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Many people -- students, prisoners or the just plain broke -- equate instant noodles with empty pockets, but this cheap food can be a source of comfort amid economic discomfort.
By Christopher Solomon
There are days -- you may be living them now -- when even the dollar menu feels like a stretch and your cupboards are boring or just plain bare. You're not starving, but you are hungry. You are not destitute, but you are broke.
Somewhere in the dark corners of your pantry lies the answer: 16 cents' worth of cellophane, dried noodles and chicken-flavored salt, enough calories to limp through an afternoon.
It is comfort food in the ultimate sense of the word: the comfort that you can eat, and feel as if you've eaten, for mere pennies.
One does not hanker for instant ramen. One doesn't dive into the cupboard in search of ramen and emerge with, say, tomato soup. It is almost always the other way around.
Yet this meal of last resort is all the more satisfying, because the alternative -- hunger -- is unthinkable.
Years from now, when food is memory, mashed potatoes will conjure up your grandmother and Froot Loops your childhood. But nothing will say hard times like instant ramen.
You could tell your children that you worked four jobs to get through college. Or you could just say, "I ate ramen noodles every day." They'll understand.
Overpriced at a dime?
Single packages of ramen on the shelves of national grocery chains sell from a dime at Wal-Mart to as much as $2.79 (for the fancy-shmancy stuff) elsewhere, but no noodle-head worth his salt would pay that top price or buy just one pack.
Usually you can score six for a buck without breaking a sweat, and 20 for a dollar isn't unusual if you don't mind playing dollar-store roulette.
In countries where instant noodles are a middle-class staple, an increase in sales usually portends hard times. In Thailand, the dominant Mama Noodles brand has spawned the "Mama Noodles Index," which accurately forecast a weakening of the economy in 2005.
But is that true in the United States? Do instant-noodle sales track inversely with the stock market?
It's tempting to think so. But you'd be wrong.
"Frankly, looking at the history, ramen sales are fairly stable," says Linda Chung, the senior marketing manager for Nissin Foods. "It's a pantry loader; it's a go-to item regardless of economic times. So we don't see dramatic sales changes regardless of the economic times."
Perhaps that's because the financial situation of a good part of the noodle-buying public -- inmates and undergrads -- is never anything but tenuous.
Home cooking for inmates
Similarly handicapped by a scarcity of cash and cooking facilities, college students and prisoners have made ramen part of their institutional lexicons.
"I do get some crazy recipes from people in jail," says blogger Matt Fischer, the founder of The Official Ramen Homepage. "What they'll end up doing is open up the package and then turn up the tap water really hot, and mix it up, and then chop up a Slim Jim and put it in there, and then put in some Cheetos.
"Makes you think that the food in there must be pretty bad."
In Texas prisons, ramen goes for the captive-audience price of 20 cents a pack, but commissaries there sell about 2.3 million packages a month.
At that rate, the 2 million inmates in U.S. prisons would be responsible for about 10% of the nation's 4.2 billion instant-noodles sales. What inmates once priced in cigarettes they now trade for noodles.
Outside the big house, blogger Fischer extends the concept of ramen as currency: "The $700 billion (bailout) will buy you 3.5 TRILLION packs of ramen at 20 cents per pack, although I imagine you could get a better discount at that bulk rate," he writes.
"At 6.725 billion people, we could also buy every single person on Earth 520 packs of ramen!"
Surely a great number of America's 17 million undergrads would accept, for ramen is as much a part of the college as the Freshman 15. It competes on campus with mac and cheese (the orange-powder kind) for broke-food superiority and wins mostly because students forget to snag milk, let alone butter, from their dining halls.
"Ramen really saved me when I was a college student," says Alex Ness, a Rockford, Minn., poet, author and prolific blogger. "There was a time when I had $20 for food for a month. And for 30 cents, let's say, for a meal, I could reasonably eat and feel reasonably full, without yawning hunger pains."
Though many people can't taste instant ramen without tasting lean times, for Ness it's just the opposite: It brings memories of brief respite. It's his salty madeleine, if you will.
Do we outgrow ramen?
Andy Raskin's experience is different.
"I ate them in college to get through. I went to Yale. And there was a dining-hall-workers strike," recounts Raskin.
