And no wonder! Stacked neatly on a bookshelf, those miraculous little carb bricks take up next to no space in a cramped dorm. Ramen is also easy to prepare, even for students with limited culinary skills. If you can boil water, you have all the expertise necessary to convert that brick into a tasty meal.
Unfortunately, “tasty” does not always equal “nutritious”—and that goes double in the world of ramen. No matter how much money you save packing your scholarly gut with extruded buckwheat paste, it’s not worth risking your health.
• Ramen by itself has little or no nutritional value. It’s low in fiber and vitamins, and packed with sodium. Try at least to eat a vegetable now and then.
• Be sure to stay away from Cup O Noodles. For one thing, they are an environmental disaster—every time you throw away one of those Styrofoam cups, Exxon kills a baby polar bear. For another, their packaging may contain dioxin. Among Japanese men, they have been linked to health concerns such as decreased sperm count. (Note: Despite this, no noodle should be used as a contraceptive.)
• Stay away from bargain-basement ramen. Only use top-of-the-line, buckwheat-based noodles. There’s a 3-cent difference, but the cheap ones go rancid quickly and, when cooked, will fill your dorm with an unpopular stench.
• Convenience stores think they can get away with selling ramen for a buck per brick; at a grocery store, you can get several packages for the same price. But bulk stores like Costco offer insane value: An $8 investment will get you 48 bricks of decent-quality ramen, which, like prison cigarettes, can be traded for black-market goods and services throughout your dorm.
• Most brands offer meat flavors such as chicken, beef, pork and shrimp. Vegetarians, try mushroom. (The “Oriental” flavor is ambiguous and should be avoided by everybody.) But Nissen’s new-wave flavors like creamy chicken, picante beef, and chili are highly recommended.
• For those special occasions, get the really good kind: Japanese soba noodles, which look like bundles of incense, are widely available at organic and/or Asian markets.
Frankly, the package directions represent the least interesting way possible of preparing ramen. Follow the recipe, and you get—well, something the manufacturer calls “soup.” (In reality, it’s a fistful of limp noodles swimming in a primordial, saline “broth.”)
OK, go through the motions a few times if you must, just to get the feel for it. Then start experimenting: What if you drain the water before adding the flavor packet? Sautee the result in a few drops of sesame oil with garlic and scallions? Add a fresh, cut-up tomato afterward? Now you’re cookin’!
Stock up on some basic condiments such as Mongolian Fire Oil (trust me on this), Parmesan cheese, garlic and (please!) vegetables. If you’ve got a sunny windowsill handy, consider growing a small potted herb garden; basil, chives and oregano are easy and help you get at least something that was recently living into your diet. Truly serious ramen devotees should always keep a bottle of multivitamins and a fiber supplement handy.
Nobody claims that the ramen diet has anything going for it other than cheapness. But, with a little practice and imagination, you may be able to reduce its worst effects—and, at least, relieve the tedium that will surely accompany your fifth straight helping of salty noodles this week. Here are some recipes to try:
Sauté diced chicken breast with two cloves garlic, chopped onion and sliced bell pepper in a little vegetable oil or butter until chicken is cooked through. Add cooked chicken-flavor ramen (after draining off most of the liquid). Add 1 tablespoon (more or less) red Thai curry paste, three or four leaves of fresh basil, contents of flavor packet and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Sauté until delicious.
Cook mushroom-flavor ramen; do not drain. Add flavor packet, one package miso soup mix, two eggs and a few chopped scallions. Simmer for five minutes; stirring only after egg begins to solidify. Top with fresh spinach leaves. Serves two.
Sautee one clove garlic and 1/2 chopped onion in 1 tablespoon butter; add 1 cup shredded cabbage; toss until cabbage is coated, sauté briefly, add 1/4 cup water, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until cabbage is soft (10-15 minutes). Cook 1 package pork ramen; drain. Add flavor packet. Toss with cabbage over medium heat; top with breadcrumbs if desired. Serve with beer and bratwurst.
Ramen a la Romano (Ti Amo con Tutta l’Ramena)
(For lovers only.) Cook two packages beef-flavor ramen; drain. Add flavor packet, five or six leaves of fresh basil, 1/4 cup sliced black or green olives, fresh-ground black pepper. Sauté with 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil; top with shredded Parmesan, serve with a red wine and watch the fireworks begin. Serves two intimately. tttt