Instant ramen has saved my ass too many times to count. Growing up, a packet of tom yum-flavored MAMA was something I could cook myself when my parents weren’t around. In college, it was a late night staple during endless evenings writing papers—the only reprieve between textbooks and the library. During my post-college unemployment, I found comfort in the fried squiggles reminiscent of Justin Timberlake’s 2000 hair. Instant ramen is cheap, it tastes good, and it’s so easy to make.
So despite having a real job now and being able to afford noodles that don’t come from a sealed, crinkly package, the comfort of instant ramen hasn’t disappeared. What has disappeared, however, is my desire to eat it plain as a survival tactic. Instead, I’ve found ways to make my ramen work for me and turn it into an actual meal: protein, veggies, and eggs aren’t luxuries, but necessities—and they don’t have to be expensive or difficult additions. Here’s how I hack my instant ramen to instantly improve it, and how you should too:
Add fresh or fermented veggies
Instant ramen isn’t the healthiest meal to eat every day. There’s tons of sodium, carbs, and fat—and not a whole lot of nutrients. It’s easy, however, to throw in some bok choy, corn, and spinach to give your body some vitamins and potassium. Not only will you feel more nourished by the addition of veggies, the flavor of your ramen will undoubtedly benefit from being cooked with sweet vegetables. Spinach, corn, and bok choy are some of my favorites, but feel free to experiment with other veggies like mushrooms, scallions, and carrots. And if you enjoy some tang, fermented vegetables—like mustard greens or cabbage kimchi—have never let me down in ramen and in life.
Use leftover soup or curry for a base
Like most good culinary explorers, I’ve looked in my fridge full of leftovers and experimented—stumbling upon the genius that is using curry as a soup base. The result was a sweet, spicy, and creamy curry ramen made from Thai red curry, added coconut milk, and a reliable pack of instant noodles. It was delicious. But you don’t have to limit yourself to curry. Think of all the possibilities of an instant ramen soaked in tom yum, hot and sour soup, remnant of pho, or soothing wonton broth. Plus you'll finally get to toss out that leftover container of soup.
An egg is mandatory
This is probably the most used and most well-known “hack,” if you can even call it that at this point, but it’s also one of the best and therefore deserves reiteration. An egg can take a sad cup of instant ramen and make it creamier, heartier, and infinitely better. I like my egg directly poached in the soup so the yolk remains liquid, but a medium boiled egg soaked in tea or soy sauce is also delicious (though a bit more time-consuming to prepare). You can scramble your eggs, cure them in salt, or fry them before laddling them over dry ramen. Whatever the preparation, eggs will make your meal more filling and richer-tasting.
Don’t knock cheesy ramen 'til you’ve tried it
I’m not the first one to put cheese on my ramen. Noah Cho, who authors the Bad Kimchi column for Catapult, writes that he will “fight anyone that says you shouldn’t put cheese on your ramen.” And he’s right to be fired up about it: cheese on ramen is spectacular—particularly on the spicy and savory Korean instant ramen, Shin Ramyun. The cheese tames the heat while the chili cuts through any of the saturated heaviness that may linger in a slice of American. Though Cho’s preference is a Kraft single, which I also enjoy thanks to its melty nature, I’ve found that a sharp slice of cheddar is wholly welcomed as well. If you don't have squares of cheese, sprinkling a bit of whatever shredded stuff you have works well, too. Don’t believe me? Next time you make instant ramen, throw a slice of whatever melty cheese you have into it and watch your ramen transform into something goopy and fantastic.
Try stir-frying it
Drinking the soup at the end of a bowl of ramen or cup of noodles used to be my favorite part of the experience until I realized how completely shitty it is for my body to take in all that concentrated sodium. A way around that is not drinking all the soup, for one. But something else you can also do is eliminate soup all together and craft your ramen into a stir fry. Some instant ramen brands, like Indonesian brand Indomie’s mi goreng, are intended to be eaten as dry noodles. But others, like Thailand’s beloved MAMA, aren’t. That doesn’t mean you can’t just eliminate the soup yourself, though. After cooking the noodles in boiling water, dump out the leftover liquid and add as little or as much of the salty seasoning packet that comes with your instant noodles. Toss in an egg, red chili flakes, and some ground meat for a simple DIY stir fry. It’s nice to mix it up between noodle soups and dry noodles every once in a while.
Dumplings and wontons are always welcomed
If you’re going to boil a pot of water for ramen, you might as well throw in some dumplings too, right? Like the humble egg, tossing a couple frozen dumplings into your ramen is effortless and will enhance the meal tenfold. You can use shrimp wontons, pork and leek dumplings, or whatever bag of frozen potstickers you picked up at Costco.
Add easy-to-cook proteins
In addition to the eggs, veggies, dumplings, and cheese, adding a simple protein that’s already cooked—or easy to cook—really ties your upgraded instant ramen together. I like cutting cubes of tofu, adding ground chicken, or even using fried spam, hot dogs, or frozen fish balls to my soup. If you have an H-Mart near you, or any Asian grocery store that is stocked up with frozen cuts of pork belly or beef brisket for hot pot, those work perfectly for ramen, too. With all these components, your instant ramen will have varied texture and flavor and might actually keep you full.
Sprinkle some furikake, sesame seeds, or crushed peanuts
Furikake to finish off a bowl of ramen provides an extra hit of umami, thanks to the shredded seaweed, and more texture. The same goes for sesame seeds and peanuts—the nuttiness brings something new while the crunchy texture is welcomed next to the chewy noodles. There are so many different blends of furikake to explore, though my personal favorite is curry-flavored.
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