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Alimentary, My Dear

Ramen Redux: Making a Good Thing Even Better

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net Ramen Redux

April 21, 2015

Back in December, I wrote an article about the many uses of instant ramen, those ubiquitous noodle bricks that are a staple foodstuff on both campuses and campsites. And after delivering a brief, cautionary homily about commercial ramen's high sodium and fat content, I suggested several ways to transform HyperMart ramen into something heartier and (hopefully) healthier. The article was a success, and my virtual mailbag soon contained ample proof that instant ramen stands high on paddlers' lists of quick camp meals. The writers weren't all "man cooks," either.

But not everyone who wrote was an enthusiast. A few readers — their views probably echoing those of many more — made it perfectly clear they wouldn't touch instant ramen with the proverbial barge pole. And while I continue to eat the stuff without qualms, I can't offer much in the way of rebuttal to this blanket condemnation. Commercial instant ramen certainly isn't my idea of health food. It's not even my notion of healthy food. It is, in truth, a chemical feast.

Want proof? Then let's …

Examine the Evidence

Take a typical ramen soup mix down from the shelf in the HyperMart. Read the "Nutrition Facts" and the list of ingredients printed on the package. They're not exactly reassuring. To begin with, more than a third of the calories probably come from fat, much of it saturated fat. Even the noodles contribute to this total, because oil is incorporated into the noodle dough, and still more is absorbed when the noodles are precooked. The "broth powder" (aka "soup base") won't win the hearts of health‑conscious paddlers, either, though it may swell the retirement accounts of their cardiologists. I have a package of a name‑brand "chicken flavor" noodle soup on my desk as I write this. The chicken clearly didn't stop long in the pot. The soup base's ingredient list is topped by salt — the other ingredients each contribute less than one percent to the total — followed closely by sugar (some of it under the maltodextrin nom de commerce) and monosodium glutamate (MSG). The cooked chicken ("powdered cooked chicken," to be exact) makes its appearance much further down the … er … fatting order, keeping company with the yeast extract and spices. Of course, you can easily reduce the sodium content of your meal by leaving some of the broth powder in the packet — along with any extra seasonings — a strategy I mentioned in my original article. But why buy something that you know you won't want to use?

Good question. On the other hand, very few busy and active people have succeeded in purging all dubious foodstuffs from their daily menus. And even the saints among us must fall from grace occasionally. If they didn't, the makers of Cheez Doodles, Twinkies, and, yes, SPAM would probably be out of business before year's end.

But that's no reason not to rise to the challenge and take up the sword of virtue. Let's see how we can …

Make Ramen Better

It shouldn't be too hard. We'll have plenty of options. Ramen originated in China, though it's now a naturalized citizen of Japan, where there are as many variations as there are pastas in Italy. Still, a single theme unites this universe of possibilities: All ramen boils down to — or better yet, boils up into — noodles in broth. That being the case, why not make your own from scratch? Then you are in control of what goes into the pot, not some industrial chemist in Rahway or Guangzhou.

Here's how it's done:

First, choose your (quick) noodle.  You need quick‑cooking noodles. They're the heart and soul of ramen. But read the label before you part with your cash. Not all noodles are alike. Some are much better than others. For example, the HyperMart nearest my home stocks bricks of wavy wheat Chinese noodles that, at first glance, resemble the instant ramen soup blocks. But they're air‑dried, not deep‑fat fried, and they boast a refreshingly short list of ingredients. Best of all, they contain no fat and only a small amount of salt. The price? About four (US) dollars for a brick large enough to feed at least four paddlers. Is a buck a serving too much to pay for good food? Not for most of us, most of the time.

There are other possibilities, as well:

  • Rice noodles
  • Soba
  • Sōmen
  • Udon
  • Cellophane noodles
  • Bean thread noodles
  • Lo mein noodles
  • Cumian (Shanghai‑style noodles)
  • Capellini, or angel hair pasta (No, it's not Asian. But it's both easy to find and quick‑cooking.)

