“They’re out of hand sanitizer and paper towels,” despaired the man hurrying his shopping cart toward me. It was mid-March, and we all seemed to understand that this might be our last normal supermarket visit for quite a while.

I smiled and nodded empathetically, but what he said next made me recognize him as a true kindred spirit — someone with his pandemic priorities in the right place: “Please tell me they still have ramen.”

They did, but barely. It was creamy chicken or nothing.

Seeing the crestfallen look on my new friend’s face, I encouraged him to use this shortage as an excuse to go beyond the big-box staples. Visit any of Portland’s Asian markets (especially Sun Oriental Market and Veranda Market), I told him, and you’ll find inexpensive, (mostly) imported instant noodles good enough to obliterate any lingering memories of Maruchan and Top Ramen.

Indeed, over the past 30 years, companies that produce packaged, flash-fried noodles have kept pace with the global embrace of fresh-cut, handmade ramen, improving the quality of their ingredients and adding dozens of appealing new styles and flavors.

Two of the biggest players are Nissin, the Japanese company that introduced instant ramen to the world in 1958, and relative newcomer Nongshim (part of the Lotte Corporation), a South Korean company that since 2000, has become an instant-noodle juggernaut. Together, they manufacture more than 100 varieties of ramen sold across the globe.

“I don’t think I’d know where to start,” my ramen-less friend admitted.

I pulled out my phone and sent him images of a few of my favorites (all referenced in this article). But the experience got me thinking: He can’t be the only one stuck with Oodles of Noodles simply because he’s baffled by the sheer volume of options.

I knew it was time for a showdown.

Last week, I taste-tested 10 of the area’s most popular imported instant ramen, some savory and seductively glutamic, others exuberantly spicy. I scored each on four 25-point scales: Noodles (texture and flavor), Soup/Sauce (texture and flavor), Balance, and Miscellaneous.

Grab your chopsticks and boil some water: We’re about to upgrade your pantry.

**

Note: Prices are approximate averages from recent visits to Sun Oriental Market, Hong Kong Market and Veranda Market.

SOON VEGGIE NOODLE SOUP ($1.39)

Photo by Andrew Ross

This is classic Nongshim ramen: a round “brick” of thick, coiled white wheat noodles that, when boiled, turn supple and translucent — almost bouncy — thanks to a little potato starch kneaded into the pasta dough.

Flavoring comes in the form of two packets, one filled with flecks of dried carrot and bok choy, and the other powdered ginger, garlic and other seasonings. Unlike some of the ramen in this list, Soon is designed to be eaten as a soup.

The broth is spicy (6/10), but not overwhelming, and garlic, ginger and green tea extract aromas come through nicely as you slurp.

With the rehydrated vegetables, these vegan noodles taste and look like they might be healthier than regular ramen, even though according to the packet, they are not. Still, a great place to begin.

Noodles 23 | Soup/sauce 21  | Balance  25  | Miscellaneous 23  | TOTAL= 92

MAMA PHO AN LIEN ($0.89)

Photo by Andrew Ross

Don’t let the tiny package fool you, this “Chand Clear Soup,” a Thai riff on Vietnamese pho packs a garlicky wallop.

Noodles here are thinly cut rice noodles, and to prepare them in the pho-style soup, you allow everything (including three packets: chili powder, flavor powder and a muddled, oil-and-garlic paste) to steep in boiling water, off-heat.

The soup is as unclouded as consommé, aggressively garlicky, and despite the chili powder packet, not extremely spicy (5/10). Noodles remain springy for several minutes, but become waterlogged if you let them sit (but who would?).

When I finished this bowl, my lips were oily from the garlic paste. Overall, Mama Pho is good in a pinch, or when you’re stuck in a space with no heat source apart from an electric kettle.

Noodles 20 | Soup/sauce 20  | Balance  20 | Miscellaneous 23  | TOTAL= 83

NISSIN CUP NOODLE CURRY ($1.99)

Photo by Andrew Ross

Cup Noodle is where the world’s fixation with ramen started, taking pre-prepared noodles and packaging them to work well when you have access to boiling water but no pot. Just retract the heat-reflective flap, fill the ecologically unfriendly Styrofoam cup with boiling water, then replace the cover and wait.

