Instant noodles serve many a purpose. They are the International Food of the Student. They are a survival mechanism when saving for a music festival ticket or a new pair of sneakers. They are midnight snacks for chefs across the globe and, in dry form, they're an after-school treat for legions of primary school kids who can't boil water.
Some of them are also bloody delicious. Others, not so much. Here's a selection of eight brands, reviewed and recommended for your slurping pleasure - or not. Most of these can be found at your run-of-the-mill Asian grocer. I've cooked as per the packet instructions for each, and haven't dressed them up with fried egg, kombu or kimchi until after scoring. You can also find noodle-pimping ideas from chefs below.
Nong Shim Neoguri Udon - Seafood and Spicy Flavour (Korea)
A big puck of udon holds its form so a thousand squiggles of noodle breakaways don't fly across the kitchen on opening. The soup is thick, rust-red, and smells distinctly fishy. Special mention to a pouch of dried green bits featuring cuttlefish and seatangle (another term for kelp, apparently). The 120-gram serving size means you'll be fine with one packet.
Spice: 6 Slurp: 8 Taste: 8 Packet weirdness: 2
Mama - Pa-Lo Duck Flavour (Thailand)
Whoa, mama. A whopping 2.9 grams of sodium per 100 grams means one packet of these bad boys is enough to get your daily salt intake and then some. Two packets might send your blood pressure into orbit. The noodles are thin and bitey and have a weird toasty brown colour when dry. "Pa-Lo" is Thai for five spice, which I guess is why the soup smells of cinnamon and Father's Day licorice.
Spice: 6 Slurp: 2 Taste: 7 Packet weirdness: 3
Koka - Purple Wheat Noodles, Aglio Olio Flavour (Singapore)
Aglio e Olio is a simple Italian pasta of garlic and oil. It tastes of something. The instant noodle version is purple. It tastes like nothing. Perhaps a cheap, wheat-based breakfast cereal doused in canola oil. The packet states the noodles contain three times as many antioxidants as red grapes, a claim I originally questioned. However, I also questioned the serving suggestion of "parmesan cheese powder" and after a few mouthfuls I would have been stoked to have a can of cheese in the fridge to dress these up.
Spice: 0 Slurp: 1 Taste: 0 Packet weirdness: 4
Indomie - Mi goreng, Rasa Ayam Panggang Flavour (Indonesia)
No other instant noodle has a cult following like Indomie's Mi goreng range. It's the multiple flavour sachets that ascend things to another level. Scissors are recommended to open the trio of soy, chilli and seasoning oil, else you cop some sticky fingers and a stickier kitchen bench. The best Mi goreng flavour depends on what's available in jumbo size. (Note: The jumbo packs are a rare find at mainstream supermarkets. Get thee to an Asian grocer).
Spice: 6 Slurp: 6 Taste: 9 Packet weirdness: 2
Indomie - Mi goreng Rasa Bulgogi (Indonesia)
Indomie Mi goreng is amazing, so a deluxe version of everyone's favourite instant noodle can only be the greatest thing ever, right? Wrong. The packet's matte finish and shiny foil trim is nothing more than a cunning ploy to make you fork out hard-earned extra cents for an inferior product. To be fair, it's not really flogged as a better version of the original. This is the Korean bulgogi variation, which means four sachets instead of five: dried veg, sesame seeds, soy paste and chilli powder. The soy is the only guy representing here. The other sachets have the combined flavour profile of a tissue.
Spice: 2 Slurp: 2 Taste: 5 Packet weirdness: 2
Super Bihun Goreng (Indonesia)
Indonesia really knows its stuff when it comes to noodles. And bizarre serving suggestions. The Super Bihun packet posits the noodles be served with a fake fried egg, two prawns, a chicken drumstick and a rose. There's also a weird little bomb logo that could well be a kamikaze mullet. Overall, they're ultra-thin rice noodles without much backbone. The sachets provide a good deal of oomph and are fine graduates from the "Mi goreng" school of seasoning. There's sweet soy, chilli, bumbu (broth) powder and a pouch of white garlic. Great stuff.
