Momofuku Ando invented instant ramen in 1958, a product dreamed up in response to postwar hunger in Japan. More than 60 years later, it would prove to be the perfect pandemic fare. Nissin Foods, the company Ando founded, reported double-digit revenue growth in the first quarter of 2020. “Consumer demand increased dramatically after the coronavirus outbreak because people need to stay at home,” Kiyotaka Ando, the company’s chief executive officer, told the Japan Times in June. “Lifestyles will change as people will eat more processed food at home and less outside.”
The shelves of American grocery stores are testament to this, these days often picked clean of the familiar shiny, rectangular packets. It makes sense. Instant noodles are affordable. They are shelf-stable, perfect for stockpiling. And they are quick and easy to prepare. Anyone who has been a college student can probably do it in their sleep: Bring two cups of water to a boil. Cook the noodles for three minutes. Stir in the flavor packet. Eat.
My fascination — nay, minor obsession — with instant noodles goes back to childhood. We did not have them in my whole-wheat, home-baked household, and they fell into a category of deliciousness with Doritos, another minor obsession: processed, unwholesome, proudly artificial flag-wavers for sodium. Verboten. After school, I would go to a friend's house, where she would watch TV and I would slide into her kitchen pantry, a long closet lined with snack foods of my dreams. Stella D'oro Swiss Fudge cookies. Handi-Snacks crackers, with the little red plastic stick for spreading the cheese dip.
A whole shelf was devoted to instant noodles, in all of their many hues: the chicken-flavored yellow variety; the royal blue package that was then labeled "Oriental." (It has since been changed to "Soy Sauce" by both Nissin's Top Ramen and Maruchan, the two major brands found in US markets. Per the Maruchan website: "The name Oriental Flavor has now been updated to Soy Sauce Flavor to better reflect the distinct flavor profile of this tasty dish." I … don't think that's why.) I would choose mine carefully and begin the ritual, execute the formula, two cups, three minutes, never changing, perfect every time.
That predictability, that comfort, has particular appeal at the moment, when the world seems to realign each time we blink. So much is happening, it is as if we are living 20 different timelines at once, all stacked atop one another. Give me something simple, a small respite in front of the stove. Although instant ramen is infinitely customizable — add an egg! add some meat or tofu! add vegetables! — I don’t believe in that horse pucky. Customizing is just another word for cooking, and if that’s what I wanted to do right now, I wouldn’t be turning to Top Ramen. I eat my noodles straight.
I started craving instant ramen like I hadn't in decades.
That's when I found the shelves picked clean. I was not alone. It was clearly time for a taste test: Which instant ramen is the best instant ramen? This would be service journalism at its finest, and not at all an excuse for me to eat as many bowls of noodles as my heart desired.
I began trolling the Stop & Shops and Shaw's, trying to collect all of the pertinent flavors. There were elusive and important varieties I failed to come by (Maruchan Roast Beef, where art thou?). There were new flavors I never even knew existed, including game-changing variants on plain old chicken. I visited HMart in hopes of adding a few key selections popular in Asian markets, and found those shelves depleted of single packs as well. (Bulk noodles were more readily available, but I wasn't in this for commitment.) Ultimately, I wound up with 11 varieties everyone should be able to come by.
Top Ramen's chicken was my gold standard: my childhood favorite, the one that tasted to me like instant ramen should. I turned to it first. Same as it ever was — the block of dried noodles, interwoven into iconic artifact, looking like a stiff but edible and avant-garde knitting project, or a loofah of some sort. The broth cooked up some kind of golden, a laboratory saffron, the aroma intoxicating and unnatural. I tasted it. Deep salt, chicken-adjacent flavor, kinked noodles with a bit of bite and that utterly familiar taste. All was as it should be.
Then I tasted Maruchan’s roast chicken. Where the Top Ramen was generic, with a chicken-y broth that could belong to any soup mix, this was richer, deeper. It actually tasted like there might have been real chicken involved in the process, and that said chicken might have been roasted. It had a gingery note lingering in the background. It tasted browned. It also seemed, if possible, even saltier than Top Ramen’s chicken. But there was no question about it: It was better. On its packages, Top Ramen proudly prints its origin story, touting descent from Ando, the inventor of the form. Maruchan runs a disclaimer in a yellow box about how hot the product is, which seems aimed at litigious America. But parent company Toyo Suisan, the brainchild of an underrated frozen-fish distributor named Kazuo Mori, got into the instant ramen business in 1961. All those years of experience clearly count for something.
On the other hand, Maruchan also offers a creamy chicken that tastes like neither cream nor chicken but garlic-flavored Band-Aids. I guess a flavor called Garlic-Flavored Band-Aids wouldn’t sell as well. Toyo Suisan definitely sent its B-team of flavor scientists on creamy chicken day. Maybe the real pros were exhausted after all of their hard work on roast chicken.
Top Ramen’s soy sauce didn’t taste strongly of soy, either. There was an herbal soapiness to it, and it was pleasingly redolent of after-school nostalgia. I liked chicken better as a kid, and I still do. This flavor is a rare vegetarian offering, which is nice and also surprising: I wouldn’t have guessed real animal products needed to be involved in many of these flavors.
I had high hopes for Maruchan’s chili ramen, which stirs up into a deep brick red and tastes more like taco seasoning than anything. I might squeeze some lime into it, throw in shredded cheddar and cooked ground beef, and call it taco ramen for funsies. But I wouldn’t eat it on its own or buy it regularly. As for Top Ramen shrimp, I suspect it was made by people who think, probably correctly, that Americans don’t like things that taste fishy or strong. It wouldn’t offend anyone, but it probably also wouldn’t thrill anyone who was inclined to purchase shrimp-flavored ramen in the first place.
Top Ramen’s beef smelled mouthwateringly savory, but it didn’t taste beefy. As much as I’m a purist, this one would benefit from the addition of other ingredients, like mushrooms. But there’s really no reason to bother with beef if you can get your hands on Maruchan’s pork flavor ramen, which tasted just as good as it smelled. It was my favorite of the Top Ramen/Maruchan lineup.
For those who want truly beefy instant noodles, the widely available Shin Ramyun Black, from Korean brand Nongshim, should be your go-to. The round biscuit of noodles is accompanied by three separate packets: sliced shiitakes! scallions! a hearty, umami-heavy broth! It's almost too much like real food for instant ramen, but it's an enjoyable detour.
Sapporo Ichiban Shio (salt) ramen was a letdown, too overtly chemical and not tasty enough in the balance. My very favorite of the bunch was Indomie Mi Goreng, which I almost didn’t include because it’s not a soup: You drain the noodles before stirring in a packet of seasoning, some crunchy fried onions, seasoning oil, sambal chile sauce, and kecap manis, sweet soy sauce. The Indonesian brand, interestingly, enjoys deep popularity in Nigeria. I understand the love. It’s sweet, it’s salty, it’s spicy, and I was surprised to find myself craving it again later. The value pack I bought at HMart is now gone, and I’m a little bit sad about it.
My votes, in the end, are for Indomie Mi Goreng, Maruchan’s pork and roast chicken, and — the after-school special, the throwback pick — Top Ramen’s chicken. I’m also convinced that if you handed me a bowl of just about any one of the flavors I tried, on its own rather than in a side-by-side tasting, I’d enjoy it. Cheap, simple, quick, tasty: Instant ramen’s pleasures are eternal.