Friday, July 15, 2016

Ichi-Ban Is the Tastiest - But Don't Eat It Anyway

Meet the Association Upholding the Integrity of Instant Noodles
Atlas Obscura via by Eric Grundhauser  July 15 2016 12:30 PM
Instant noodles come in all varieties, but remain consistent. 

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For anyone who has gotten through a frugal time by eating instant ramen noodles, you have have one man to thank for your continued survival: Momofuku Ando.

In the 1970s, the father of the instant noodle—and the namesake of the New York restaurant chain Momofuku—helped turn what was a distinctly Asian staple food into a cornerstone of the global food industry. He then went on to establish the World Instant Noodles Association (WINA), an organization that makes sure the quality of instant noodles around the world is maintained and that when someone peels back the lid of a Cup Noodle, or opens a packet of Top Ramen, they know what they’re in for. 

“Instant noodles’ unique adoptability and versatility helped the product grow to a global food,” says Norio Sakurai, the current Deputy Chief Executive of WINA. But the instant noodle as we recognize it today was first invented by Ando in the 1950s.

After World War II, Japan was facing a national food shortage, and received aid from the United States in the form of wheat flour, a grain that was theretofore not popularly used by the Japanese. The Japanese government encouraged the people to use the flour to make bread for meals, but after seeing a long line of hungry people at a fresh ramen stand, the pragmatic Ando had a better idea. He suggested that the wheat flour be used to make noodles, which the populace was much more familiar with, but his idea was initially criticized because the noodle industry was not robust enough to keep the entire country fed.

So he revolutionized it.

After a year of trying to develop his own system, the story goes that he stumbled upon his method of flash-frying the noodles when, on a whim, he added some to the tempura oil his wife was using to make their dinner.  Ando released the first pre-cooked instant noodle, Chikin Ramen in 1958. Containing a noodle block with the flavoring already held within the noodles, the product became, pun so very intended, an almost instant hit. While Chikin Ramen was initially seen as a luxury item, costing more than a bowl of prepared soup at the time, it quickly became a staple in Japan thanks to its ease of preparation.

As the popularity of Ando’s instant ramen soared, he created a truly historic industry with his invention of cup noodles in 1971. By containing the noodles and seasoning in their own waterproof container, Ando was more easily able to get instant noodles to appeal to international markets. Now, the noodles didn’t even really need to be cooked, making the product much more universal. With Cup Noodles, Ando’s dream of a global instant noodle empire quickly became a reality.

As the market exploded, countless other manufacturers in addition to Ando’s company, Nissin, got in on the action, making instant noodles available in nearly every country in the world. “The point is that with this core method each country was able to develop its own local flavors reflecting the food culture of the country,” says Sakurai. By the mid-1990s, the people of Earth were consuming around 40 billion instant noodle units a year, and Ando, still caring about the future of his invention, saw the need for a regulatory body that would make sure the instant noodle business didn’t fall victim to poor quality and lack of oversight. “Consequently, International Ramen Manufacturers Association (IRMA), the forerunner of WINA, was formed in 1997.”

Ando passed away in 2007 at the age of 96, but not before he got to see his famous food even make it to space when Japanese astronaut, Soichi Noguchi, brought some instant noodles with him on the Discovery spacecraft.

Even after Ando's death, the industry has only continued to grow, and is now estimated to sell a staggering 100 billion units globally each year, with over half of them being sold in China alone. In his stead, WINA continues to work towards Ando’s dream of bringing delicious instant noodles to the world, by uniting companies across the globe to maintain the quality of the product, no matter where it is. “WINA has a total of 67 instant noodle manufacturers from 21 different countries/regions as its regular members,” says Sakurai. “Besides noodle manufacturers, WINA has approximately 100 associate members, who are engaged in the businesses related to instant noodles such as suppliers of materials.”

While it seems ubiquitous, WINA still uses its global reach to increase awareness of instant noodles, and focus on maintaining food safety standards. Every two years, the organization hosts a World Instant Noodles Summit where manufacturers trade news and innovations. They provide instant noodles to disaster relief efforts (instant noodles are terrific in emergency situations due to their long shelf life and lightweight poundage). Ultimately, WINA makes sure that those packages of ramen maintain their reliable, inexpensive, uniform taste and function, no matter where you are.

