Thursday, June 07, 2007

Noodle Love

You know what - I'll just go ahead and commit blasphemy right now - Indian Maggi noodles are godawful. No amount of childhood nostalgia, longing for Indian products and copious amounts of chilli sauce is going to change that. These are really bottom of the barrel as far as instant noodles go. What prompted this noodle rant was the fact that yet again I got swayed by a combination of nostalgia and novelty and purchase a pack of Maggi noodles from the neighbourhood Indian grocery store (a new Maggi flavour - surely an improvement - not!)

And yet when I was a kid, I was probably singlehandedly responsible for keeping an entire Maggi noodle factory going given the amount of Maggi I ate. I also used to wear a pastel pink and blue sweater with white pants and white pumps. There really is no accounting for childhood taste.

My noodle consumption reduced drastically as I grew older and by my late teens I probably ate instant noodles once in two months. Still even that sporadic consumption was limited to Maggi noodles. By this time Maggi had a formidable competitor - Nissin - the brand started by the man who invented instant noodles - Momofuku Ando. However, Nissin, instead of releasing products from their Japanese line , decided to "Indianize" their product and came up with the almost inedible Curry Smoodles, which were curly noodles flavoured with indeterminate glop.

So Maggi remained the best instant noodles choice I had. Yet. But then something happened to change all that. By this time I had started working, and one of my colleagues was a Nepali girl from Darjeeling. Many of her friends were Nepalis from Nepal and they had introduced her to an instant noodle brand that was sold in Nepal - Wai Wai noodles ( I later found out that Wai Wai is originally a Thai brand, but more of that to come).

Wai Wai had become a cult favourite with hostel/dorm residents in Delhi University and JNU, introduced by Nepali students who brought back suitcases stuffed with Wai Wai packets from trips back home (apparently Wai Wai is now produced in India as well). My colleague gave me a pack to take home - and once I cooked and tasted it, I was hooked. These were unlike any instant noodles I'd ever had before. For one, the noodles instead of being bland and white like Maggi, were toasty and brown and could be eaten raw if you so wished (I never tried). Unlike Maggi's one seasoning packet, these came with three - a seasoning pack, a chilli powder pack and a sache of onion flavoured oil.

But getting hooked on Wai Wai brought its own challenges, because the noodles were hardly sold in Delhi. Till I discovered that my neighbourhood bakery had a secret stash of Wai Wai behind mounds of Maggi and Nissin Top Ramen, a fact only known to the large Nepali immigrant population in the neighbourhood. Score! Wai Wai completely replaced Maggi as my instant noodle of choice, so much so that when I came to the US for graduate studies, I carried a few packs of Wai Wai in my suitcase.

The American generic grocery store opened a whole other world of instant noodles to me. College students live on ramen, and so do many single working men and women. In my nearest grocery store half of an entire aisle was dedicated to instant noodles. Though my consumption rarely went beyond one or two packets a month, I could sample the different flavours in rotation. Soon however I concluded that the ramen or instant noodles in generic American stores were just as bad as Maggi. There were primarily two brands that filled the stores - Nissin and Maruchan - both Japanese instant noodle giants. The flavours and noodle packets were all watered down for the generic American consumer.

I slowly gave up on instant noodles, and would rather drive myself to a restaurant if I got noodle hankerings. But once in a while I'd get the cravings for hot noodles at home on a cold wet winter day (it doesn't get very cold in LA, but it does get wet in winters). And then I discovered speciality Asian grocery stores. Stores that exclusively carry Japanese merchandise, or Korean merchandise, or Chinese merchandise, etc. This was a second revelation - a whole other world of instant noodles. My impressions for each:

Japanese noodles - Oh, happy, happy day! No one loves their instant noodles quite like the Japanese. And then there is the curious phenomenon of instant noodle packets that cost more than a bowl of fresh noodle soup in a restaurant would cost. Well, the Japanese have an entire museum dedicated to ramen so this shouldn't surprise anyone.

What's even better is that the Japanese have several kinds of instant noodles - including yakisoba which is essentially chowmein to us in India, miso ramen, shoyu ramen (with just a soya sauce broth), udon, soba noodles, etc. Some of the more elaborate instant noodles come with packs of dehydrated vegetables, dehydrated soup, seasoning, special noodles, the works.

My personal favourites - the yakisoba and the miso ramen noodles.