These thin, flat wheat noodles resemble longer versions of what you’d get in cup-a-soup mix, rather than traditional ramen. That’s by design – instant ramen inventor Momofuku Ando created this style to be eaten with a fork (although chopsticks still work fine).

What’s striking here is that, after steeping, the noodles turn into a hearty stew of fluffy potato, marble-sized chunks of meat and sausage, green onions and tender carrot. There’s almost no spicy heat here, apart from a little black pepper (1/10).

The curry flavor is strong, but gorgeously balanced by the combination of beef and chicken stocks. One final addition that connects all the flavor dots through umami is a surprise: parmesan cheese!

In terms of flavors and textures, this is one of my favorites. But that Styrofoam…

Noodles 23 | Soup/sauce 23 | Balance  25  | Miscellaneous 20  | TOTAL= 92

BULDAK HOT AND SPICY ($1.39)

Photo by Andrew Ross

This is the only Korean ramen on this list not made by Nongshim. For these buldak- (spicy braised chicken) flavored noodles, manufacturer Samyang has opted for a traditional, Japanese-style thick ramen noodle. What they lack in potato-starch-powered bounce, they make up for in crags that develop during a low-oil flash-fry. Those little nooks and crannies grab hold of the sweet-hot sauce and never let go.

You’ll find two packets inside: one with red gochugaru-based paste so potent, the front of the package bears a warning in Hangul that these are spicy noodles — although the cartoon chicken with flames erupting from his beak should also tip you off.

Spicy heat (8/10) here is balanced somewhat by the contents of the other packet: seasoned, toasted seaweed flakes and sesame seeds. But only a bit.

The best way to eat these ramen (and all of the spiciest noodles on this list) is to use the flavorings as a sauce, not a soup. Sipping might cause the fiery liquid to catch at the back of your throat, and these days especially, nobody wants to cough unnecessarily.

One significant downside is that the noodles possess a strange, processed, chemical flavor that doesn’t disappear after boiling. A shame, because the sauce is a delight.

Noodles 17 | Soup/sauce 23  | Balance  22  | Miscellaneous 23  | TOTAL= 85

NEOGURI SPICY SEAFOOD ($1.29)

Photo by Andrew Ross

Using the same thick-cut noodles as in the Soon and Shin Ramyun products, Neoguri achieves a wildly different effect through its intense seafood flavors. The vegetable packet here contains fat chips of kombu-style seaweed, and the massive powdered seasoning packet contains enough ingredients to form a bouillabaisse: extracts of clam, anchovy, cuttlefish, bonito, tuna and mussels, as well as beef fat, bone marrow extract, and mushroom and daikon flavorings.

The result is a pleasant, yet powerfully fishy broth — the sort of thing you would be fired for preparing in the office microwave.

There’s also a good amount of acid to balance out the significant fiery heat (8/10). You may want to try Neoguri (pronounced “NAW-goo-ree”) as sauce-slicked noodles, rather than as a soup, just to acquaint yourself with its heat.

Noodles 23 | Soup/sauce 22  | Balance  23  | Miscellaneous 22  | TOTAL= 90

CHAPAGETTI JjAJANG NOODLES ($1.29)

Photo by Andrew Ross

If you’re not a fan of spicy heat, Nongshim’s brothless take on Chinese-inspired black bean noodles might be for you.

Along with the standard disc of standard thick-cut noodles, Chapagetti features three packets: a dark sauce base; dried vegetables including dehydrated black beans, tiny chunks of fried potato and onions; and a superfluous packet of delicately seasoned vegetable oil. Don’t bother with the vegetable oil; Chapagetti doesn’t need it.

When the noodles are boiled and the sauce base stirred into a few tablespoons of the cooking water, the result is remarkably similar to what you’d expect from a homemade bowl of jjajang myeon, if you made it with dried noodles. The soy-based brown bean sauce might remind you a bit of bouillon (or maybe even Vegemite), but with sweet, almost coffee-like aromas that uncurl along wafts of steam from the bowl.

The overall effect is savory but not too salty, with practically no heat whatsoever (1/10).

Noodles 21 | Soup/sauce 23  | Balance  24  | Miscellaneous 23  | TOTAL= 91

INDO MIE MI GORENG ($0.59)

Photo by Andrew Ross

This bantam-format ramen has, over the past five years, become one of the most popular on the market, and with good reason. These ubiquitous packages can be found in nearly all Asian markets, regardless of their regional focus, and are supposed to replicate the flavors and textures of Southeast Asian stir-fried mee goreng noodles.

