Debate Tries To Rank Every Flavour Of Instant Noodles: A Study In Failure
by Liam Hansen (they/them)
This was a fucking stupid idea. “Oh, the Kai issue is coming up! I can do one of those quirky ‘Ranking Every Kind of A Specific Food’ articles! AUTSA will cover the costs, we’ll have some free food, and I’ll have a funny article at the end of it. Let’s rank instant noodles, that’ll be perfect for the student audience :)” I had no idea what kind of logistics actually go into this genre of listicle. I would have had to run across the country to get every brand available in Aotearoa, and even then I’d barely be able to scratch the surface of what it means to rank every flavour of instant noodles. I went into this with hubris, and I didn't complete anything close to what was sought after. Whatever. This is a ranking of all the noodle cups and bowls that were available at Countdown Victoria Street on the 2nd of August, 2023. God forgive me.
Rank every flavour from every brand of instant noodles that I can. I figured it’d take a few participants to get some adequate discourse going on, and that if I wanted to do it in a day, I would need to restrict myself to the availability of just one supermarket. I still thought it was doable, though – I had the help of multiple members of the Debate team, and Sam’s reassurance that it would all go smoothly. I now know that Sam is a liar, or at the very least is too kind for his own good.
I initially wanted to rank the range of noodles available at Breaktime. AUT students could use our highbrow research as they browse the colourful ramen delights. Considering the university itself can’t support its students, the next best pick is obviously the half-rate comms students that fester in the Debate office.
The problem was, it didn’t really hit me how many actual brands of noodles there were at Breaktime (Figure 1) - and let’s be real, they don’t have the cheapest prices.
Our big bosses at AUTSA were willing to help cover the costs (this was for journalistic purposes after all), but they set us a pretty dismal budget of around $40. Breaktime ramen can run for an average of $3 a bowl, so we would’ve used more than double the budget if we got the full range. Thankfully, I had a backup plan: the surreal oasis of Countdown Victoria Street West, surrounded by roadworks and the lingering promise of the City Rail Link. To make things harder, we did this experiment on Wednesday the 2nd of August, when I was only free from 2:30pm, and both Thomas and Nic had commitments at 4pm. Thus, at exactly 2:33pm, I left camps and speed-wandered my way down Queen Street to the 4.1-star-rated supermarket situated in the heart of Tāmaki Makaurau.
Countdown simultaneously had incredibly slim pickings, and way more options than I anticipated. Beforehand, I had checked the website and figured there were around ten options that suited our experiment, but for some reason the search results didn’t include all the noodles from the international aisle. While I was underwhelmed by the lack of good Indomie and Shin options, I still left the supermarket with 27 different varieties of niche noodle flavours from all across the world. I also ran into my friend on the way out, who refused to let me leave without taking a photo of my embarrassingly full shopping basket (Figure 2). With a surprisingly light basket filled with ramen, and increasing insecurity around the people looking at my self-checkout struggle (I still went over budget, so fuck me I guess), I left the supermarket and made my way back up to AUT for the task I had been dreading the most.
The research team initially consisted of Sam, Nic, Thomas and me, with Debate contributors Stella and Chris joining on later in the fray. We unpacked the bag and mentally processed the monumental task ahead of us. It’s easy to think to yourself that you can do a goofy little food challenge in around an hour, but it’s a lot less silly and quirky when a variety of colourful cups are sitting on the table, basically laughing at you for your stupid, idiotic mistakes (Figure 3). There was no time to dilly-dally. I tasked the lads with opening up the first few cups, grabbed the kettle with all of my might, sprinted to the nearest water fountain, awkwardly standing there as the embarrassingly low water pressure filled up the kettle at a rate of about 0.0000000000007 millilitres per hour (Figure 4). Eventually I ran back, smacked the kettle onto its podium, turned it on and prepared for our first few flavours.
Figure 3: Thomas, looking at his phone in a desperate attempt to ignore what’s in front of him.