Now here's a representative sample, displayed in a photo reproduced from an earlier article:

 

The Name of the Noodle

 

There are six packets of Asian noodles in the picture, with a box of whole grain spaghetti for comparison's sake. And if, unlike me, you live near a large city, you'll have even more to choose from. The photos below give a closer look at two contenders drawn from the field in the first shot, both of them good candidates for homemade ramen: rice thread noodles from the Thai Kitchen Spring Onion soup mix (left panel) and wide rice noodles (right panel):

 

A Closer Look

 

The Thai Kitchen instant soup is pretty tasty right out of the box, and very cheap, but I don't often use the included oil packet, and I frequently discard the broth powder, as well. Instead, I serve the noodles with a broth I prepare from other ingredients. And that brings us to the next step in the process of making your own ramen:

Building a better broth.  Use whatever broth powder, bouillon, or soup base paste strikes your fancy. But be warned: I've yet to find a high‑quality, low‑salt, low‑fat powder or paste. So please tell me if you know of one. Alternatives? The reduced‑sodium liquid broth sold in shelf‑stable packs is one possibility, if you don't mind the extra weight and bulk — and if you're able to empty each pack in one go. (You can't refrigerate leftovers in the backcountry!) Or — for overnight and weekend trips — you can make broth ahead of time in your home kitchen, let it cool, decant it into heavy‑duty plastic ziplock bags, and freeze it. If you put the frozen, bagged broth in a pack just before you leave for the put‑in, it will have thawed by dinnertime.

You can also make a quick broth in camp, using thin‑sliced vegetables, along with spices, herbs, and other seasonings. (Pre‑slicing the vegetables will save time.) Miso, dried mushrooms, or sesame oil will liven things up. This isn't an option for novice camp cooks, however. You'll have to hone your art at home first.

Anyway, once you have your noodles and broth in hand, all that remains for you to do is to simmer the noodles in the broth long enough to soften them. Then it's suppertime (and the living is easy). But if you're of a mind, and if time doesn't press, you can always …

Embellish, embellish, embellish…  Ramen is just the jumping‑off place for a voyage of culinary discovery. Keep things simple and quick, by all means, but feel free to employ whatever tasty adjuncts spring to mind. Herbs and spices. Meat or fish — fresh, dehydrated, canned, shelf‑stable, or freeze‑dried. Tofu. Vegetables. Fresh eggs. Nuts and seeds. Miso, hot sauce, fish sauce, shōyu, sesame oil…

You get the picture, I'm sure. There really is no limit to the possibilities, and by way of example, I've prepared five different "improved" ramen to show you. They're on display in the photo panel below. (Right‑click on the image to embiggen it.) All were ready for the bowl in little more time than it took to bring the broth to a boil.

Five Easy Pieces

Photo A shows ramen made with crinkly Chinese noodles and chicken broth from a shelf‑stable pack. I added sliced carrots, onions, and kale to the noodles, and I poached an egg in the simmering broth. Ramen B was made with wide rice noodles simmered in homemade chicken‑vegetable broth, with shredded spinach as a garnish, while ramen C incorporated thin rice noodles in a quick broth made with garlic, ginger, celery, carrots and corn (all dehydrated), and flavored with miso just before serving. Next, in photo D, you see soba wheat‑buckwheat noodles in a beef bouillon broth with carrots, chopped green onions, and spinach. Finally, in E we have more soba noodles in a simple broth made with sesame oil, garlic, onion, and powdered dried porcini, garnished with a previously cooked hard‑boiled egg.

Five easy ramen. Yet I've only sampled the spectrum of possibilities — possibilities open to any camp cook with an itch to innovate.

 

Two for the Road

 

My recent column on using instant ramen in camp gave short shrift to this ubiquitous staple's nutritional deficiencies, and readers were quick to point that out. So this time around, I've done what I could to redress the balance, suggesting ways to reduce the amount of salt and saturated fat while still keeping cost low and prep time short. But I won't pretend that I've explored every option. Why not try your hand at improving ramen? And then let me know what you've discovered.

 



 
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