It’s hard to beat the guilty pleasure of instant ramen. It’s inexpensive and endlessly versatile, but as sold it’s just empty carbs and a ton of sodium. So how to make ramen healthier? Here’s my strategy.
For those purists who will balk at this version and say, “Hey, that’s not authentic!” Yes, I know. I’ve had the real thing in Japan, too, where ramen masters can elevate it to a culinary art form. If you want to make more authentic-style ramen, I suggest checking out the book Let’s Make Ramen. It’s both functional and fun, and offers step-by-step instructions in comic book form. This is for those home cooks looking for an updated, healthier version of the beloved cheap ramen packets.
Consider Upgrading Your Noodles
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with those super cheap packets of noodles. But, I prefer to buy Hime Ramen Noodles on their own as the flavor is better. You can get 16 bundles of noodles for about $12 from Amazon and for even less at an Asian market if there’s one near you. The texture and flavor is better, and while it’s not 25 cents, it’s still a great value as one bundle makes two legit servings while the packets say they offer two servings, but in reality, it’s one.
Toss That Flavor Packet
The first step to make ramen healthier? Throw out the flavor packet, which is little more than an artificially flavored salt lick. Instead, I use miso to flavor the broth. You can find a tub of white miso in many supermarkets these days, either in the international food aisle or near tofu in the fresh aisles of a produce section. It’s the least expensive at Asian food-focused stores if there’s one nearby, or you can buy on Amazon. Once you have miso on hand, try adding it to soups, spaghetti sauce and salad dressings for an extra kick of umami. I love miso so much that I even wrote a recipe for miso chicken for the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture. Packaged instant miso soup works well, too, and you can find it most grocery stores, including Trader Joe’s.
About the protein
Pork is the go-to protein for ramen in Japan. I’ve made this recipe for Japanese-style pork butt for years. However, after having chicken ramen at Wagamama in London, tofu ramen at a Japanese restaurant in Seattle and shrimp ramen in Tokyo, I can assure you that pretty much any kind of protein will work. I’ve even used leftover shredded dark turkey meat from Thanksgiving, leftover chicken from Coq au vin and leftover Texas-style beef brisket.
If you start with a protein, cook it first. For chicken breast, I recommend leaving it whole and toss with the lime or lemon juice, salt and pepper and quickly sear in canola oil for about three minutes per side until cooked through. Slice, and place on top of finished ramen soup. Or, just crack and egg into it and let the heat cook it through. (Don’t use sesame oil for searing; it is too delicate and will smoke up your whole house.)
If you’ve got leftover roasted chicken or precooked shrimp from another recipe, just add it in at the end and warm through.
To make ramen healthier is to add to it. Like so many soup recipes, this is just a starting point. I like to include a bit of chopped leafy greens, green onions leftover veggies and siracha. If have it, add slices of ginger or onion. I might add a bit of wasabi powder into this mix. Leftover steamed bok choy, cooked cabbage, roasted carrots, sliced raw onions, thawed frozen spinach, dried seaweed, all are great additions and part of what makes ramen such a great vehicle for leftovers. Just think about what might taste good together and start from there.
Notes from recipe testers: “To experiment with new flavors, add a little at a time to preference. Taste the separate ingredients (such as miso paste) to get an idea of how much to start with or how it will affect flavor. My miso paste seemed pretty salty so I didn’t start with any salt and then checked for taste later in the process.”
“I make the broth first to get the flavor I want, then add in the noodles. I’ve added in all kinds of leftover vegetables, from green beans to Brussel sprouts. Just be sure whatever you add in isn’t seasoned with something that will conflict with the flavor you’re going for.”
Also: “Usually when I add raw egg to the ramen broth, I stir it in just before I take it off the heat so we have more of an egg-drop thing. Makes it easier to divide the soup up than deciding who gets the poached egg.”
This post contains affiliate links. It was first published in 2013. It has been updated.
Ramen Revisited – A Flexible Recipe for Healthier Results
For the protein
- 1 lime or small lemon
- 4 oz. shrimp, tofu, sliced beef or chicken breast
- 1/8 tsp coarse salt
- Several cranks of fresh pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil
For the broth
- 1 package ramen noodles
- 1 tablespoon miso paste or 1 packet instant miso soup
- 2 teaspoons soy sauce
- Two or three green onions chopped (optional)
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley, cilantro, kale or spinach
- 1 egg
- 1/2 can bamboo shoots or 1/4 cup fresh sprouts optional
- 1/2 to 1 cup cooked vegetables
- Hot chili sauce such as siracha
- Sesame oil
- Cut the lime or lemon in half. Juice one half into a bowl large enough to hold your shrimp, tofu, beef or chicken. Cut the other into small pieces and set aside. Toss with the salt, pepper and about half the oil and let rest for a few minutes. Add the rest of the oil to a small saute pan or skillet over medium-high heat and saute the shrimp or chicken until cooked through.
- Bring 3 cups of water to boil. Add the noodles and cook as directed by the package. If using a raw egg, carefully crack it into a corner of the pan and poach it in the water as noodles cook. Remove from heat and add the miso paste or soup mix plus the soy sauce and let steep for a couple of minutes.
- Portion the soup into two bowls. Add the green onions and herbs, plus any vegetables, bamboo shoots and stir through. Top with the egg and shrimp, tofu and the reserved lemon or lime pieces. Add Sriracha, soy sauce and/or sesame oil to taste if that’s your thing.