I have been thinking about ramen noodles lately. It is not surprising since it seems like everyone is talking about them these days. I was drinking my tea tonight (Numi rooibos, if you are keeping track), and I thought it was time to write about ramen.
Just so we are all on the same page, I am talking about those ridiculously cheap packets of noodles and soup mix that have been a staple in nearly every college dorm in the country. For a bit of history, these instant noodles were invented in Japan in 1958. The name “ramen” comes from the Chinese words for “pull” and “noodle” since these are made by pulling the dough into long strands. It also comes from the fact that these were seen as a “Chinese-style” dish in Japan. Top Ramen first brought these instant noodles to the US in 1970. Maruchan opened its first factory in the US in 1978. This is what ten minutes of research on the Internet netted me.
I first became aware of ramen noodles in 1978 when I was working as a stock boy at K-Mart. Every few weeks it seemed, K-Mart would have a sale where you could buy a ten-pack of these things for about a $1.00. Even in 1978 that was incredibly cheap. People would buy them by the cart full. I asked a few people who were stocking up if they were really any good. I expected them to shrug and say, “well, they’re cheap.” That wasn’t the response I got. Everyone I talked to simply loved them. They couldn’t believe they could buy something so go for so little money. Several people said they figured at some point, someone was going to figure out how good they were and jack up the price. I wasn’t very open-minded about food in those days, so I remained dubious about them, at least for a while.
I don’t remember exactly when, but at some point I finally tried one of these packets of instant ramen. Like so many before me, I was hooked. They quickly became a staple in my diet for the same reasons they still do. I was young, single and poor. Ramen was cheap, quick, and tasty. There was another reason why I kept them around. I have Crohn’s disease, and there have been periods where the disease would be active and I would not be able to eat most foods. No matter how bad the flare up, it seemed like I could always eat ramen. They became a way of getting calories into my system without the unpleasantness associated other things I would eat.
This could be the end of the story, but like with so many things, this story has another life. I grew older, I got better paying jobs and the Crohn’s subsided. I could have easily left the ramen habit for more sophisticated flavors and I probably would have, but it was then that I first started going to Asian markets. What I found was a brave new world of instant noodles that I never knew existed. I was amazed. The first time I think I came home with two or three grocery bags stuffed with different kinds of noodles in different flavors. I was in heaven. It seems like every new market I go to nets me five or six new varieties of noodles to try.
As I write this I am doing a mental inventory of what I have stashed in my pantry. I have the traditional ramen, wheat noodles in a variety of flavors from shrimp and crab to kimchi and curry. I have rice and cellophane noodles. I have udon noodles. I have noodles from Japan, China, Indonesia, Korea, India and the US. Each country brings its unique flavors to the basic equation.
From its humble beginnings, ramen has become incredibly popular. In Japan, there are over 1000 ramen restaurants serving up endless variations on this simple dish. Some years ago, I began my own experiments. At first I started with some obvious choices. I would throw in some leftover chicken, beef, pork or seafood. I would add green onions, carrots, celery, or peppers. Beans sprouts work exceptionally well. Then, my trips to the Asian markets became a search for new and wondrous things to add to the pot. Wakame and nori seaweed and wood ear mushrooms are particular favorites of mine. Changing the cooking liquid is another way to introduce new flavors. Sometimes I throw away the packet and cook the noodles in dashi, a Japanese fish broth. I add soy sauce or sesame oil or hot oil or fish sauce or a combination of ingredients. I will admit that some of my experiments have been more successful than others. I driven my wife out of the room on more than one occasion.
Last night as I was thinking about this subject, I made some crab-flavored udon with nori and added some soy sauce and sriracha. It was simple and the taste was outstanding. Here is a picture of the finished product.
As I said, I have been thinking about ramen for the past few days, and what I found is that like with other simple things, a deeper lesson can be learned. The obvious lesson is that I love noodles, all kinds of noodles, but that is something I’ve known since I was a small child. The less obvious lesson is that what I do with my life is a lot like what I do with a bowl of ramen. I can make it as simple or as complicated as I want. I can add whatever elements I like. There is a place for boldness and a place for subtlety. I can try new things and experiment with new options, and if it doesn’t work out, nothing of value is really lost. There are always new thing to try and old favorites to revisit. There is always another bowl of noodles waiting to be eaten.