Figure 4: Seriously, is anyone ever gonna fix this shit?
I decided to stick to one method of noodle preparation: boiling water goes in and stays in, with the flavour sticking around in the water to create a classic broth. I’m aware this isn’t the only option, and everyone has their own preference. I, for one, am a peanut butter loving degenerate who will usually just turn every pack of ramen I have at home into a satay sauce. But the broth method felt the most traditional.
Our first few flavours were tame and familiar. We started with all our Maggi flavours, as well as the only Indomie cup I could find. These were honestly pretty good – if only because we were all nostalgic for these flavours. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the Maggi chicken, so my favourite after-school snack flavour was lost. I wasn’t actually sure where to set my standards to begin. The beef option we started off with was tasty, but I could definitely imagine there being much better options available.
From there, we stuck around in the white-aisle options: Trident's tom yum was weirdly sour, and their pad thai didn’t remotely taste like pad thai, but both were still tasty to me. Nic did not agree, claiming the Trident tom yum was the worst of the bunch due to the unique usage of rice noodles and his belief that it was like biting into a lumpy lime. Thankfully for me, I love sour flavours, so I thought it was pretty decent. The last of the non-international aisle ramen was from Supreme Noodles, which was basically just a Maggi knock off. I fucked up the flavours here, pretty much pouring every flavour into the wrong cup, so it was a bit of a guessing game for which flavour was which. Regardless, they weren’t great. On a final note for this batch of noodles, Sam pointed out the sheer amount of “Oriental” flavours. It isn’t our place as Pākehā to say whether the use of such an outdated term was unethical, but it definitely didn’t leave an easy feeling in our already noodle-filled stomachs. Chris walked in around this time, with no context as to what was going on, and immediately agreed to taking part. Great job, Chris!
We switched over to Countdown’s international aisle, expecting big things, but we were still underwhelmed. It’s worth mentioning the second caveat of this experiment: I’m vegetarian. Although, I can be a pretty loose one – I’ll avoid grey-area foods like fish sauce, stock and gelatin – but I wouldn’t beat myself up over eating it in the way I would meat. The majority of noodles seemed to be veggie-friendly, but the only one I refused to eat was Nissin seafood, due to it smelling like the Auckland Fish Market that I hated as a kid. Special points go to Nissin for not using extra plastic packaging for its flavour packets, though. The powder and veggies, presumably freeze-dried, were already dumped on top of the dry noodles, and dissolved into a broth once the boiling water was poured over it. I didn’t like their flavours, but I respect the design. Sam and Thomas thought their laksa noodles went hard.
By this point, we were all getting close to tapping out. Nic and Thomas had to leave, we still had 12 packs to go, but no one had the energy to eat that many. We made the unfortunate but necessary decision to eliminate all the packs that weren’t packaged in disposable bowls or cups (due to the convenience of a portable dish) and whittled our remaining noodles down to five. In my opinion, these were the best of the bunch: I gave Nongshim hot and spicy a 10 (despite everyone else giving it a four or lower) and marvelled at the ingenuity of Suimin utilising it’s “Authentic Thai Paste” to give the broths a creamier texture – despite looking pretty gross in the process. They were all decent, but the three remaining judges just couldn’t do it anymore. We finished off with the pretty good Nongshim kimchi and called it a day.
However, just at that moment, a beacon of light and energy came through the door, lifting our spirits and ready to test out all the flavours they had just missed out on. By that, I mean Stella came by after their class. She’s a self-described noodle expert, and despite my lethargic state, I had just enough energy to pull out my notes app and do a live transcription of her harsh reviews. Some highlights include “Maggi beef: Beefy, 7/10” and the complete opposite scores they gave to the rest of us for Sam and Nic’s favourite Nissin laksa, and my favourite Nongshim hot and spicy. With her final scores, and frustration that we had to eliminate Shin Ramyun due to it requiring a bowl (Figure 5), we were finally finished. Time to end this shit.
