Ramen Noodles

'C'mon, Eve. Spend a few more pennies and enjoy your ramen," chided my old college buddy Canisius. "There are some really good ramens out there, and they don't take any longer to prepare." Canisius is a longtime bachelor and has become something of a packaged-ramen connoisseur. He was out for a visit, escaping the chill of a Wisconsin winter, and had caught me heating up a bowl of bargain-basement noodles.

I was skeptical. "Gourmet ramen" sounded a little like "gourmet cheese curls." So I took his claim as a challenge, hit a few local markets, and dragged Patrick and Canisius to Ranch 99 Market (858-974-8899) in Clairemont Mesa. "It's like ramen Mecca here," marveled Canisius as he scanned the aisle and picked up some of his favorites. We headed home and called my friends Kate and Anna, recent college grads with fresh memories of late-night ramen feasts. They came over to help us slurp through our 15 entries.

Steam frosted the kitchen windows as Canisius boiled up ramen, three pots at a time. Kate asked for chopsticks -- "I want to make the experience authentic!" she cried -- but had to settle for a fork. We started with what we knew: chicken-flavor Nissin Top Ramen ($.12 for a 3 oz. packet at Vons). All agreed, now that we were paying attention and not just filling our bellies, that the noodles resembled Styrofoam and the broth was bland. Pork-flavored Maruchan Ramen [$.20 for 3 oz. at Vons] fared better. "The noodles are fluffier," noted Kate. "The broth is briny," added Anna. "There's more flavor, but it's from the salt," concluded Patrick.

The bargain-basement ramens weren't the worst of it, though. That title belonged to the curry-flavor Westbrae Natural Ramen ($1.99 for 3 oz. at Henry's). "The gummy noodles stick to your teeth," moaned Kate. "And the buckwheat flavor of the noodles is overpowering," added Canisius. "The only thing stronger is the bitterness of the curry in the broth." He was a little less offended by the Thai Kitchen's spring onion ramen ($.79 for 3 oz. at Whole Foods). "The broth smells like scallions, but it tastes like Lipton onion soup mix -- the kind you add to sour cream to make dip." Said Anna, "The noodles liquefy in your mouth."

Beef-flavored ramen from Sapporo Ichiban ($.79 for 3.5 oz. at Vons) restored our hopes. "The salt is more subtle," I cooed, "and the noodles have a fatty richness." Kate agreed but thought a whole bowl would be heavy going.

Canisius smiled as he started in on the Ranch 99 Market ramens -- now we would see what ramen could do, he assured us. The chicken-flavor Nissin Demai ramen ($.49 for 3.5 oz.) was the perfect counter to the Sapporo. "The noodles are fluffy -- tender yet light," said Kate. "It's like they're the Brawny of noodles," said Canisius. "They're super-absorbent, soaking up broth and flavor."

A foodie friend of mine once told me that real-deal, freshly made ramen is judged by the quality of its broth. So I was intrigued by the next eight ramens, all of which came with two or three flavor packets for constructing the broth. Samyang produced the next two entries (both $.69 for 4.23 oz.), and both noodles and broth were miles ahead of everything we'd had so far. "A nice gluten chew to the noodles," observed Canisius. Added Anna, "I can taste each one individually, and they're smooth, like glass. And the broth is meaty." The chief difference between them was that the ramen from the red package gave hints of chili flavor.

The noodles in the Nongshim Kimchi ramen ($.79 for 4.23 oz.) were like silk ribbons. "I get lots of carrot flavor," said Patrick, "and a creeping heat that wafts up into my sinus." He kept going back to the bowl, until he got a taste of the Nongshim seafood ramen ($.79 for 4.41 oz.). "It smells like a tidal pool, but the broth is like concentrated fish stock," he said. "It's complex; I get lots of flavors -- onion, seaweed, spice, fish. And the noodles are like Rapunzel's hair."

He championed the seafood ramen against the next offering: Myojo Chukazanmai soybean-paste ramen ($1.31 for 3.83 oz.). Kate argued that it was like a meal in a bowl. "The thick broth clings to the twisty noodles. And there's lots of sesame flavor, and peanuts, with a balance of sweetness and soy. The Myojo is working its magic on me."

The last three packets all hailed from Thailand. "Are those really ramen?" asked Anna. "I thought ramen came from Japan, and these noodles look different." "I think of ramen as referring to any packaged noodle soup," answered Canisius as he stirred. I had done my homework, and I whipped out Julia Moskin's New York Times article on the subject. Turns out ramen is a Chinese dish that caught on in Japan in the '50s. Instant ramen came along in 1958, when the founder of Nissin Foods, Momofuku Ando, decided to deep-fry the springy ramen noodles in order to preserve them. Ramen as served in ramen shops consists of soup, chef's tare (soy sauce, sugar, and rice wine), noodles made springy by the addition of baking soda to the dough, and traditional toppings such as roast pork, hard-cooked egg, scallions, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and slices of fish cake.

The matter settled (sort of), we got back to eating. The Mama flat-rice-noodle clear soup ($.29 for 1.75 oz.) was a disappointment: slippery noodles, oily broth, and a sour flavor that stood out on our tongues. Where Mama failed, Wai Wai sour soup ($.29 for 2.1 oz.) succeeded. Thin spiral noodles, pliant yet firm, swam in a broth oozing with lemongrass and spice.

We finished the evening with Mama's Pad Thai ($.49 for 2.47 oz.). All delighted in the delicate, sweet flavor, the spicy peanut finish, and the noodles that slid down the throat like raw oysters.

The favorites: Canisius liked the Wai Wai sour soup; Patrick the Nongshim seafood ramen; Anna the Nongshim Kimchi ramen; and Kate and I, the Myojo Chukazanmai soybean-paste ramen. Definitely worth the extra cents.

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