Beyond the Pocky: Ramen on the Run
College misers, rejoice. You don't have to live off the same old ramen to eat quickly and cheaply Japanese style. We take a look at some other easy to prepare Japanese meals.
There's a saying, "The hobbyist and his money is soon parted," or something like that. For anime fans, this is very true indeed. Our fandom certainly isn't cheap, and whether you make do with a DVD once in a while, or you order every release direct from Japan the second that it pops out of the factory, money can become an issue. And when you've got to catch up on ten series, hunt for bargains, run a fansite, or sew together a school uniform, time becomes precious as well. This is where TV dinners and microwaves come in.
If I say the words 'cheap,' 'fast,' 'Japanese,' and 'food,' the first thing that will pop into most people's heads is 'Ramen'! This three minute meal in a plastic bag has found such a popular following in the west that Wawa's stocks it, college students live off of it, and bargain hunters buy it by the cartload. A good deal on typical ramen is 10 cents a meal. Add an egg and some hot sauce and it doubles in deliciousness value.
But the ramen at your local supermarket is just the tip of the iceberg. For discerning enthusiasts, an Asian food store will open up to you a world of instant noodles that you may never have known existed. Here we go beyond the Chicken, Beef, Shrimp, and unsettlingly ambiguous Oriental flavors, and approach some more exotic, and expensive fare.
One of my favorite dishes is miso ramen. There are lots of different versions, and some of the higher end packages include a little bit of seaweed or bread trying to be tofu. There are also many versions of hot ramen and chili ramen. For people who are just too lazy to get a bowl, there is a whole selection of cup meals you can choose from as well. Although they aren't as cheap as Top Ramen cup noodles, some companies go through extra lengths to create a full meal. One bowl I bought had a package of marinated and preserved beef, pre-cooked to add a little meat to my soup.
Ramen is only one sort of instant noodle. Udon and soba also are represented in the instant meal aisle, and some meals are very creative. One udon meal that I bought came with little dogs and foxes that you could sprinkle into the soup. A good thing about Asian supermarkets in America is that they often offer food from a wide range of Asian cuisine, so while you're looking for something Japanese, don't be afraid to pick up some instant Korean curry or Thai noodles either.
If you don't mind doing a little real cooking, some traditional Japanese dishes are quick and cheap too. Making something like sushi is much more time consuming than it looks, but fresh noodles, cooled down and dipped in special soup stock is a filling snack that's very appropriate for warm, lazy afternoons. Most supermarkets provide a good selection of fresh noodles, although there's nothing wrong with the packaged variety, and the soup stock is easy to find because it has pictures of someone dipping noodles into it on the front.
To eat a traditional summertime noodle meal, called somen, keep the cold noodles in a separate bowl, or a strainer, and put the soup base, with water added to taste, into individual bowls for dipping. A little bit of dried seaweed on the side is a nice touch too. If you're lucky enough to be in Japan, you can try your hand at catching somen as it flies by on a bamboo luge.
If you're sick of noodles, that's no problem. Although it isn't much in terms of an entire meal, there's lots of instant miso soup available in packets the size of a serving of hot chocolate. For something less sparse sustenance wise, try jumping across the pond to some Chinese fare, for instant egg drop or scallion soup. Everything sits on one shelf as a loving community of fast food, so even if it's not something Yukio would be familiar with, you'll be dining with Ranma instead.
Many Asian supermarkets also have pre-cooked food that is fresher than packaged meals, but is still easy to cook. The most common instant fresh food are riceballs. The versions around me are more Chinese than Japanese, with thick inedible leaves replacing seaweed, and the rice is sweetened instead of garnished with vinegar, but it still makes a good meal.
Once you've had your quick supper, you may want a little desert before going back to your manga pile. If you want, you can buy a coconut milk desert that even includes the water that you boil it in, or you can try out a sweet almond drink. At an Asian supermarket, it's easy to branch away from instant hot chocolate and try a few more exotic drinks.
If you're eating on the hurry without much more than pocket change, Asian instant food might be a good substitute for the TV dinners sold in a local mart. They might not beat ramen in cheapness, but after your tenth pack of Oriental Flavor, you might want to give the more obscure flavors a shot.