Sometimes I think that the story of my life is written in strands of instant noodles. Ramen. I cannot remember a time when I didn’t eat them, and I cannot remember the first time I was introduced to them. They bring back memories of school holidays, and cooking for myself, of work lunches, and the silly looks I got for my ramen bowl, of student days, and much needed cheap nourishment.
It starts early, and misses the point. My mother and I made noodles together, and we were always a bit puzzled by the instructions. They wanted us to have them steeping in a broth, and that was alien to us. We boiled them dry every time, the broth boiling down to a thick sauce only just coating the long strands. I always chose the same pan, the burn marks on the side showing just the right amount of water for the noodles to absorb enough water without producing the alien broth around them all.
At some point, cooking my lunch for myself during my summer holidays, days spent watching the TV, I decided to add a dollop of cold tomato pasta sauce and sprinkle on grated “parmesan”. Italianising Chinese noodles created a flavour I can still bring readily to my mind almost thirty years later. Tasty.
The noodles were always of the Japanese or Chinese varieties, and never the English version. Part of this was that the English version was five times the price; latterly I found out that the English version turned to a rancid puree in the pan, rather than firm noodles. I’ll never try the leading brand again.
What I did try was what I had been missing out from the get go: broth. My mother and I, until I was in my late twenties, had never eaten a bowl of noodles in broth. We were in our favourite Japanese restaurant yet again, and we were exploring the non-sushi dishes on the menu. I saw “Big Bowl Noodles”, with a chicken katsu option. I ordered it out of sheer curiosity more than anything else.
It really was a big bowl, too. Noodles, topped with a variety of bits – sweetcorn, bean shoots and sprouts, seaweed, brightly coloured discs of egg – and a sliced up chicken escallop, striped in katsu sauce, and bathed in miso. It is a dish I keep coming back to. I can’t believe it took two decades of noodle eating for the most common preparation of ramen to cross my mind. It made me feel so stupid for years of ignoring the instructions which were right there in front of me the whole time.
I have spent years of my life making a concerted study of the noodles available to me in the local supermarkets (dull, mostly chicken or curry flavoured; best suited to boiling dry) and the less local oriental supermarkets. It was in the latter that I started to notice something disturbing: an arms race of spiciness being fought across South-East Asia. It was a terrifying, if ultimately rewarding, quest.
I started with Chinese and Japanese noodles, and spice never really made much of an appearance; everything was fresh and tasty: Tonkotsu and various types of seafood. But then I started noticing names of soups I recognised – Tom Yum and the like – and I started to dip my toes in to noodles from Thailand. All was well until I discovered Korean noodles and realised I didn’t want to be able to feel my tongue anyway. Thai noodles are fiery hot, but Korean noodles are out to kill your family.
I started with Kimchi flavoured noodles and thought I was so cool. It was during my study of the world of cup and bowl noodles, favoured throughout Korea and Thailand. It ended with the best of the best: Shin Ramyun. Noodles so fiery my eyes almost popped out on stalks; I was forever hooked.
As you can see, my noodle explorations have gone through a number of distinct phases, from the cheap supermarket and pound shop packets to the spicy polystyrene bowls of the oriental market. Through most of this I have been stumbling in the darkness, looking for something I wasn’t sure about, written in a script I couldn’t read. Every so often – like when my mouth recovered after my first Shin Ramyun – I would rejoice in finding a new favourite. Black garlic tonkotsu is one of those.
For years my great whale was a particular type of duck flavoured rice noodles I had had once before. I remember them being thick and sticky and rich. I remember the packets which came with them having an almost congealed fat look about them. I cooked them dry, as was my style, one school holiday, and then spent the next few years trying to find them. I still never have; I still miss them.
On that search, however, I spent a great deal of time looking through racks of noodles in an oriental market, while my mother stood bored. I would buy armfuls, just to make it look less like I was in need of some assistance. Trying these random concoctions opened my eyes to worlds of flavours.
That said, I mostly came to see the world of packagings involved, as a lot of the noodle flavours were variations on the same themes of seafood, mushrooms and spice. Every type came with a new set of odd packets of sauces, goops, fats, powders and dried things. I would add them all in diligently, being unable to read the instructions, and I would see what would result. I learned to enjoy the texture of only partially rehydrated wheat cake, and I learned that many of the seasonings went in at the end.
Nong Shim, of Shin Ramyun fame, make bowl noodles: built of polystyrene, containing everything noodle enthusiasts need for a tasty lunch. The kimchi one was as hot as hell, the prawn one was full of barely rehydrated shrimp, and the udon one was, well, Japanese. I hate normal udon: they’re too fat and I always feel like I’m drowning. These were simple ramen, but with caricatures of “Japanese” flavours. As with the big bowls I had first encountered, they came with a variety of bits, only dried. Dried seaweed and dried vegetables, and dried multi-coloured egg replacements. It took me days to recall the discs of egg they were replicating, by which time I was fork-deep in a bowl of Shin Ramyun.