Like many people, I’ve spent a lot of time at home alone this year. I’ve been trying to keep my home-cooked meals interesting, but as a freelance writer, I’m on a tight budget and tight deadlines.
There’s really only one meal that satisfies me, saves money, and can always be made in a flash: instant noodles.
You may be thinking, “Instant noodles? They’re meant for college students and sad desk lunches. Suitable for an occasional snack, maybe.” But you’re also probably thinking of those less-than-a-dollar foam cups that have been around more than half a century.
Well, guess what? We’re no longer in those times! It is very possible to eat instant noodles every day and enjoy them without much effort at all. You just need to know what you’re doing.
My favorite method requires only a single pot of boiling water and a few minutes of your time — and you can use it again and again, with lots of opportunities for variety along the way.
Until recently, the only instant noodles you could get in most stores were deep-fried in oil before they reached our kitchens. But over the last few years, a renaissance across Asia has brought us air-dried instant noodles, which have a far superior texture and don’t taste oily — good enough to give restaurants a run for their money. These noodles often come in gentle, wavy strands instead of tightly packed curls.
Most air-dried noodles are imported to the United States. My favorites are brands from Taiwan, like KiKi Noodle, Tseng Noodle, and Mom’s Dry Noodle, though there are new ones coming out all the time now.
To find them, examine the packaging for the words “air-dried” or “non-fried.” When in doubt, check the nutrition label: Air-dried noodles usually have a much lower fat content.
The principles of hotpot are simple: You have an uncovered pot of gently boiling broth, and you toss in ingredients like meat, veggies, and noodles and cook them together. This concept works surprisingly well for instant noodles too — but instead of eating them right out of the pot, you’ll drain them and mix them with a tasty sauce.
Use a 3- or 4-quart saucepan and boil enough water to fully submerge your noodles and any other ingredients. The idea is to save time by cooking everything at the same time — with no extra cleanup.
From the original Cup Noodles to the 1980s smash hit Shin Ramyun, many of us have been conditioned to expect a hot, salty broth with our instant noodles. But some of the most delicious instant noodles don’t come with a broth at all.
Instead of a packet of powdered flavoring, many of the newest “dry” noodles come with tasty, complex sauces that you add your noodles to once they’re cooked and drained.
Some are spicy, some are garlicky, some are vinegary, some are oniony, some are made of black bean, some taste like curry. They’re not as thick or wet as Italian pasta sauces. Think of them as a light coat of umami goodness that goes a long way.
Like hotpot, good instant noodles are all about having good proteins. In this case, frozen proteins are the best proteins. I like to stock up on a bunch of frozen items that I can throw into the pot depending on my mood.
Again, hotpot is a great source of inspiration when it comes to dressing up your instant noodles. I prefer items with a bit of body, things that hold up well in the pot and won’t get lost in the noodle strands.
Dumplings, seafood balls, thin-sliced meat, fish cakes, imitation crabmeat, and raw shrimp are some of my favorites that require zero extra prep. And since they have pretty mild flavors, they pair well with just about any noodle-sauce combo.
Eggs are a classic addition to instant noodles. There are many ways to add them to your pot of boiling water — the key is to keep the egg from falling apart. You can crack an egg into a ladle and soft-boil it, or you can stir to get the water spinning and then poach an egg in the middle. Leave the yolk just a little runny for culinary bliss.
If you’re wary of cracking an egg right into the pot and you don’t mind dirtying a second pan, you can either pan-fry an egg in a skillet to add on top or soft-boil the egg in a separate pot, remove the shell, and add it to your bowl or pot to soak up the brothy flavors.
Forget the little dried veggie flakes that come with some instant noodles. For me, fresh veggies make the difference between being able to eat instant noodles once in a while and being able to eat them every day. They offset the saltiness of the other items and add a crunchy texture that makes the meal feel whole.
I like to add green, stalky Asian vegetables that won’t fall apart when boiling, like baby bok choy, gai lan, or choi sum. If you can’t find these, veggies like broccoli and cabbage are good too.
Getting your cooking time right is the difference between al dente perfection and mushy sadness.For instant noodles, always follow the recommendation on the package. I usually err on the shorter side, which usually results in a chewier, more satisfying bite.
Hotpot-style seafood items usually take no more than 3 to 4 minutes to cook. Fresh veggies only need about 2 minutes — I usually place the stalks in the boiling water first to soften and then push the leaves under at the end.
Thin-sliced meat is done in a minute or two, as soon as it’s no longer red. Use a kitchen timer to keep things synced up. If you do it right, everything will finish at the exact same time.
One of the undisputed benefits of instant noodles is that they come with flavoring packets, so of course you should use those! I usually mix the sauce or broth right in the bowl I’m going to eat the noodles in. If it’s a dry (brothless) noodle, I’ll take the noodles out and stir them in the bowl with the sauce and then add the other ingredients. If it’s a soup noodle, I’ll create the broth in the bowl and then add the rest of the ingredients.
There’s no need to overdo it, though! Almost every instant noodle I’ve tried has tasted better when I’ve used only half to two-thirds of the seasoning packet. (It’s OK to throw away the remainder.) Too much flavoring and you’ll drown out the rest of your ingredients. You’re going for balanced flavors here.
A garnish can really elevate things too. I like to add a sprinkle of roasted sesame seeds. Other good options are bonito flakes, cilantro, dried seaweed, and even kimchi.
The beauty of making instant noodles is that there are endless possibilities. Don’t be afraid to try new combinations — it’s what keeps things interesting. I’m fortunate enough to live near New York City’s Chinatown, which means I have easy access to a never-ending variety of instant noodles and hotpot ingredients.
But you don’t have to live in an Asian neighborhood to find the ingredients I’ve mentioned here. You can order them online through 99 Ranch and H-Mart, two mainstays of Asian American grocery shopping, and have them shipped to your door.
Is this the healthiest thing to eat every day? I won’t pretend it is. Are there even cheaper options? Of course. But, to me, there are few more satisfying ways to make flavorful meals that cost less than $5, require almost no effort, and can be reinvented every time. Now go and make instant noodles your very own.
Wil Chan is a freelance writer in New York City.