Spice: 3 Slurp: 6 Taste: 8 Packet weirdness: 9
RARA Noodles (Nepal)
A nice effort from a country not known for its instant noodle output. RARA noodles are sweet and spicy with fragrant notes of rose and turmeric. My notes at the time of writing read "salty as duck" but I'm certain some of that was penned by the smartphone's autocorrect. There's also a cool packet photo of roast chicken giving birth to parsley while the lime-wedge midwives sit around and do nothing. I stumbled across a blog that suggests tasting RARA should be top of your to-do list when visiting Nepal. I'd maybe put it below, say, seeing Mount Everest or visiting the temples of Bhaktapur, but hey, when in Rome ...
Spice: 4 Slurp: 2 Taste: 7 Packet weirdness: 8
Wei Lih Jah Jan Mien (Taiwan)
One pack! Two tastes! The Pac-Man logo might look like a Sesame Street character but he's actually a handy serving suggestion symbolising a noodle bowl. You add the drained noodles to one bowl and coat in soybean paste, then add some hot water to another bowl and stir in the seasoning powder. Eat some noodles, quaff the MSG soup and repeat. They have an old-school Maggi flavour with a hint of curry. They're right up there with Mi goreng in terms of umami levels, and the cute noodle-bowl guy on the packet edges Wei Lih into top position.
Spice: 7 Slurp: 6 Taste: 9 Packet weirdness: 5
Chefs from around the country share how they like to jazz up their ramen to its full potential.
Dan Hong, Mr. Wong and Ms. G's, Sydney
"I always have an egg with Mi goreng," Hong says. "My wife likes to fry up Barossa Fine Foods ox tongue with her noodles." Hong adds that his sous chef once purchased a $50 David Blackmore wagyu steak and plated it with some instant noodles. The result was "pretty gangster", he says.
Hong's top three instant noodles are:
1. Nong Shim brand Kimchi Bowl - legitimately tastes like kimchi with little dried bits of the stuff that rehydrate when water's added.
2. Mama brand Tom Yum Flavour - lots of quality Mama flavours but Tom Yum trumps.
3. Indomie brand Mi Goreng, original flavour - needs no introduction.
Victor Liong, Lee Ho Fook, Collingwood
Instant noodles are a favourite midnight snack of Liong's. His recipe for pimping them up is as follows:
1. Source either Noodle King Supreme Crab Flavour or Nong Shim Spicy Ramyun.
2. Add cuttlefish balls or tofu fish cubes to some water and bring to the boil. Add noodles and cook to desired softness.
3. Add one tablespoon of Lee Kum Kee XO sauce, two teaspoons of Lau Gan Ma Spicy Chilli Crisp sauce and top with anything green kicking about (nori sheets, spring onion, coriander, etc).
"Best after a few negronis," Liong says. Hear, hear.
Dan Wilson, Huxtable, Fitzroy
Always use "a couple of spoonfuls of XO chilli sauce with some chopped peanuts and fried shallots to give it a bit of texture", Wilson says. "Fresh herbs such as Thai basil and coriander, too." The Huxtaburger maestro also recommends adding chopped Koh-Kae peanuts, a Thai peanut snack sold in jars depicting a nerdy karate dude brandishing a picket-sign. "You can get tom yum favoured ones that are quite spicy and have a delicious crispy coconut coating on them," he says.
Hamish Ingham, Bar H, Surry Hills
Ingham isn't a fan of the seasoning packets that come with instant noodles. "I love to cook them in the chicken or beef stock we make at Bar H instead," he says. To jazz the noodles up, Ingham adds some barbecue pork, first marinating the pork in a mixture of garlic, ginger, tamari, hoisin and honey. "The kids help out and we grill the pork on Japanese binchotan charcoal and add it to the noodles for a protein kick."
Health note: The MSG, sodium and saturated fat levels in instant noodles tend to be huge (which is why they taste so great). While the temptation is always to boil up two packets instead of one, it's probably better to throw in some greens and fixings, thus transforming your moment of MSG guilt into a substantial meal.