Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
December 6, 2022

Transforming instant noodles for a taste of home

By VICKY ZHU | November 19, 2022

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COURTESY OF VICKY ZHU For Zhu, food has become a vital way to remain connected to her home since moving to the U.S.

Growing up, I was spoiled by my grandma’s homemade Chinese cuisine, a concoction of traditional Chinese ingredients and her own ingenious tweaks. I am convinced that her magic cuisines have satiated the microbiome of my stomach so much that I will forever crave for and associate that savory with family and happiness.

I never realized how important Chinese food was to me until I moved and started going to a boarding school in the U.S., an ocean away from my grandma. To be honest, “food shock” hit me harder than cultural shock. The array of food options in the dining hall didn’t seem to satisfy me. I didn’t find them appetizing. It would be unrealistic to eat out at restaurants every meal. My taste buds and my stomach, still accustomed to my grandma’s cooking style, sent me a signal: it is time to make your own food.

Having nearly zero cooking experience, I turned to Chinese-style instant noodles in grocery stores. Believe it or not, they had an umami taste like my grandma’s cuisine. Of course, I knew instant noodles were not the healthiest food, but it eased my nostalgia and yearning for my grandma’s food.

I got the inspiration of upgrading instant noodles from a visit to a local hotpot restaurant. Surrounded by oriental furniture and the familiar scent of hotpot, I felt as though I had been teleported back home. 

The restaurant menu had instant noodles as an ingredient to be cooked in the broth. An idea sparked: what if I add other ingredients to instant noodles and its broth, just like how hotpot ingredients are added to the hotpot broth? If I added veggies and proteins such as tofu and eggs, I could make instant noodles more nutritionally balanced!

I FaceTimed my grandma and introduced her to my coping mechanism in response to food shock and withdrawal from her food. She jokingly said that her cooking was replaceable by instant noodles, but she was also impressed.

Now, I know how to cook many more Chinese dishes which are all taught by my grandma. I have become more self-sufficient in satiating my picky taste buds. But instant noodles still remain in my cooking repertoire. I learned in psychology that sensory details can facilitate the recall of a particular memory. The smell and taste of instant noodles will always remind me of my first time living away from family and my first step toward independently adapting to unfamiliar surroundings.

At first, I went through trial and error. I needed to taste the noodles myself to test if they were well-cooked, but I can now judge the degree of completion by the food’s appearance. With practice, I also improved at timing the intervals between adding the ingredients.

Recipe: 

Put water in the pot and heat until it boils. Add the noodles and packages of flavoring. Wait for two to three minutes. Start adding ingredients of your choice, like veggies or boiled eggs. Let it cook until the noodles and all ingredients look ready to eat.

My favorite variation is cheese ramen. A bag of instant noodles, its seasoning packs, mozzarella and cheddar are the main ingredients. My go-to add-ons are slices of boiled eggs, tofu and lettuce. Sprinkles of chili powder always add to the savory.

The chewy instant noodles are wrapped by buttery cheese stripes. Seasoning’s saltiness and chili’s sporadic thrill are indispensable. The savory broth always warms my stomach on cold winter days. My diverse add-on ingredients supplement the velvety carbohydrates, which become boring if not mixed with vegetables and proteins. 

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