Much like Ando, WINA is also constantly looking to the future of instant noodles. According to Sakurai, it could lie in something he calls a nutri-noodle. “Instant noodles have great potential to be a vehicle to supply customized micro-nutrients and functional substances,” he says. In theory, instant noodles could have the ability to be tailored to the specific dietary needs of just about anyone. 

Ramen noodles are often taken for granted as a cheap food option, but to people like Momofuku Ando, the gatekeepers at WINA, and the billions of people around the world who eat them regularly, they are the most important meal of the day.

Eric Grundhauser is a head writer and editor at Atlas Obscura. He lives in Brooklyn with his comic book collection. Follow him on Twitter.
Taste Test: The Best Chicken-Flavored Instant Ramen

We taste the leading brands to find the distinct differences and rate them with tasting scores.

Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt

The Winner: Sapporo Ichiban!

I love real ramen, but raise your hand if instant ramen noodles were the first dish you learned to cook on your own. Yeah, I thought so. I've been simmering bricks of noodles in small pots of water, or pouring water from a kettle into little styrofoam cups since I was old enough to reach the stovetop. I remember each and every time I learned how to upgrade my soup, from the first sprinkle of scallions (hey, this tastes like real food!), to that first poached egg, to the miso and curry paste stir-ins I picked up in college. It's a dish as familiar to me as ketchup, and one that I am unconditionally fond of.

I was excited for this taste test, to say the least.

Interestingly, instant noodles didn't always have the broke college student reputation they do today. When they were first introduced in the early 60's, their retail price was several times higher than freshly made noodles, making them somewhat of a luxury item novelty.

These days, almost 100 billion packages of instant noodles are consumed annually, making Momofuku Ando's invention one of the most influential Japanese innovations of the 20th century

The Contenders:

For this taste test, we wanted to stick with the basics: inexpensive and widely available were our two top criteria for making the cut. All of these noodles are available for under a dollar, and all of them can be found across the country, or ordered from sites like Amazon.

There are way too many flavors out there to try and compare them against each other, so we decided to stick with the most common (for wider variety and more specific recommendations, you can check out these posts from the Ramen Rater). I polled all of my Twitter followers and, aside from the obvious Shin Ramyun lovers (who doesn't love that stuff?), the most popular flavor was good old chicken.

This narrowed the field down to three choices:

All three brands are produced using the "de-fry-drating" method that was original developed by Momofuku Ando of Nissin foods (the manufacturers of Top Ramen) in 1958. They're made by par-cooking fresh noodles in a steamer, then folding them into bricks and briefly deep frying them in order to drive out moisture. Have you ever taken a peek at the fat content in a pack of instant ramen noodles? Most of that comes from the dehydration process, with the remainder coming from added fat in the soup seasoning packet treated with maltodextrin, which suspends it in a dry, powdered form until exposed to heat and water.

The resultant noodles are lighter, last longer, and less expensive to produce and store than their naturally air-dried counterparts. But does this mean they taste better?

Despite the fact that Top Ramen and Maruchan seem to have about half the fat and sodium content of Sapporo, those numbers all even out when you account for the fact that the two former brands seem to think that half a packet is a single serving. What person in the history of the known universe has ever eaten just half a packet of ramen?*

*Further questions: were they cooking for just themselves? If so, did they break the noodles in half and carefully pour half the seasoning packet into the boiling water before meticulously folding the foil pouch back over for their next serving? Or perhaps they called up their buddy and said, "Hey man, I was thinking of opening up this pack of instant ramen. Do you want to come over to finish the other half?" Dear ramen manufacturers: stop pretending. Nobody eats half a pack of ramen. Nobody.

The Criteria:

Just because they come out of a plastic sleeve and take 3 minutes to prepare doesn't mean they shouldn't still be tasty, right?

Are the noodles bouncy and slightly al dente, with a slurpable slipperiness but a toothsome bite?

I mean, who are we kidding? Like pizza, even the worst ramen is still pretty darn tasty. It's hard to complain about the comfort that a bowl of salt, fat, and carbs delivers. That said, there's some subtlety at play here. Are the noodles bouncy and slightly al dente, with a slurpable slipperiness but a toothsome bite? Because that's what we want.

Does the broth taste like real chicken? Does it have a good balance of other seasonings? Ramen broths are typically flavored with several types of alliums. Does the broth taste like it might have come in contact with a real onion at some point? How about the sodium content? Are they covering up flaws with a heavy handed dose of salt?

