Ramen is a super-convenient student favorite, offering easy preparation and incredibly low prices per serving. The price of packaged instant ramen noodles is often as low as 25 cents when on sale or bought in bulk online -- and generally the same when substituting the same amount of dry spaghetti noodles or rice noodles. This leaves 75 cents for toppings and broth flavorings to replace the flavor packets that come with the instant ramen noodles, which contain tons of sodium and chemicals. A little inexpensive creativity with natural flavorings such as soy, vegetables, and herbs brings considerable variety to this cheap one-pot meal.
Adding a chopped scallion (15 cents) and hard- or soft-boiled egg (30 cents) to instant ramen noodles is a classic way to work some freshness and protein into a convenient meal. Add a few dashes of soy sauce (10 cents) to give the broth an umami-rich flavor and a dash of chili sauce (5 cents).
Boiling a small piece of fresh smashed ginger (15 cents) along with a pinch of chili flakes (5 cents) creates a stimulating and healthy broth for noodles. Top the brothy noodles with soy sauce (10 cents), chopped herbs such as scallions or cilantro (15 cents), and a few slices of fresh cucumber (15 cents) to cool off the palate, then slurp away.
Dried mushrooms have a lot of benefits: They have a long shelf life, are super cheap, and create a broth during rehydration. Cook the noodles in the liquid that remains from reconstituting two dried mushrooms -- porcini or whatever appeals (45 cents). Slice the mushrooms and add to the cooked noodles along with soy sauce (10 cents) and chopped herbs (15 cents).
The simple addition of aromatic onion and herbs takes a bowl of noodles from boring to flavorful with minimal effort. Brown one-third of a diced onion (30 cents) in a tablespoon of oil or butter (10 cents) and mix in chopped herbs (15 cents) after taking the pan off the heat. Season the broth and noodles with soy sauce (10 cents) before topping with onions and herbs. This recipe would also work with raw chopped onion mixed in afterward, or by boiling the onion along with the noodles instead of sautéing.
Toasted sesame oil is packed with such intense flavor that a tiny bit goes a long way. To dress up the ramen, season the broth with soy sauce (10 cents), chopped scallion (15 cents), a sprinkle of sesame seeds (10 cents), and a teaspoon-size drizzle of sesame oil -- regular or hot, if you like it spicy (15 cents).
During the last 30 seconds of cooking the noodles, add a quarter-cup of frozen mixed vegetables (20 cents). Flavor the noodles and veggies with soy sauce (10 cents), a favorite chili sauce such as sriracha or gochujang (15 cents), and chopped herbs such as cilantro (15 cents). The vegetables add a healthy serving of plant-based fiber and nutrients to the convenience of one-pot noodle-based dishes. Spicy ramens have become so popular that California's popular Tapatío hot sauce is rolling out its own ramen bowls.
Adding egg to ramen adds protein, which can make it a complete meal. Just before the noodles are cooked, crack an egg (30 cents) into the boiling water and stir vigorously with a pair of chopsticks, breaking the egg into thin shreds. Season the broth with soy sauce (10 cents) and top with chopped scallion (15 cents).
Lend a crunchy texture to an otherwise soft and fluid meal to keep it fresh and exciting. Season broth and noodles with soy sauce (10 cents) and regular or spicy toasted sesame oil (15 cents). Top with three inner ribs of celery (20 cents) that have the tops attached to them, chopped into bite-size pieces. The celery greens have an herbal flavor, almost like parsley, and add aroma to the dish.
A big, steamy bowl of garlicky noodles in a savory broth is comforting and healing. Just before the noodles are cooked, add a quarter-cup of frozen edamame beans (25 cents) until cooked through, then remove from the heat along with the broth and noodles. Add soy sauce (10 cents) and 1 tablespoon of freshly minced raw garlic (10 cents) to a bowl of hot noodles. Allow the garlic to soften and infuse the broth for a few minutes before eating.
Cabbage is a great companion for starchy noodles, because it contains lots of fiber, which helps digestion of what is otherwise a big bowl of carbs. Once the noodles are cooked, stir in a quarter-cup of any variety of shredded green cabbage (10 cents), along with soy sauce (10 cents) and a tablespoon of sweet chili sauce (20 cents). Top with chopped herbs (15 cents).
The spicy fermented cabbage dish, kimchi is a natural pairing for ramen, adding a zingy and savory flavor and probiotic health benefits. The pungent liquid that kimchi is packed in has a lot of flavor that will add depth to the broth. Add 2 heaping tablespoons of kimchi (60 cents) to the cooked noodles and broth, along with soy sauce as needed (10 cents).