Korean noodles - The instant Japanese-style ramen market is dominated by the Nongshim brand which makes a basic soupy noodles with different flavourings - beef, seafood, kimchi (of course!), etc. the noodles are thicker udon style noodles, but completely overwhelmed by the soup flavoured with chilli paste (gochujang) and bean paste (dwaejang) flavours. Also, they can also only be consumed in soup form.

Frankly, not a personal favourite.

Also Koreans have traditional Korean noodles like nyaengmyun (arrowroot noodles), bibimnyaengmyun (spicy thin noodles), guksoo (knife cut thicker noodles), and jajangmyun (noodles with bean sauce) in freezer sections. The few I've tried I'm not impressed. They just taste so much worse than the fabulous versions of these dishes in Korean restaurants.

Thai noodles - here it is, the original progenitor of the Nepalese Wai Wai, the most popular brand of instant noodles in Thailand. Wai Wai comes in a lot of generic flavours, like chicken, beef, pork and tom yum. Frankly eating the Thai Wai Wai is a bit of a let down after consuming Wai Wai from Nepal. The Nepalese version is just so much better, especially the noodles, because the Thai Wai Wai noodles are exactly like Maggi noodles.

Chinese noodles - I'm going to take a wild guess and say that the Chinese are not very enamoured of instant noodles (the ones with flavourings included). They don't take up a lot of space in Chinese grocery stores, as opposed to Japanese stores, for instance. Don't blame them - most Chinese communities will have several noodle shops that sell an excellent bowl of noodles for cheap - the instant versions don't seem like much of an alternative. The ones that I've tried though have been pretty bad - perhaps they go overboard with the MSG.

Indonesian noodles - Who would have thought - the best instant noodles I've ever had comes from Indonesia's very own instant noodle giant - Indofood. The company's Indomie brand is a bit of a cult favourite in the Southeast Asia region and Australia - spreading as Wai Wai did through hungry nostalgic Indonesian students bringing in bagfuls of the stuff from back home.

Though the regular Indomie packs are pretty good, it is the special Indomie Mie Keriting (curly noodles) that simply blows off the competition by miles. Let's see, you have curly noodles that seem to have some flavour on their own. To complement them you have - get this - five flavour packets! There's dehydrated vegetables, seasoning, sweet soya sauce, chilli sauce, and oil with seasoning and spices. They are meant to be eaten without soup, but what the heck, spoon in some extra salt and eat them soupy - they taste fine either way.

A lot of people take their instant noodles very, very seriously and write pages and pages of reviews on different brands and flavours. For me, it's an occasional guilty pleasure -nowhere close to the delight of fresh handpulled noodles immersed in a clear pork broth that I accidentally found in of all places, Singapore airport. However, when Singapore is a distant dream, and even the San Gabriel Valley is a drag to drive to, my packets of Indomie and yakisoba would do just fine.

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Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

i've never much liked instant noodles but nice post despite that. only, why diss singapore airport? singapore's a great food city.

6:10 PM  
Anonymous Mohib said...

I love maggi noodles. Given a choice of one food item to take with me on a deserted island, it would be Maggi noodles masala flavor.

You can see a picture of Maggi Noodles I took here.

7:26 PM  
Blogger terah745 said...

Take a bowl(glass)(frilled). Crush the Wai Wai and add the contents. Have you seen the Kurkure ad? You can make your own Wai Wai kure..........some chopped onions, coriander leaves, and a dash of lemon....remember jhaal muri....enjoy raw......Goes good with beer and colas

10:19 PM  
Blogger Deaths Head Roy said...

Damn, I think Maggi lost its way wiht the noodles some years back - as soon as Top Ramen hit town.....loved Top Ramen too until I also tasted Wai Wai - again brought by Nepali friends....damn, it got me hooked too!!....i love to even eat it without cooking...

11:38 PM  
Blogger Bonatellis said...

i should tell you that there was a time when I was living all alone in Mumbai ... and survived six months on just Maggi ...

which is why in the last 7 years I can't recall having tasted it again ;)

4:33 AM  
Blogger K said...

I love Wai-Wai, it rocked. Helped me survive two years of college hostel. Totally agree, Nestle lost the plot with Maggi - they now have gloppier glop called wheat noodles and something godawful, which I actually tasted (Forgive me) away called Rice noodles.

5:08 AM  
Blogger K said...

