A Ramen Story

I’ve been eating a lot of ramen noodle lunches during this COVID shutdown period. I cook up the noodles, toss the unopened, too-salty-for-my-tastes flavor packet into the trash, and then add various items to the noodles and water, like chopped hard-boiled egg, tofu, spinach, tuna fish, chopped onion, or other leftovers from the refrigerator, and always some sriracha sauce, mustard, and horseradish to give the concoction an extra spicy kick. It makes for a hot, satisfying lunch that’s a nice break from sandwiches.

The other day I was waiting for the water to boil and noticed that the back of the noodle packet included a short tribute to the founder of the Nissin Top Ramen brand that is shown in the above photograph. You don’t see tributes to founders on food packets much anymore — in fact, you really don’t see them at all. This one says that the founder, Momofuku Ando, invented instant ramen in Japan and brought it to America in 1970, includes a sketch of his head, and describes him as a “legendary inventor and humanitarian.” The packet also directs you to the Nissin Foods website for more information.

Well, why not learn more about a legendary figure? You can find the referenced website here. It says that Mr. Ando invented instant ramen to deal with food shortages in post-WWII Japan and also invented instant noodles in a cup after noticing Americans eating noodles from cups. It includes photographs of Mr. Ando, including one with him in a lab coat posing with a microscope that sure makes him look like an inventor. The photos indicate that the sketch on the packet is a pretty good likeness, by the way. As for his humanitarian status, the website includes some of Mr. Ando’s sayings that are claimed to still inspire the company, like “be meticulous, yet bold.” Some of Mr. Ando’s other quotes are “always look around you with a great deal of curiosity,” “food is a peace industry,” and “when you cast away greed in adversity, you can find unexpected strength.”

It’s nice to know a little bit more about this person who came up with the idea of instant noodles, which have helped to make my personal shutdown period a bit more tolerable. And, in his honor, I will strive to always “be meticulous, yet bold” in chopping up leftovers and adding inventive combinations to my ramen creations.

Ramen Trade

Anybody who’s ever seen a prison movie knows that cigarettes are the currency of choice for inmates, with coffin nails being furtively traded for information, goods, or special treatment.  Earlier this week the Guardian carried an article suggesting that coffin nails have been replaced — in some prisons, at least — by ramen noodles.

ramenAccording to a study by a doctoral candidate, the popularity of those square packets of ramen noodles that are ready to be tossed into boiling water with salty “flavor” packets is due to a combination of factors.  First, the quality of prison food apparently has declined significantly, because prison populations have increased and spending on prisons and supplies like food hasn’t kept pace.  Second, many of the inmates exercise constantly, and those ramen meals are high in calories and give them an energy boost.  One inmate actually wrote a book about the ramen culture in prison and provided some favorite inmate ramen “recipes” — like the truly disgusting sounding “Ramen Tamale,” made from Doritos, canned pork and beans, and ramen.  (I can only imagine the sodium content of that combination.)

Ramen noodles have been known to start fights in prisons, and allegedly inmates have been killed over their failure to repay ramen “debts.”  The Guardian reports that ramen noodles also helped resolved a race riot between African-American and Hispanic inmates in one prison who reached a peace accord and marked the resolution with a ramen feast.

As any college student knows, ramen is one of the cheapest foods you can buy.  It’s weird, and sad, to think that ramen packets that can be purchased at any grocery store for pennies have become the currency of choice for inmates, and that human beings are fighting and dying over a hardened brick of noodles that provides a single serving of soup.  The “ramen trade” should cause state governments to take a hard look at the quality, and amount, of food available in our prisons.

The Ramen Way

For us, dinner is the most challenging meal of the day.  If you’re not quite sure when you’ll be getting home from work, and you’re only cooking for two, it can be tough to plan and execute a hot meal without also producing a huge mountain of leftovers.  Fortunately, we’ve got lots of really great restaurant options within walking distance, so eating out is always an option — but sometimes it’s nice to have some home-cooked food, too.

IMG_5137Lately, we’ve been turning to ramen noodles as a dinner staple, and it’s worked out pretty well.  We begin with the square, dehydrated ramen noodle soup packets that are familiar to any cash-strapped college student trying to stretch a buck.  They provide just the right number of noodles for two and serve as a kind of base for our supper creations.  But rather than adding the salty flavoring from the foil packet after the noodles are fully cooked, we take the dish in a different direction.

The nice thing about ramen noodles is their absolute flexibility.  You can add just about anything to them and it will taste good.  Leftover meats, in particular, are well suited to the ramen way, so we’ll chop up that chicken breast that’s been sitting in the baggie on the refrigerator shelf, or the remains of the foil-wrapped pork tenderloin.  Even a can of tuna fish packed in water can serve well as the protein.  And then we’ll add other items depending on our whim — perhaps some chopped walnuts and a broken-up hard-boiled egg, or some peas and whole raw almonds, or maybe all of them at once — as well as some seasonings, like black pepper and paprika.  And a little — or maybe a lot — of Srirachi hot chili sauce adds a very nice kick to the concoction.

The end result is a steaming bowl of nourishing goodness that takes about 15 minutes to prepare from start to finish, smells wonderful and tastes great, and makes us feel like we’re putting our new kitchen to good use.  It’s not gourmet, but it’ll do.