Instant gratification

Updated: 2012-03-04 16:59

By Pauline D. Loh (China Daily)

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Only have time for a quick meal? It can still be nutritious and easy to cook. Pauline D. Loh takes three ingredients and a packet of instant noodles for a quick fix.

I always thought my first cookbook would be something along the lines of 101 Ways to Cook Instant Noodles. Several cookbooks later, I have yet to realize that dream, and I am still looking for an intelligent publisher who must recognize what tremendous sales a book like that would generate. It started a few decades ago when a packet of instant noodles had to go a long way toward feeding a hungry student flirting precariously close to the poverty line. My grandfather's monthly care package included 25 packs of instant noodles, and with careful rationing, it could last a whole month. The instant noodle, in my opinion, is the greatest food invention, surpassing even sliced bread. I guess we have to thank the Japanese for this. In fact, the Japanese brands are still the best, even though the product itself is now made in China, like almost anything else.

If you go to any supermarket in China now, you'll probably be staggered by the vast variety of choices of instant noodles. They range from cup to bowl to pack, from plain to flavored, from mild to spicy to pungently tongue-numbing. They also promise you all sorts of flavors, including chicken, beef, lamb, prawn and fish.

Be not deceived. Once you tear open the covers, there are just the noodles sandwiched by little packets of congealed fat and questionable seasoning of dubious origins.

Also, you may want to learn enough Chinese to read the labels carefully. Choose noodles that are baked or air-dried and not deep-fried. True, the deep-fried noodles have that added oomph and taste a lot better, but for the sake of your arteries, indulge only occasionally.

Sometimes, you get the "noodles only" packs. Grab them if you find them. I stock up on these whenever I find them and you have to be nimble on your feet to beat other competitors down the aisles.

Why instant noodles and not the bewildering selection of dried noodles found in the next aisles? Because they do cook in next to no time, and while they are simmering happily in the pot, you have just enough time to prepare the toppings.

In my campus days, I perfected the instant noodle feast, which can be vegetable or animal, depending on your appetite and pocket.

My favorite version is a mushroom and garlic stir-fry spiced up with bird's eye chili. It takes about the same time to cook as the instant noodles and is the perfect marriage to make a meal for the vegetarian.

Although I am not, vegetarian I mean, I do like mushrooms. If you are a religious vegetarian, skip the garlic. It's not allowed in a purely vegetarian diet as the allium may irritate the stomach lining.

I often eat my noodles with an egg, sunny-side up, and a few slices of luncheon meat, lightly fried. This is a Hong Kong breakfast standard found in any cha canting or teahouse.

The luncheon meat must be the Tianjin-made Great Wall brand. In Hong Kong, it's nicknamed the "little white pig" after the picture on the can. The egg must be fried such that the whites are crisp-edged and the yolk is still runny.

There is also my husband's favorite topping - wafer thin slices of Inner Mongolian lamb fried with caramelized onion and some really hot chili strips. I use the yellow bell peppers from Hainan Island that are ferociously hot.

These are all incredibly easy to put together, especially after a long day at the office. There are few ingredients, very little prep work or mise en place, and dinner or lunch is on the table in 10 minutes.

If you know a publisher interested in an instant noodle cookbook, send him my way.

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