While I am a firm believer in eating fresh foods (not to mention local, sustainable, organic, and home grown foods) I cannot deny the allures of processed foodstuffs, particularly the kind of junk that makes quick, cheap meals. Lately, it just doesn’t seem like I can get it together enough to bring in some leftovers of a meal from the night before, let alone make something fresh to take with me to work the next day. I’ve recently discovered that using the excuse, “I don’t have anything to make a lunch out of,” doesn’t apply when I clearly do have food in my kitchen that could make a good lunch. What gives?
Well…laziness, probably, and a need to go to bed earlier so that my early rising time isn’t greeted with a mumbled “five…more min… ZZZZZZZZ” and a palm-slam on the snooze button. But another reason is that I allowed my eating habits to devolve to the point where I’m actually enjoying a particular junk-lunch cuisine: Instant noodles.
In college, I preferred peanut butter sandwiches and fruit to Cup Noodles or (ugh) Easy Mac, and these days, I’d likely make the same choices. But there is something so tantalizing and junk food-y about instant noodles. You add water, a sauce packet, and usually a freeze-dried block of “vegetables” that looks more like a boullion cube with added texture. You heat for two minutes. Let sit, then stir and eat.
The taste? If you get the really low quality noodle packs (and I include Cup Noodles in this category) it’s somewhere between salty and more salty, soy sauce and pure sodium preservatives in a mushy, nearly inedible dish. There is usually some kind of featured flavoring, chicken, beef, or shrimp (a flavor that is one of the many reasons I don’t eat at LuLu’s Noodles anymore). And there are always little colorful flecks – those are “vegetables.” Noodles, broth, freeze-dried veggie flecks – not exactly appetizing.
Maybe my current affinity for instant noodles is because there are suddenly an abundance of better quality options in that category. Not just noodle packs that have an actual flavor aside from “salty with a vague taste of beef,” but noodle dishes and soups that boast less sodium, more natural flavors, and an overriding sense that this could actually be food.
Annie Chun’s noodle and soup bowls are about as close as microwaveable food can get to the real thing. The vegetable cube is more recognizably made of vegetables. The sauce is more flavorful and less salty. The portion is just right for lunchtime. And, yes, the cooking time is very near instant, although the steps involved in softening the noodles, combining the ingredients, and heating the soup do make it feel like you’re doing a bit more work, which isn’t true, but hey, whatever helps you swallow those noodles.
I can recommend the noodle bowls as heartily as the soup bowls, though there is a significant increase in sodium. Unlike a lot of microwaveable noodle packs, however, there is a ton of flavors in these dishes – notice that: flavors. As in, multiple flavors working together to create a tasty dish. Is it as good as say, going to an Asian restaurant? Of course not. It’s not even as good as getting takeout noodles at a stand or food truck. But they’re surprisingly decent, and could even make pretty good individual meals if made at home – simply adding mushrooms, tofu, meats, fresh vegetables, etc. could turn an okay quick lunch into a satisfying at home meal.
The other brand I can recommend is Simply Asia, which are a little cheaper than Annie Chun’s, but satisfying nonetheless. Like Annie Chun’s, the company produces a range of products aside from quick noodle bowls and soups, including sauces, seasonings, and starter dinner kits (never really a bad option, as long as you add your own fresh ingredients to the mix). I’ve found that with a little bit of extra microwave time, the addition of crushed red pepper, and a handful of cashew pieces, the quick noodle bowls are fairly tasty. I haven’t tried the steamers, but it’s a nifty idea – a microwaveable steaming bag and sauce included, just add the fresh veggies. Not really necessary if you have a decently stocked kitchen, I suppose, but a good option for people sans stove.
If buying processed lunch meals, try to buy smart. Aim for products that tout organic ingredients, check for sodium and preservatives, and of course, if you’re vegetarian or vegan, make sure that you check the ingredients on the back for eggs, casein, meat-stock, etc (although you probably don’t need to be told that). The more buzz-word guarantees a product has doesn’t necessarily indicate a healthier meal, but you’re at least likely to get a better taste.