Like every other person who lives in India, eating Maggi was a constant in my life. Maggi is a brand of instant noodles that didn't come from India - it came from Switzerland and the brand was acquired by Nestlé in 1947 - but Maggi might as well be India's national food. They say India is a collection of 36 different and very diverse groups of people, united by one foreign language. I submit to you that they're also united by one foreign brand of instant noodles.
In India, Maggi is not just food, is an emotion. It is an established part of our culture, even the national identity. In a country that doesn't have a lot of rich people, it feeds a lot of hungry kids after they get home from an exhausting session of football or cricket or what have you with their neighbourhood gang in the evening, and it is the staple diet in every single university dorm in the country - in fact, universities which do not allow cooking equipment inside the residence buildings for students for safety reasons will still have a few microwaves here and there, so that the students can make Maggi when they can't cook anything else. Even street food vendors sell Maggi in some form or another.
At its core, Maggi is just instant noodles and a sachet of seasonings (the Tastemaker, as it's called). Back in my childhood days you'd only have two varieties of Maggi, Chicken and Masala (the vegan variety), and at some point they added a third one (Tomato). Now there's more varieties of Maggi than years I've existed on this planet, but there's not much basic difference - boil noodles in water, add the seasonings, and you have a bowl of noodle soup. So you soon learn to add toppings, spices, and even change the way you prepare the noodles, and there is a very real prestige of being the mom who makes the best Maggi in the neighbourhood, measured by whose house the whole gang heads to for their food after their evening playtime.
In India, there's Maggi. In the rest of the world, there's Ramen.
You might know of Ramen as a Japanese noodle soup, but the Ramen is the noodle itself. Ramen is springy and bouncy, and it turns out that way because the noodle is made by making the dough with something called kansui - lye water, or alkaline salts. As long as you use Ramen noodles to make your soup, and stick to some very basic rules, you can call almost any soup you make out of it Ramen. And so just like Indian moms have their own Maggi recipe, within a few standard classes of Ramen soups, every Japanese person has their own Ramen recipe.
I love a good bowl of Ramen. For when you're hungry and don't have a lot of money to eat, a moderately good bowl of Ramen will set you back 3-4 Euros (here in Germany; in India that cost is probably closer to 50 Euro cents) in ingredients and leave you with a very full tummy. And Ramen is the ultimate soul food. You can make it as elaborate as you want to, throw in almost anything you wish as long the flavours go together, and after a hard day at work and not much energy left to cook, I just love slurping on a bowl of Ramen watching clips from my favourite late night talk show (mostly Conan and Colbert) on TV.
Here's what I've learnt from eating and making Ramen so far:
- Noodles: This is what makes it a bowl of Ramen, not just some other noodle soup. I start with instant noodles (not Maggi, that's not Ramen). You can try Top Ramen - or whatever Nissin sells in your local market - and I hear Maruchan is pretty good in the US. Heat up some water with the seasonings, and just as it starts to boil, add in the noodles. The moment the big block of noodle disintegrates into strands, count 20 seconds and then take it off the heat and throw away the water. Undercooked is good, cooked fully is still okay but not great, and even a little bit overcooked is bad. That's because now we're going to re-fry the noodles in sesame oil, with a generous helping of sriracha sauce and soy sauce. I learnt this trick from a video on YouTube and this is the best trick that I've managed to collect in my bag of instant noodle innovations.
- Broth: The broth doesn't need to be fancier than chicken stock that you buy from your local supermarket. Here in Germany, Lidl sells glass jars of chicken broth powder from Knorr, and that stuff is amazing. I start by chopping up some ginger (finely) and garlic (into big slices), frying them along with chilli flakes in sesame oil, and then I add in the water and the broth powder, and let it boil.
- Chicken: This one isn't hard, but it actually takes a bit of time to make. You need tiny strips of boneless chicken, and you need to marinade it with generous helpings of sesame oil, soy sauce, egg and flour for 45 mins to an hour. Fry it on low heat in a frying pan, again in sesame oil - frying on low heat makes it soft and juicy, although it takes longer to cook. When it looks like its almost done, add in a little bit of sweet chilli sauce and give it all a good toss.
- Eggs: Ramen is usually topped with a boiled egg split in two, the egg being boiled just long enough for the white to have become solid but the yolk still being runny, but I actually like to make my egg sunny side up.
- Fresh Vegetables: Honestly, you don't need much more than some freshly chopped scallions. You can of course add more stuff, but at some point you'll need special ingredients from an Asian store - what you find at your local supermarket usually won't do. I don't think more vegetables add much to the soup, anyway.
The soup does have to be assembled in the right order. Here's how you do it:
- First, put equal amounts of sesame oil and soy sauce at the bottom of the bowl. 2-3 tablespoons of each should suffice.
- Now put the noodles in the bowl.
- Fill up the bowl with the broth.
- Divide the bowl into radial thirds, and put the chicken in one of the thirds, the egg in another and finally the chopped scallions into the last third.
And that's it, a big hearty bowl of Ramen.