Though the university refunded the students' meal-plan costs, "that's not a lot per day," he says. The students made the most of that money by turning to noodles.
Raskin hasn't eaten much ramen since, but the experience has lingered: He's the author of a forthcoming book, "The Ramen King and I (How the Inventor of Instant Noodles Fixed My Love Life)," to be published in 2009.
He even runs a Dear Abby-like advice column, Ramen Advice, based on the life and writings of Momofuku Ando, whose 1958 invention of the flash-fried noodle eventually spawned giant Nissin Foods and changed the outlook of undergrads forever.
Yet while most noodle slurpers simply move on with their lives, that doesn't mean there aren't flashbacks.
Ramen -- the not-instant, traditional kind -- has become hip.
"Out here in San Francisco, there definitely has been a ramen boom, especially in the South Bay," Raskin says.
"We are living in a ramen moment," GQ restaurant critic Alan Richman agrees. Elvis Costello even named a 2008 album "Momofuku."
The "real" ramen won't be mistaken for something with a flavor packet, as a recent outing to a ramen joint in Manhattan's East Village showed. The broth was dark and complex, the noodles supple, the bowl nearly overflowing with toppings of chopped scallions, seaweed, perfectly boiled egg halves.
Of course, a skinflint might note that he could have eaten for a month on that $9.
Ramen won't kill you . . . will it?
Anybody who's ever felt his tongue shrivel or lips pucker with a salty slurp of ramen has wondered: How bad is this stuff for you, anyway?
Well, the noodles are flash-fried in vegetable oil, which sucks out the moisture but also adds fat. And then there's the sodium, aka salt. "It's mostly going to come from the flavor packet," says Chung, of Nissin Foods.
Make that lots of salt: A serving of instant ramen -- any brand -- can have more than one-third of the recommended daily allowance of salt.
But here's the thing: That packet of ramen you just opened isn't just one serving. As The Ramen Blog points out, a "cursory glance at all the ramen in Ramen HQ's cupboards showed the same thing: that the instant ramen industry considers one pack of instant ramen to be three servings."
But that three-servings-in-one payoff is at least part of the reason Ness recently spent five weeks eating nothing but ramen.
His young son took ill and could eat only soups and yogurts. To make recovery easier for his son, Ness thought he'd do the same. Trouble was, the soups and yogurts didn't fill him up. "And when you are a chubby buddy like me, you desire to fill your belly."
So it was ramen, usually two packages (six servings!) for lunch, every day. And he'd like to report that he's still very much alive. And reasonably healthy.
"This isn't like the movie 'Super Size Me,' where I ended up with liver damage or something," scoffs Ness.
Nissin sells a more healthful soup called Choice Ramen, with baked noodles, that has 80% less fat and 25% less sodium than its popular Top Ramen. But "we are looking to discontinue it, to be honest, because it's not selling so well," Chung says. For the people who shop for ramen, "health is not at the top of their list" of priorities, she says.
Well, there's a shocker.
Use your imagination
People who've eaten instant ramen for years -- and continue to, at least occasionally, even if they can afford steak -- long ago left the all the salt and the just-add-water simplicity behind. They doll up their soups all sorts of ways. And they've got advice.
You can take your tips from prisoners, college students or the experts at Delish, MSN's new food site.
Or you could take them from writer Ness, who obviously is a bit of a connoisseur by this point.
"I don't use the broth as prescribed, if you will," he says. After the noodles are cooked, he pours out the water usually reserved for broth, mixes in a raw egg -- "the egg cooks up a bit because, if you mix it up well, you've got it with boiling hot noodles, and it's nice and sticky" -- and finally stirs in just one packet of flavoring. "And enjoy!"
Worldwide, noodle flavors range from cocoa (really!) to chili.
"Lime shrimp, I think, is kick-butt. It just stands out compared to the rest. There's chili, which is a little hotter than some people would like. But anyone can do pretty well with a 12-pack," Ness says.
His wife remains mystified at his passion for instant noodles. (Very rarely, she'll eat a pack of Sapporo Ichiban noodles, which Ness thinks costs about 80 cents a pack -- an act whose profligacy seems almost to wound him.)
All in all, of his five-week noodle orgy, he says, "I consider the experiment to be highly successful and proof that man can exist forever on ramen."
"Well, maybe not forever."
Published Nov. 4, 2008