Ramen Week 2013 may officially be over, but I've still got a thing or two to say on the subject. Last week we did a side-by-side taste test of the three most popular brands of instant ramen, naming Sapporo Ichiban as the strong winner. But that taste test was limited to budget ramen brands—the sub-$1 packs that are made by dehydrating par-cooked noodles through a deep frying process.
If you're willing to spend just a little bit more on your instant noodles, you can upgrade to ones that are dehydrated naturally, much in the manner of Italian pasta, creating a texture that is far closer to fresh noodles than the spongy, deep-fried versions.
The brand I grew up with? Myojo Chukazanmai. It comes in a variety of flavors including some that aren't commonly available here in the U.S., but for today, I'm focusing on the three main flavors: miso, soy sauce, and oriental. All are readily available in Asian grocery stores or through Amazon (links provided below).
The first thing that you'll notice when opening up a pack of these noodles is that there are two flavoring packets instead of the normal single packet. One of them is filled with a powdered soup base made from salt, sugar, MSG, and various other dehydrated and pulverized seasonings, while the second contains "Liquid Seasoning." This is the real key to the great flavor of the broths in these products. The liquid seasoning not only contains flavored concentrated soup bases that can't be captured in powdered form, but more importantly, they contain oils designed to float on the soup, just like a bowl from real-deal ramen-ya.
The result is rich, viscous broth that tastes pretty close to homemade, rather than the thin, salty liquid that you get out of cheaper brands.
The noodles also appear quite different. Rather than the uniform, organized coils of the cheaper brands, the noodles here (pictured on the left, above) look more natural—a tangled mass pressed into block shape. They feel different in your hand too—denser, heavier, and firmer. Unlike the cheap fried noodles, which can be eaten straight out of the package due to their production method, the Myojo Chukazanmai noodles have the plastic-like texture of naturally dried pasta.
Because of their drying method, they do take slightly longer to cook. About 4 minutes to cheap ramen's 3. But an extra minute is a cheap price to pay for a significantly superior end product. Once the noodles are softened, you add in the powder and liquid seasoning packets, stir it up, and serve.
To be frank, in a blind taste test between these noodles and some brands of fresh, refrigerated noodles, the Moyjo Chukazanmai would come out on top. They're bouncy, springy, stretchy, great at picking up broth—everything a good ramen noodle should be.
Oriental Flavor is tough to pinpoint, but it's pretty similar to Japanese shio-style salt-flavored ramen broths. It has a touch of ocean-y aroma derived from the bonito extract in its liquid seasoning packet, and some good layered onion flavor provided by a combination of green onions and fried onions in its powder base. There's no denying that this is salty, MSG-packed stuff, but, well, that's the nature of ramen.
Miso Soybean Paste Flavor has a gut-stickingly rich sauce with a thick, velvety texture enhanced by a generous squeeze of miso paste that comes in the liquid seasoning packet. The dry seasonings also contain crushed sesame seeds, a common addition to miso-based ramen. Nutty, rich, and complex, this is my favorite of the three main flavors in their lineup. With a whopping 3,590 mg of sodium per serving, it's also the saltiest.
Soy Sauce Flavor is middle of the pack in terms of saltiness, but it's the flavor that is closest in flavor to a traditional bowl of shoyu ramen. The very first ingredient in the liquid seasoning packet is soy sauce, followed by oils, and bonito and mackerel extracts—all things that you'd find in a traditionally-made bowl of soup. The added oils pool up on the surface of the bowl, adding a glossy, slippery sheen to the bouncy noodles as you slurp them up.
I've still got a few more instant ramen favorites up my sleeve to share with you down the line, but what about you guys? Do you have a favorite brand of instant ramen that we might not have heard of?
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.