Cup of cups - which cup noodles are worth eating?

PHOTO: The Straits Times

SINGAPORE - In the panic-buying spree that happened when the coronavirus alert in Singapore was raised from yellow to orange in February, shoppers cleaned out stocks of instant and cup noodles in supermarkets.

But in desperate times, is it really feasible to boil pots of water to make bowls of noodles? Are cup noodles more practical, even if they take up more space? And if cup noodles are the way to go, which ones are worth eating?

To find out, The Straits Times did a taste test of 29 varieties from different brands.

These were chosen from the selection at FairPrice Xtra in Ang Mo Kio Hub.

The 29 cups and bowls included basic flavours such as chicken, and exotic ones like Korean army stew, hot chicken cheese and mala xiang guo. Easy availability was the main consideration and the selection included Singapore, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Indonesian and Malaysian brands.

On the judging panel were Sunday Times Senior Food Correspondent Wong Ah Yoke; chef Bjorn Shen of middle-eastern restaurant Artichoke and micro pizza restaurant Small's, both in Middle Road; and this reporter.

The blind taste test was done at Relish, chef Willin Low's restaurant at Frasers Tower in Cecil Street.

Sunday Times interns Lim Rei Enn and Gwyneth Low administered the test, randomly assigning numbers to the varieties of noodles. They also cooked them, following instructions on the bowls and cups to the letter. The noodles were then transferred into generic bowls and taken to the judges.

Mr Wong and Shen eat instant noodles, and prefer the ones that come in packets rather than cups or bowls because they often add vegetables and meat to make a complete meal. Shen identified several of the noodles and his guesses proved to be correct when all was revealed at the end of the test.

The judges graded the noodles using three criteria - taste, noodle texture and quality of condiments and sauces, with a maximum of 10 points for each one.

The varieties that promised extreme spiciness delivered, although this was not always a good thing. They prompted prolonged coughing fits among the judges, and the heat also numbed their tastebuds to any nuance the noodles might otherwise have had.

Judging panel is food critic Wong Ah Yoke, food editor Tan Hsueh Yun and chef Bjorn Shen. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Basic flavours were, on the whole, disappointing. This is because cup noodle technology has advanced so far that chicken seems plain in a market filled with more robust and exciting flavours.

"Why would I want to eat instant noodles from 20 years ago?" asked Mr Wong, after tasting a particularly bland offering.

This is not to say that exotica always made the grade.

Two of the Korean ones promised cheese, but delivered nothing remotely resembling it. In fact, at the end of the test, none of the judges could remember tasting anything dairy in any of the noodles.

This problem plagued several of the varieties in the test: the packaging promised flavours which were not discernible.

A couple were downright nasty.

"I would pay not to eat this," said Shen of one of the varieties.

Noodle texture was a problem with more than a few varieties. Although they were cooked following the times stated on the packaging, some were mushy on the outside and rock hard at the core. Others had what Shen described as a texture similar to styrofoam.

The best cup and bowl noodles had one thing in common - laser-sharp flavours.

A distinct citrus tang in Mie Sedaap's cup noodles made the judges sit up and take notice. Myojo's mala xiang guo earned praised for its authentic Sichuan pepper flavour. Golden Chef, a FairPrice housebrand, produced noodles that had a flavoursome miso soup.

The top cup was from China brand Shizuren. It earned 25 points out of 30.

It was also the most elaborate and pricey one. Each cup costs $3.20 and inside are multiple packets, containing potato starch noodles, seasoning powder, sauce, sheets of dried beancurd, dehydrated bean sprouts and peanuts that stayed crunchy despite sitting in boiling hot water.

Springy noodles, authentic flavours and myriad textures made it stand out from the rest.

Chef Shen gave it the ultimate accolade.

"Totally worth eating," he said.

TOP EIGHT

In a blind taste test of 29 varieties of cup noodles by Senior Food Correspondent Wong Ah Yoke, chef Bjorn Shen of Artichoke and Small's, and Food Editor Tan Hsueh Yun, these eight emerged tops:

1. SHIZUREN ENERGY INSTANT NOODLE - HOT & SOUR FLAVOR, 130g, $3.20

(1st Place) Energy Shizuren Instant Noodle Hot & Sour Flavor costs $3.20. PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

This cup is the biggest of the ones the panel tried, and comes with seven little packets in the cup and a plastic fork. Aside from potato starch noodles, there are also sachets of beancurd skin, seasoning powder, seasoning sauce with broadbean paste and Sichuan pepper, vinegar, dehydrated coriander and bean sprouts, and peanuts. Despite its description as hot and sour noodles, there is a definite mala vibe to it.

Wong Ah Yoke (WAY): This is what you would get in China. The flavour is authentic and the bean noodles work very well.

Bjorn Shen (BS): This totally does not taste instant. If you had told me you had bought this from a stall, I would believe you.

Tan Hsueh Yun (THY): The super crunchy peanuts do it for me, and I love the springy potato starch noodles. I just wish I could have it with Myojo's nuanced mala xiang guo flavouring because the Sichuan pepper in this cup is hammering my taste buds.

2. NISSIN BLACK GARLIC OIL TONKOTSU FLAVOR, 72g, $1.95

(2nd Place) Nissin Black Garlic Oil Tonkotsu Flavor $1.95. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

The only Japanese cup noodle to make it to the top eight, this one stands above the rest mainly because the meaty flavour of the soup is light but deep, and the packet of black garlic oil gives the noodles an extra flavour boost. The condiments of egg, fish cake and greens also pass muster.

BS: You don't expect such a niche flavour, with the black garlic oil. This just speaks of quality.