For our rating methodology, we all rated the noodles out of ten, and I calculated the average number to calculate the supreme winners and losers. But honestly? I’m not sure if that was the right pathway. Why? Well, maybe it’s best if you just see the ranking for yourself:
1. Suimin coconut chicken: 7.25
2. Jin Ramen mild: 7
3. Nissin laksa: 7
4. Suimin tom yum: 6.6
5. Maggi beef: 6.166666667
6. Supreme Noodles beef: 6.166666667
7. Fantastic Noodles chicken: 6
8. Nongshim kimchi: 6
9. Indomie hot and spicy: 5.833333333
10. Trident tom yum: 5.666666667
11. Ottogi snack ramen cup: 5.666666667
12. Maggi mi goreng - hot and spicy: 5.333333333
13. Maggi oriental: 4.666666667
14. Nongshim hot and spicy: 4.6
15. Nissin seafood: 4.5
16. Supreme Noodles oriental: 4.5
17. Trident pad thai: 4.333333333
18. Supreme Noodles chicken: 4.333333333
19. Nissin chicken: 4.25
20. Supreme Noodles chicken and corn: 3.5
This just feels wrong. Maybe it’s because of the sheer amount of sodium that’s still in my gut, but I can’t shake the feeling that we’ve done a disservice to this task. I mean, really? Suimin’s coconut chicken was good, don’t get me wrong, but I’m shocked that it got the top spot. We didn’t really have the time or experience to properly understand the beauty of these flavours, and we barely scratched the surface of what’s possible within the realm of noodles. We lost the chance to try so many – the childhood nostalgia of Maggi chicken, the Breaktime exclusives we missed out on and the singular packages left to be consumed at a later date. This is wrong, and I think I know the reason why: the Shin Ramyun.
Every time I mentioned this piece, the majority of people heralded the classic Shin Ramyun as the noodles to beat all noodles. Everyone said it couldn’t be beaten, and it wasn’t even included in our ranking. I haven’t slept since that fateful Wednesday, unable to shake away my guilt for that horrific exclusion; most of all, because I haven’t actually tried classic Shin before. I’m sorry! I just never got around to it! I hate myself too, don’t worry! Because of this, I can currently hear my $11 flat kettle bubbling away, and I have a bowl ready to be consumed. This is it, the final frontier. I refuse to be a failure any longer. I will cook this shin according to package instructions, and find out once and for all if it truly is the greatest ramen there is.
Ok, I’ve just finished the bowl (Figure 6). Shin Ramyun fans, I apologise for not jumping on the bandwagon sooner. This goes hard.
Revised Results: Shin Ramyun. 100/10.
Why is it that students love instant noodles so much? Is it just a stereotype from the media we’ve accepted as a reality, or is there something more to it? Perhaps, this is all a metaphor about how we can only afford the cheapest meals from our grocery aisles, so it’s no wonder we’ve become emotionally attached to them. Maybe, like me, you had Maggi noodles as a kid - and although you now realise it’s pretty shit compared to the authentic stuff, the taste still brings you back to your youth. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what your emotional connection to ramen might be. I’m pretty dang white, and the fact that my nostalgic food is fucking Maggi proves that. I hold a lot of privilege in that, and I recognise that for many Asian immigrants, ramen is an important link to their culture and whānau.
Musician and author Michelle Zauner, well known for her music as Japanese Breakfast, has spoken at length about the impact food had on her relationship with her late mother and her identity as a Korean-American in the book Crying in H Mart. She discusses Korean food in Asian supermarkets, “We’re all searching for a piece of home, or a piece of ourselves. We look for a taste of it in the food we order and the ingredients we buy. Then we separate. We bring the haul back to our dorm rooms or our suburban kitchens, and we re-create the dish that couldn’t be made without our journey.” I’m privileged in the fact that I haven’t experienced the isolation and trauma that caused the links to food Zauner talks about. But it’s important to keep in mind, as students consuming ramen, how lucky we are to be enjoying this food in the way that we do.