My life this summer has been excruciatingly hectic with launching the Asian Culinary Forum in San Francisco and working on a writing project. To take away from the pressures of putting together a home-cooked food every day, I’ve resorted to taking an instant ramen holiday.
Stop laughing. When I was in Hong Kong this spring, what were people snacking on for breakfast and lunch? Instant noodles. They were paying for it! My first morning in Kowloon, I had a shallow bowl of instant ramen noodles with a lovely fried pork chop and some Chiu Chow chili oil. In Central on Hong Kong side, young people hovered in stalls eating instant noodles during their lunch breaks. Instant noodles are cheap and fast. You can doll up the ramen with practically anything.
That got me thinking about instant pho noodle packets sold at many Chinese and Southeast Asian markets. Hell, at the humongous Ranch 99 in Milpitas a few days ago, there was an entire aisle devoted to a pan-Asian selection of instant noodles. My interest was in the Vietnamese stuff and I had a number of revelations over the course of several meals of instant noodles.
1. Instant ramen vs. Instant pho noodles: The Vietnamese noodles (labeled “an lien” meaning eat right away) actually tastes like okay pho. The ramen doesn’t come close to ramen. It’s likely related to how the ramen noodles are processed. My friends, they are fried. That’s why as a kid, I used to eat instant ramen noodles straight from the package dipped in the MSG-laden soup packet. The other day, I bought Nissin brand because it was the world’s first instant ramen. Sadly, it didn’t come close to the levels of authenticity that the Vietnamese Vicom’s pho noodles reached.
2. So what’s in the instant pho? A bundle of dried rice noodles that are noticeably thinner than what you’d get in regular packages of dried pho noodles. The thinness allows you to “cook” the noodles in about 3 minutes after you’ve poured in the boiling water, and then steep your concoction, covered. Then, there are small packets of sparkly granules of soup base, crinkly dehydrated vegetables and bits that look like meat, and some fat. The first time out, I used all the stuff and instantly realized that the dried scallion and bits of chicken were disgusting; I chopped some scallion, cilantro, and shallot and added them to the bowl, and that made the soup more real. There was leftover grilled chicken and I dropped some in. The soup base and the fat, however, are essential. With some chiles on the side, the pho was like a cheap bowl in Vietnam or abroad. Not bad at all. I wouldn't pay more than say.... 50 cents for it!
3. Beef vs. chicken vs. vegetarian pho instant noodles: Both were decent enough to be flavorful. Amazing. But we generally liked the chicken more. It’s easier to mimic chicken broth than it is beef broth. Adding fresh garnishes like basil, mint, cilantro, chiles and lime – helps both of the soups say, “I am pho.” The vegetarian pho didn't turn me into a vegetarian. Rory hogged up his beef pho bowl.
4. Vifon and Oh! Ricey brands: Both are from Vietnam and cost 39 and 50 cents a package, respectively. The Oh! Ricey had more stuff but the soup base was heavy handed in spices. For the chicken, it was too much. For the beef, it was alright. Vifon was more delicate but if I added too much water, I was sorry because the broth was too watery tasting. When buying Asian foodstuffs, I go for the middle to upper price range as the little price difference means a lot.
5. Bun Rieu Cua (crab noodle soup): Surprisingly, the instant version of bun rieu cua had okay funky, sea-like broth. There were chunks of dried tomato that rehydrated really well. A small packet of fried shallot wasn’t too bad. The bun noodles, however, tasted weird.
Conclusion: I would keep a stash in my cupboard for an quick fix of pho. Instant noodles will never be like a freshly prepared bowl with good meat. If you add some leftover chicken, beef, and fresh garnishes, you have a decent bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup. Definitely, for quick taste of Vietnam, I'd go for it!
If you’ve tasted some instant Vietnamese noodles and have recommendations, let us all know!
- Faux Pho: What is it and does it matter?
- Chicken pho noodle soup recipe
- Pho in a box
- Beef pho noodle soup recipe