WAY: The black garlic oil is very fragrant.

3. MYOJO DRY MALA XIANG GUO FLAVOUR, 100g, $1.60

(3rd Place) Myojo Dry Mala Xiang Guo costs $1.60. (UP $3.60) ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Myojo claims on its website that this is the "first and only" mala xiang guo instant noodles on the market. The garnish is basic, just dehydrated mushrooms, but the mala flavour is what makes this cup worth eating.

WAY: It tastes exactly like mala xiang guo.

BS: I found the noodles too thin, they get soggy faster.

THY: Who knew cup noodle seasoning could be so elegant? The heat doesn't clobber the palate the way some of the other spicy cups did.

4. MIE SEDAAP INSTANT CUP MI KUAH RASA SOTO, 81g, $1.15

(4th Place) Mie Sedap Cup Soto costs $1.15. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Crunchy balls of dough in this cup are a good surprise, as is the very definite kiss of citrus in the soup. It adds an extra flavour dimension that is unexpected in a cup noodle, but is what you would expect from a bowl of mee soto.

BS: I'm not surprised these noodles did well. I go to Indonesia for work a lot and I eat a lot of their instant noodles. The citrus refreshes the palate.

AY: The noodles are smooth and the citrus flavour leaves a pleasant aftertaste.

5. GOLDEN CHEF SPICY MISO JAPANESE FLAVOUR CUP NOODLES, 70g, $1.45

(5th Place) Golden Chef Spicy Miso costs $1.45. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Golden Chef is one of FairPrice's house brands. The cup is loaded with vegetables - corn kernels, carrot and cabbage.

BS: The body of the soup is very nicely rounded. A lot of the cups we tried had thin and salty soup. Overall, this offered a more heightened experience.

THY: There is a lot of umami from the miso, but I wish the soup wasn't so salty.

6. NONGSHIM SHIN RAMYUN, 117g, $1.60

(6th Place) Nongshim Shin Ramyun costs $1.60. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

The winner among the Korean varieties the panel tried. Plain and simple, it beat Korean cup noodles boasting dried kimchi, intense spice and even cheese.

WAY: I like the texture of the noodles, and the soup is very well balanced.

BS: The big chunks of dried shiitake mushroom rehydrated better than some of the other ones we tried, and are not hard. I love the non-cup version of this.

7. MYOJO DRY MEE POH, 90g, $1.60

(7th Place) Myojo Dry Mee Pok costs $1.60. (UP $3.60) ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

While the cups featuring thicker noodles did not generally impress, Myojo's mee pok is a hit.

THY: I found the chunks of what is supposed to be meat, but is really plant-based protein, to be too hard. But the thick noodles are springy and the seasoning on point.

WAY: This did not taste like an instant noodle. Among the thick noodles, it had the best texture, and the fried garlic bits added a lot of flavour.

8. MYKUALI PENANG HOKKIEN PRAWN RICE VERMICELLI SOUP, 100g, $2

(8th Place) MyKuali Penang Hokkien Prawn costs $2. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

The judging panel was not impressed by how oily these noodles were - there is a layer of it floating above the noodles. But the flavour cannot be faulted.

WAY: The prawn flavour is very distinct and it tastes quite authentic. What I don't like is the oiliness.

BS: I didn't expect the intensity of the prawn flavour. This tastes artisanal, like the brand put in double the effort.

THE OTHER CUPS

Here is a list of the other cup noodles the panel tested:

Indomie Mi Goreng Barbeque Chicken Flavour

Ippin Shoyu Flavour Ramen

Koka Signature Chicken

Koka Signature Curry

Koka Baked Multigrain Noodles with Purple Corn Five Spiced Duck Flavour

Little Cook Instant Noodle TVP Stewed Pork Flavor

Little Cook Instant Noodles Shrimp Tomyum Flavour

Maggi Hot Cup Kari

Maggi Hot Heads Mee Goreng

Myojo Chicken

Nissin Cup Noodles Chicken

Nissin Cup Noodle Korean Army Stew

Nissin Signature Chicken Flavour

Nissin U.F.O. Fried Ramen Spicy Mayo

Nongshim Bok Keum Kimchi Dried Ramyun

Nongshim Korean Clay Pot Ramyun

Ottogi Yeul Ramen Cup

Picnic Stir-Fried Noodle Super Hot Chicken

Samyang Big Bowl Carbo Hot Chicken Flavor Ramen

Samyang Cheese Hot Chicken Flavor Ramen

Samyang Hot Chicken Flavor Ramen 2X Spicy

HEALTH TIPS

Before stocking up on instant or cup noodles, here is some advice from dietitian Teong Wen Lynn from the National University Hospital's Department of Dietetics:

* Cup and instant noodles are not for regular consumption and should be a rare treat.

* The salt content in these noodles ranges from 4g to 6g. Health Promotion Board guidelines recommend that people keep salt intake to 5g a day. This means that just a single cup of noodles would put you over your daily recommended salt intake. Shoppers should compare products to look for the one with the lowest sodium content per 100g.

* High salt intake can lead to high blood pressure, which has been strongly linked to cardiovascular diseases, including heart attack and stroke. There is also increased risk of stomach and nasopharyngeal cancers in people whose diets are regularly high in salt.

* Some alternatives include noodles that are not fried, dried bee hoon and la mian. Flavour the noodles with natural herbs and spices such as pepper, garlic and onion instead of using the packets of seasoning that come with the noodles.

* Add vegetables and protein-rich foods such as eggs, tofu, chicken and fish to transform the noodles into a healthy, balanced meal.

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.