With a whopping five packets — sweet sambal chili sauce, viscous dark soy sauce, seasoning oil (minyak bumbu, which is just palm oil and onion), a powdered flavor packet and fried onions — it is easy to customize your Indo Mie experience to your own taste.

Noodles are skinny wheat noodles, designed to be eaten sauced, not as a soup. With crunchy shards of fried onion, springy noodles and sweet soy, the balance here is outstanding, with very little spicy heat (3/10). The overall effect is much better than anyone might expect from a humble package of dried noodles.

One problem is that the liquid-filled packets dry out on the shelf, so check the sell-by date and select the freshest Indo Mie you can find.

Noodles 21 | Soup/sauce 24  | Balance  25  | Miscellaneous 21  | TOTAL= 93

INDO MIE MI GORENG HOT & SPICY ($0.59)

Photo by Andrew Ross

Boasting the same noodle brick and the same number of packets as its cousin, this Indo Mie swaps sweet sambal for dried chili powder and mild minyak bumbu for a fiery chili oil.

The end result is probably a little too spicy. Minus the richness from the palm oil in the minyak bumbu, this mi goreng relies too heavily on pure, weaponized capsaicin. Top it with a fried egg to cut some of the heat.

Noodles 23 | Soup/sauce 20  | Balance  20  | Miscellaneous 22  | TOTAL= 85

SHIN RAMYUN NOODLE SOUP ($1.19)

Nongshim’s flagship product is, in many parts of the world, the single most popular ramen on the market. In many parts of the U.S., it has escaped the orbit of the Asian specialty market and has found a place (in cartons and 12-packs) on the shelves of Walmart and Target stores.

Photo by Andrew Ross

And as much as I would like to tell you to skip it, I cannot. These ultra-spicy (9/10) noodles are a cultural touchstone that has inspired love letters, YouTube challenge videos, even a Korean mountain bed and breakfast decorated to look like the cup-bound version of Shin Ramyun.

Noodles are the elastic, Nongshim standard, but the gutsiness of flavor here is why people know Shin. Whether prepared as a soup or sauced noodles (opinion seems to be split evenly on which method is best), every bite forces a beefy, garlicky, super-savory recalibration of every tastebud on your tongue. Shin will jolt you from salt to fire and back again, and despite the sweat beading on your forehead, you will almost definitely go back for more…if you can handle it.

Noodles 23 | Soup/sauce 22  | Balance  17  | Miscellaneous 20  | TOTAL= 88

SHIN RAMYUN BLACK NOODLE SOUP  ($1.19)

Photo by Andrew Ross

I’m not the first to think that, despite the voltaic thrumming of spice that makes a bowl of Shin so exciting, it is, on the whole, too hot.

Nongshim listened to its pepper-fatigued customers and, a few years ago, introduced a version of Shin containing 3 packets. One provides the same dried flakes of bok choi, shiitake mushroom and green onion as the original, but the other two are the reason why Shin Black is the best ramen on this list. Nongshim split the savory elements of its soup (bone marrow, garlic, salt, etc.) and packaged them in a double-sized gold soup packet, while sequestering all the chilis in a separate, red soup packet.

Keeping the fiery heat away from the savory flavors lets you customize your Shin Black experience, dialing up or down the amount of chili you want in your ramen. But even if you add the entire contents of both packets to the soup or sauce, the extra dose of meaty flavors magically knocks down the level of spicy heat you experience from extreme to simply hot (7/10).

Sometimes the sequel really is better than the original.

Noodles 23 | Soup/sauce 24  | Balance  24  | Miscellaneous 25  | TOTAL= 95

Bonus:

Fans of Bong Joon Ho’s Oscar-winning psychological horror movie Parasite will understand immediately why I listed Nongshim’s Chapagetti immediately after Neoguri. Prepared as per the instructions, then blended and topped with slices of cubed steak, the two noodle types form 2019’s hottest bowl of Asian noodles: Jjapaguri (also known as ram-don).

I’ve tasted the scene-stealing combo and enjoy how the legume-driven depth of the Chapagetti blunts the heat in the Neoguri. That said, I don’t know that I’d sacrifice a good steak to dunk in this particular combo unless I were sitting down to a late-night screening of Parasite. It’s certainly better than popcorn.


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