Mohib - One food item to a deserted island would be Maggi noodles??? I don't know what to say right now, I would have contemplated suicide if that was the case.
Not that I would take anything exotic if the island had a Mango orchard - but not Maggi noodles. Yuck!

5:11 AM  
Blogger Gaurav said...

This is my year old homage to Wai Wai. Didn't know they were Thai.

10:58 AM  
Blogger Shantanu said...

Interesting post! While I am not particularly a fan of Maggi noodles, like many others in India, I have Maggi to thank for many a dinner when I wanted to make something in a jiffy during college days.

8:00 AM  
Blogger the wannabe indian punkster said...

What put me off Maggi forever was one of their new Sambhar flavored dal atta noodles. I know it sounds awfully unappetizing, but I swallowed my trepidations and bought a packet anyway.

I wasn't prepared for how unpalatable it was going to be, though. It was traumatizing, to say the least. Eugh.

1:47 PM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

TR - no diss for Singapore airport at all - I was merely comparing it to dismal airport food in other countries. Singapore was a very pleasant surprise compared to them. And Singapore is a fantastic food city, I had some great meals there.

Mohib - we agree to disagree, no :)? My deserted island noodle of choice would undoubtedly be Wai Wai, closely followed by Indomie.

Terah745 - Oooh, that sounds yum! I don't have Wai Wai, but perhaps I can toast other instant noodles for the same effect.

DHR - More Wai Wai love - keep 'em coming.

Bontellis - oh, poor, poor you! You had to suffer years of Maggi torment. Please do give Wai Wai a chance though.

8:21 PM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

K, you're right, it's getting worse and worse. Instant noodles are not health food, and last I checked even those wheat and rice noodles are chock-ful of preservatives. This Wai Wai love is more widespread than I thought!

Gaurav, did you get your Wai Wai in Pune or in Lucknow? I wonder if Wai Wai was to be found wherever the Nepalis went, which means everywhere in India!

Shantanu, that's correct, Maggi is a default choice. Hopefully, with more brands the Indian consumer would have more to choose from.

Punkster - Nestle should be ashamed for despoiling the name of the wonderful dish that Sambhar is and slapping the name on what appears to be an inedible pack of noodles. I saw that Sambhar flavour and I passed.

8:25 PM  
Blogger J. Alfred Prufrock said...

When did you last eat at KFC? In Thailand, their 'Korean Rice Bowl' became my comfort food.

I know, not noodles, but your Korean references brought that on.


2:17 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

*shudders at zapda's inelegant confession.*
this is what the Well-Dressed Man is Eating?

4:48 PM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

JAPda, it's been a very long time since I stepped into the hallowed portals of KFC. What is this Korean Rice Bowl they sell in Thailand? Must investigate.

Koreans have their own version of fried chicken, which is way more delicious than KFC, but the most yummy fried chicken I've ever had, believe it or not, has been Japanese.

But why this KFC love in Thailand of all places? Unless you're severely allergic to fish sauce, there's no reason to eat KFC in Thailand.

9:48 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Omigod, I just saw pictures of this so called "Korean Rice Bowl" and I figured out what they're trying to do. This is basically KFC's take on the Korean classic bibimbap (or mixed rice).

The original Korean dish has lovely root vegetables, unusual mushrooms, Korean mountain greens, julienned radish, beef bits, etc. One of my favourite Korean dishes. This one seems to have broccoli, carrots and cauliflower.

JAPda, if you are in proximity to a Korean restaurant I urge you to try the original, especially a version served in a hot stone pot (dolsot bibimbap).

Here's a picture for reference (this is a slightly more Americanized version):

9:57 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

i concur. zapda, this is akin to having your shorshe bata ilish made with colman's mustard on filet-o-fish.

3:59 PM  
Blogger Rahul said...

You are being very, very, very unfair....I love, I love, I love a plate of steaming hot maggi noodles and there are many like takes all sorts......

2:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

fwiw, i second rahul, though i was not really thrilled with the atta noodles!

- s.b.

1:52 PM  
Blogger ggop said...

Gah - the sodium content scared the pants off me. I swear never ever to eat Maggi unless its the last meal on earth..

11:45 AM  
Blogger Marc said...

I totally agree that Maggi is shit. Till now I've been unable to eat even four spoons (forks?) of it.

7:50 AM  
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