A panel of 17 tasters were asked to taste the ramen and rate each brand on the quality of the noodles, the flavor of the broth, and the overall harmony in the bowl. All ramen was cooked and served simultaneously and tasters were instructed to taste them in random order, as rapidly as possible so that no noodles would overcook in the elapsed time.

The Results:

The results were nearly unanimous, with all but a handful of our 17 tasters selecting the Sapporo Ichiban ramen as the best. On the noodles, the Sapporo scored a whole point better than its competitors. An examination of the ingredients gives us a bit of a clue as to why: While the Top Ramen and Maruchan noodles are made of primarily wheat starch and seasoning, the Sapporo noodles also contain a small fraction of potato starch and guar gum, both of which help it retain a slightly chewier, "fresher" texture.

But the real difference between the Sapporo ramen and its competitors came down to broth. It simply tasted more chicken-y than the others, with a balanced vegetal flavor that was intense on the onions, with a good amount of white pepper to boot. It almost tasted like real soup!

Even more amazing? The overall average score that our tasting panel awarded to each brand of ramen corresponded very neatly with its price: Sapporo at 65¢/package and a score of 6.6/10, Top Ramen at 51¢/package and a score of 4.9/10, and Maruchan at 49¢/package and a score of 4.4/10. Who knows: if we found a de-fry-drated brand that cost a whole dollar per envelope, would it hit that perfect score?

Read on for some details. 

#1: Sapporo Ichiban (6.6/10)

"More onion flavor and depth than the other two" was the main consensus here. The broth was slightly more complex, with a bit of white pepper funk and a touch of sweetness that was lacking in the competitors. The additional starch in the noodles also worked to give the broth a bit of extra body, adding to the impression of real meatiness.

As for the noodles, they were stretchier and chewier than the others, with thick waves that picked up broth nicely as we slurped. Nobody is going to mistake this stuff for real-deal ramen made with fresh noodles, but for a convenience food that comes in at under a buck per serving, it's tough to beat.

Hack it up into a complete meal and you might even ben able to impress some dorm-room company with it.

#2: Top Ramen (4.9/10)

The classic. The taste we grew up with. This is what we think of when we think of instant noodles, and many tasters were kind to it, saying that "the broth tastes like chicken—at least, Campbell's chicken." Indeed, powdered chicken is pretty high on the ingredients list, though it's supplemented with meaty hydrolyzed soy proteins and onion powder.

The noodles were a significant step down from the Sapporo batch, and went from being "chalky" to "too soft" without much of an al dente, chewy stage in between. Still, the overall impression is one that hits home, and that's an important factor to consider for many.

#3: Maruchan (4.4/10)

The knockoff competitor had by far the worst broth of the three, with a flavor that tasted overwhelmingly chemically, with very little vegetable or chicken flavor. Makes sense, seeing that chicken is the second to last ingredient in the list, behind yeast extracts and hydrolyzed proteins. In fact, over 99% of the broth packet is made up of its first three ingredients: salt, sugar, and MSG.

The noodles were about on par with the Top Ramen version, scoring a couple of tenths of a point lower on average. They, too, suffered from the too-chalky-to-too-soft transition issue.

A salty, sweet broth with alright noodles is still something that we'd gladly eat the morning after a long night out (or if we're wise, at the end of the night before the morning after), but for a few pennies extra, you can get something that's so much better.

Skip the Maruchan and Top Ramen, and head for the Sapporo.

Our Tasting Methodology: All taste tests are conducted completely blind and without discussion. Tasters taste samples in random order. For example, taster A may taste sample 1 first, while taster B will taste sample 6 first. This is to prevent palate fatigue from unfairly giving any one sample an advantage. Tasters are asked to fill out tasting sheets ranking the samples for various criteria that vary from sample to sample. All data is tabulated and results are calculated with no editorial input in order to give us the most impartial representation of actual results possible.

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

OK. That was fun. All ready for a nice bowl of Ichi Ban? 
Forget it.

It's not worth it.

Instant noodles are incredibly bad for you. Between the salt and the fat. Oh, yeah, fatty-fat-fat! They will put you in your grave with remarkable swiftness. And if you eat them, say, twice a week - they will destroy your health, even if you eat nothing but salads and other healthful stuff.

Don't take my word for it - Google it. Sorry Momofuku-san!

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