While the notion of pimping up your instant ramen has been a culinary phenomenon within college circles, many often go overboard with overpowering sauces and clashing condiments. A squeeze of sriracha may provide a much-needed kick to an ordinary broth, but when you find yourself shooting a steady stream into a piping hot bowl of soup, it kind of feels like overkill. Imagine drowning a perfectly decent steak in an overwhelming peppercorn sauce; it’s almost a crime. (Note: focus on the concept rather than the ingredients; steak and instant ramen are, indeed, far from interchangeable products.) Sometimes, a few simple ingredients can stretch your dollar and elevate the mundane instant ramen into something far tastier and exciting.
1. Enoki mushrooms
These bad boys make the perfect last-minute addition to any bowl of soup noodles. Chuck them into the pot at the very end and watch them cook literally within seconds. They will provide a delicate, soft ‘crunch’ that enhances each bite, especially since instant ramen has a reputation for losing its springy texture as opposed to fresh noodles.
2. Shitake mushrooms
Ahh, the grand ol’ shiitake. Synonymous with Asian cuisine, these mushrooms take slightly longer to cook than the enoki, but they bring an unmistakeable earthiness that works brilliantly in soups. They have a leg up over button mushrooms too, as shiitakes absorb liquids better, ensuring each morsel is juicy and flavourful.
3. Oyster mushrooms
An equally delicious alternative should shiitakes prove hard to come by.
The silken variety works best here. And for naysayers, here’s something to chew on: think of tofu as an ‘ebb’ to the ramen ‘flow.’ For every three slurps of ramen, a bite of tofu provides a timely respite – a change of pace just when the constant flow of ramen starts to dull.
Sometimes I’d like to think the whole point of ‘pimping’ up your instant ramen is to replicate the experience of dining in an actual ramen shop. Enter corn, a staple in any Hokkaido-style ramen. Of course, a marinated soft-boiled egg and some cha shu would be nice, but we’re being realistic here.
6. Bok Choy
Basically any leafy vegetable will work here, but bok choy has a leaf-to-stem ratio that lends some much-needed crunch – so long as you don’t boil it to oblivion. Leave kale and swiss chard at the salad bar and give this under appreciated green a go.
7. Napa Cabbage
Another leafy cabbage that is commonly used in Chinese soups. Koreans exalt the Napa cabbage to iconic status as a centerpiece for kimchi, but rid of such pungent seasonings, its natural, pure flavor comes through. Furthermore, its texture is somewhat forgiving, so overcooking it isn’t a travesty.
Often used as a vibrant garnish to finish off dishes, the humble scallion, when used wisely, will find a way to your heart as it has mine. Its subtle onion punch, further subdued when it meets a steaming hot broth, kisses each mouthful with zing and zip. Think of everything that is instant ramen – pre-cooked, one-note, muted – and know that scallions bring the opposite.
9. Sesame oil
This one requires a steady hand and that beloved word: restraint. Too much, and its nutty aroma can be overpowering. Too little and you can barely taste the difference. A few drops goes a long way, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would object to its addition. It’s almost as good a match for ramen as truffle oil is for French fries.
Black garlic oil (Mayu) is all the rage these days and we can approximate its effect rather simply at home. Finely mince garlic, sprinkle some salt over it and smear it together into an intense, garlicky paste. Drop it in your soup, have a slurp and join the cult.
No ramen is complete without an egg. Soft boiled, hard-boiled or simply cracked into the pot midway through cooking, the egg is the holy grail. Carbonara without bacon is still carbonara, but there’s something missing. Same story here, different noodle.
Put it all together and your instant ramen will go from boring to gourmet: