After interviewing Hans Lienesch, the Ramen Rater, I wondered: how does the instant ramen in my neighborhood rate? What’s best? There are countless brands of instant noodles made and distributed around the world. How hard or punishing would it be to taste one’s way through a stack of them to figure out what’s worth keeping in the cupboard?
And, after 17 packages of ramen, I couldn’t eat anymore. My feet were swollen like they’d been on a transcontinental flight. It had to stop somewhere.
If we can rank our pro football teams, I thought, we can do it to our food. Why not take the sports analogy even further, I asked myself through sodium-induced mania at 1:30 in the morning, and for a while, I was convinced I’d created a highly scientific and totally foolproof metric to measure instant noodle quality. The equation looked something like this:
rSCORE = (R_taste*1.1)〖+R〗_value+V_misc-((N_a-2000))/500
I eventually realized that what I had done didn’t make much sense at all; I’ll chalk it up to hallucinations due to consuming one million percent of my daily salt intake. In the end, I just assigned a 1-10 score and plotted the brands on a scatter chart based on taste and price.
MyKuali Penang White Curry
Like Hans Lienesch, The Ramen Rater, said in my interview with him, there’s just nothing like this on the market right now. The creamy, sinus-clearing broth actually tastes like it took more than three minutes to prepare. It includes a sachet of non-dairy creamer (!), and it is the one instant noodle you might be able to pass off in an actual restaurant. The only issue is that it’s difficult to find—I had to get it on eBay, where I paid about $2.75 per package.
Taste (out of 10): 9.5
Acecook Super Big Ramen Tonkotsu
I loved this ramen—the broth was deeply rich and creamy, like having a nice hot pig smoothie. The ramen block was also exceptional, with thicker-than-average noodles. This product also had, by a lot, the most insane amount of sodium: 3,080 mg, which is 128% of your daily allowance. Your rings won’t fit your hands after eating this, but your palate will thank you.
Ottogi Jin Ramen Mild
The best thing about this ramen is that there’s a huge picture of Los Angeles Dodgers pitching sensation Hyun-Jin Ryu on the package. He’s lightly touching the brim of his cap and staring at you intently, as if to say, “This? You’re eating this? And you want to be a pro athlete like me?” The ramen itself is pretty good; it actually comes closer in approaching the flavors of a vegetable and beef stew than the Nongshim black (see below). The veggies that come with this one are particularly decent, and almost not sad at all.
Shin Black Ramen
This popular flavor from Nongshim has become de rigeur for the casual ramen enthusiast. For my part, every time I hear the name, I think “Whoa, Black Ramen (bam-ba-lam) Whoa, Black Ramen.” The label officially declares Black ramen to be “spicy pot-au-feu flavor”—but it comes across more like a spicy kimchi stew and less like the celebrated French dish. It’s still delicious, if maybe slightly undeserving of its extreme popularity.
Nissin Big Bowl Spicy Picante
Lately, there has been a strong push from ramen companies into the Hispanic market, and this seems to be Nissin’s most recent release. It comes with a fun sachet of “soup enhancer,” and the flavor is close to a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos con Limón. (I happen to love Flamin’ Hot Cheetos con Limón.) The best part: you can put the bowl in the microwave for very easy prep.
Ottogi Cup Ramen Hot
Woo-eee! This was the one ramen that was legitimately spicy, enough so that I had to back up off of it and set my cup down for a minute for a water break. This offering from Ottogi comes in the smallest serving size of the contenders, but it’s mighty. Officially yukgaejang flavor, it’s reminiscent of the Korean dish: beefy and hot pepper-y.
Including this one is technically cheating, as it’s 1) udon and 2) not instant (the noodles come half-cooked in a vacuum-sealed plastic packet), but I couldn’t resist it because my LORD, the packaging! This is, without a question, an example of advertising done right. The bowl is beautifully designed: matte finish, cute drawings, and a pleasingly shaped bowl with reusable plastic lid that fits perfectly around the base of the bowl, forming a little stand. The noodles are also totally decent.
Top Ramen Oriental Flavor
I am not deducting points for racism here, but rather judging the ramen on its flavor merits; the broth is a soy base, which I usually find a bit boring, but it’s redeemed by some nice ginger overtones. It’s actually one of the better flavors of Top Ramen. By way of comparison, I licked my own arm to see if the tastes were similar. Disappointingly, they were not.
Hiraki Miso Tempura “Udon”
The “udon” is in quotes on the package, because this is really just a thick ramen noodle. The fun part is that it comes with a little mini-veggie tempura! It’s circular, and reconstitutes over a few minutes in the hot soup. Now, this would seem to eliminate any possibility of the tempura being crunchy (which is sort of the point of tempura). Nevertheless, the novelty counts for something, and the flavor of the soggy tempura actually pretty closely approximates real soggy tempura. Nice job!
Maruchan Roast Chicken Flavor
It was between this flavor or regular chicken, which was right next to it. This just looked so much better, and given the fact that roast chicken is advertised as having “RICH flavor,” why would anyone not choose this one? There’s a slight difference between the two that’s difficult to detect—roast chicken is somewhat smokier, almost a little greasier. It’s superior, but just barely.
Cup Noodles Beef Flavor
Good ol’ Cup Noodles is there when you need it—like a comfortable but unflattering pair of jeans, or a casual, emotionally unavailable hook-up. It’s not something you want to make a habit of, but it’ll satisfy in a pinch. This is instant ramen at its most average: some sad corn, a few peas, and a beefy broth that tastes decent. There’s even some strange, spongy reconstituted beef bits thrown in.
Sapporo Ichiban Original Flavor
“Ichiban” means “number one”—quite a claim! And an incorrect one, at that; these noodles are definitely in the Maruchan/Top Ramen category of mediocrity. “Original flavor” tastes like someone threw chicken stock, beef stock, and soy sauce together in one big vat—not bad, but it’s not good, either.
Maruchan Chili Flavor
My major beef with Maruchan is that they’re totally pathetic with the veggies. There will sometimes be one or two small flecks of leek or onion, but often nothing at all. The broth is supposed to be spicy, but it’s at best mild. It could do itself a favor by adding a little tang, like Nissin’s Spicy Picante, as its current iteration is nothing special.
Maruchan Shrimp Flavor
This is definitely somewhat fishy, vaguely reminiscent of a prawn cracker—but the overall flavor leaves a lot to be desired. The picture on the package shows a bowl of the noodles with a bunch of huge, actual shrimp in it, which is probably what you would need to do if you really wanted this to taste like shrimp.
Kirin Ramen Shoyu
There was no English at all on this package, so I had to dig up the receipt to see exactly what I bought. There’s a cute giraffe with a bowtie on the front, so for a while I just thought of this particular noodle as being giraffe-flavored (turns out it’s shoyu, or soy sauce-flavored). The noodles are decent, with good chew, but the broth was salty and underwhelming.
Ohsawa Healthy Genmai Ramen
This had a lot of potential: noodles with great bite to them and a liquid flavor sachet full of sesame miso seasoning. Sadly, though, it came up a bit weak in the flavor department. This is the one “healthy” ramen package I bought—additive-free, macrobiotic—as well as the most expensive. It didn’t really pay off.
Paldo Green Tea Chlorella Ramen
I couldn’t resist getting this once I saw that the noodles themselves were green. What could possibly go wrong? A lot, as it turns out. These noodles manage to have a horrible aftertaste, which is something of a feat considering that the initial bite contains absolutely no taste at all. The soup is a somewhat fishy soy broth. I could not detect any green tea flavor. I learned my lesson: the novelty of an amusingly colored noodle doesn’t matter when the taste is so far off-base.