Cooking

Ramen Roundup

I just consumed a LOT of sodium.

The Promise:

A 15-cent grocery store staple can be elevated into transcendence – or, at least, a reasonable analog of a home-cooked meal.

The Source:

Serious Eats, The New York Times

The east coast of the US is having a little weather event – perhaps you heard – and with all the wind and rain, it seemed like a perfect time to try out some of the numerous ramen hacks plastered across Pinterest. Once we were confident that we were among the lucky few who weren’t going to lose power – we weren’t in a mandatory evacuation zone, but were in the outer bands of the storm – we busted into our emergency ramen stock and got to work. There are tons of ramen hacks out there, but anything that merely uses the noodles from the ramen, eschewing the seasoning packet, was automatically disqualified. I could throw ramen noodles into chili but I’m not “hacking ramen”, I’m just using pasta.

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Are you ready for some terribly lit pictures due to the lack of natural light??

Ready? Let’s do this.

Perfect Instant Ramen

Courtesy of the New York Times Cooking section. According to the NYT,

[D]octored instant ramen is a taste of Korean-American straight-from-the-bag soul food. The butter, egg and cheese help coat the ramen noodles and deepen their flavor. “It’s our snack, it’s our peanut butter and jelly sandwich, it’s our bowl of cereal,” [chef Roy] Choi said. “It’s something that has been a part of my life forever.”

The comment section is predictably hilarious, between hipsters tripping all over themselves to praise an authentic Korean-American fusion recipe featuring throwback ingredients so square that they’ve circled back around to being cool, and pretentious home cooks turning up their noses at the sodium and MSG while touting their own tweak of the recipe containing a handy 25-ingredient spice mix made with herbs from their own organic pocket gardens.

Result – I was underwhelmed. I’ve mixed a raw egg into my ramen before and it’s pretty good, so I was feeling that. But we questioned the amount of butter (half a teaspoon? Really? That’s only 1/6 of a pat of butter). The soup was creamier than regular ramen and the cheese was nice. It didn’t inspire me to the ecstasies in the recipe’s comment section.

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If this is your soul snack, I’m happy that you have food in your life to bring you that kind of deep-down caloric joy, particularly something with cultural roots. But, while I’d absolutely throw in some cheese and an egg if I had that stuff on hand, I can’t say this ramen remake has changed my life forever. Perhaps it’s one of those foods that has to be consumed during childhood in order for it to really stick.

Faux Pho

Along with the remaining two, this is from the Serious Eats mega-ramen hack post. (By the way, I’m going to need someone to convince this extremely white white girl that it is ok for me to pronounce pho without the long o sound on the end. Please. I just feel awkward.)

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Result – there’s something there, but half a seasoning packet and some fish sauce can’t compete with the depths of a true pho broth. It comes together to make a new whole, as my husband said, but there is too much fish sauce and way too much lime (and that’s coming from people who love both). Our suggestions? Reduce the fish sauce to 1tsp and the lime juice to half a lime, replace the sugar with hoisin and the pepper flakes with sriracha.

Tom Kha Goong

Actually, it’s only goong if you add the shrimp. With chicken, it’s Tom Kha Gai. Without, as far as my research determined, it’s just Tom Kha. And really it’s not that either without kha, which is a type of ginger although not exactly the same as what we get in the regular Western grocery store. So I guess this is just Tom, which, according to Google Translate, means tom.

The recipe for this one leaves something to be desired. How much of everything? And really, one or two cups of coconut milk? Which is it? We used one can of coconut milk which made way too much broth.

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Result – not half bad! Coconut milk and Thai curry paste is going to be a winner every time (and I would absolutely recommend curry paste rather than sriracha). But it was odd with the noodles. I’ve never had a Thai curry with noodles in it, and they sort of sucked up the flavor of the broth in a weird way. The broth was better on its own, and we saved the remainder of what the recipe produced – about two-thirds – to use for another dinner. I’m thinking rice and tofu. Ramen not required.

Pad Thai

My god, I love Pad Thai.

Sorry, I can’t think of a clever intro for this one. All of the sodium has crystalized in my brain.

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Result – the best of the four! It actually felt like a real, intentional dish rather than a concoction borne of the need to invent a Pinterest-worthy “life-hack” to drive traffic to one’s blog. Tossing the egg in with the water and then draining it produced an interesting texture, and the ingredients were well-balanced against the blandness of the noodles. But would I make it again? Probably not.

Overall?

My husband said it best: “this is too much work to make such mediocre food”. Here’s the thing. If recipes like this allow a hesitant cook to experiment with some unfamiliar ingredients like fish sauce or curry paste, that’s awesome. But much better versions of these dishes are well within the grasp of the home chef, and for the time and money involved, you might as well learn how to make the actual dish. Do some googling to figure out which favorite dishes outside your cultural sphere of comfort can be easily made at home, and remember that you can usually get all the ingredients required in a local ethnicity-specific grocery store or online.

When delving into an unfamiliar cuisine, be curious and humble. Pick up that odd-looking fruit in the grocery store. Ask the guy behind the meat counter how to prepare an unfamiliar cut. Let the old ladies make fun of you a little bit for asking what is, to them, a pretty foolish question. It’s ok to be new at something. Approach your attempts like the late, great Anthony Bourdain, never forgetting that you are not discovering these dishes, but rather bumbling your way through a centuries-old tradition.

And if that fails, just order takeout.

If you’ll excuse me, I need to break into these cases of water to help my kidneys process all the salt.

Major thanks to my husband for cooking all the dishes – he’s probably annoyed it’s taken me this long to mention it. Thanks honey!

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