 for a pseudo-bento box of bony fish and old rice, but Chinese ramen is REALLY gourmet, with little packs of beef or pork in an oily sauce in addition to the normal flavoring pack.
Let's be honest: instant noodles aren't great for your health (is "instant" anything good for your health?). REAL ramen, the kind that is carefully crafted by boiling all kinds of things (fish flakes, pork bones, whatever) isn't bad for you. The noodles have more fiber, and toppings are usually fresh. But who has time to make REAL ramen? I sure as hell don't. But I'll spruce up instant ramen any day. It takes away the guilt that comes with eating "instant" food, and makes for a decent, quick meal. In fact, I keep the toppings around in little Tupperware containers in my fridge, so they can be used any time.
My favorites include woodear mushrooms (actually, almost any exotic mushroom - by these at Asian food stores, NOT at a regular sueprmarket), green onions/scallions, corn, butter, bamboo shoots, dumplings, and crab - you know those cans of crabmeat that they sell at Costco for $13? Or Trader Joe's for $9? Totally worth it - it only takes a pinch of crab ($1 worth) to make a bowl of seafood ramen rich, inviting, and extra delicious. If you need to put together a quick meal that costs less than $3, you can do it with instant ramen and some fresh toppings.
So, good-bye, Ando-san. And thanks for all that you did for students and other frugal types with your mouth-watering, cheap and easy cuisine.
Here are some other links to (instant AND traditional) ramen recipes, history, mouthwatering pictures, and lore.