I am exhausted by ramen hacks. Every time I open TikTok or look at Instagram, I am bombarded with different ways to upgrade a bowl of instant ramen. I’ve added peanut butter, I’ve added mayo and egg, I’ve added a slice of cheese. And while all those “hacks” are tasty, they don’t manage to eclipse the soul-satiating nature of a basic-ass bowl of instant ramen.
Instant ramen was invented in 1958 by Momofuku Ando, the founder of Nissin Food Products, in an effort to both create a quick, affordable lunch option for Japanese workers. Ando discovered that if he flash-fried the noodles after drying them, they could be reconstituted with hot water without losing any of their textural appeal. Ando also invented Cup Noodles in the 1970s, making it even more convenient for consumers to enjoy the dish, and instant ramen became popular in many countries across the world, including the United States.
Instant ramen, almost always Maruchan brand, was a staple in my household growing up. My mom used to make it for herself — exactly as the instructions required, adding nothing but hot water — and the smell of the soy-sauce-scented broth wafting across our house was enough to make my brother and I demand a bowl of our own. When I became old enough to boil water by myself, it was both a regular after-school snack and easy weekend lunch. Chicken, pork, beef, or the now-cringe-inducing “oriental” flavor (which has since been rebranded to “soy sauce” in an effort to “better reflect the distinct flavor profile of this tasty dish,” according to Maruchan), no matter the flavor profile inside those flimsy plastic packets, I loved them all.
Plain instant ramen is eminently satisfying in its simplicity. Once boiled, the noodles are bouncy, easy to slurp, and lend a pleasant oily sheen to the broth, which is fortified with enough MSG to trick the brain into believing that this thin, salty soup is actually rich and unctuous. Chemical magic or not, it works, and feels like enough even when I’m not sure that my stomach can handle the vegetal sharpness of scallions, or when the idea of coagulated egg floating around in my soup is not at all appetizing. There’s a sensory simplicity in a bowl of only tender noodles, broth, and salt, one that my body craves most when I’m overstimulated and frazzled, or weakened by the throbbing, low-blood-sugar-induced headache I’ve inevitably given myself by waiting too long to eat lunch.
This is not to suggest that cheap ramen is somehow better than a $4 packet of Shin Black ramyun, one of the top-tier brands on the market. In fact it is objectively worse, less flavorful, and completely lacking a tiny sachet of dried vegetables. But that is the point: It is so salty that it feels transformative when you’re hungover or under the weather. Just call it an “electrolyte supplement,” a savory Gatorade that will replenish your body’s stores of sodium and fill your belly at the same time. (Yes, instant ramen has an eye-popping amount of sodium, but a packet of ramen every once in a while isn’t going to kill you.)
There are so many more ramen brands than there were even 15 years ago, when I was a broke 20-year-old with a very meager food budget and a strong affinity for Maruchan beef-flavored ramen. It’s what I grew up with, and the second the scent of that beefy broth hits my nostrils, I’m instantly comforted. It’s always what I reach for when I’m dehydrated from a hangover, or fighting a stomach bug. We are in an era when a bowl of instant ramen can be as unique as you want it to be, and all I want is a plain bowl of beef-flavored, oil-slicked noodles.