Does this mean ramen ceremonies will start replacing tea ceremonies?
Japan has been bitterly cold the last few days. I mean that literally, in the sense that it’s been cold enough to put me in a bitter, foul mood as the sun makes a feeble half-effort to heat the chilled air of the greater Tokyo area.
Luckily, Japan is also the country of green tea and ramen, two excellent ways to warm yourself up. And, as luck would have it, those two stars of Japanese gastronomy have combined forces in Nissin’s matcha Cup Noodle flavor, which open-minded ramen fans have been looking forward to for the past two weeks.
The noodles just went on sale on January 23, so I braved the cold to make the trip to my local grocery store and pick up a pack.
▼ The instant ramen aisle, where you’re always sure to find culinary wonders
The packaging really stands out, what with its gigantic green drawing of Mt. Fuji, a depiction of the mountain that’s as unorthodox as adding green tea to ramen.
Still, with Nissin’s matcha noodles costing just 138 yen (US$1.20), their price isn’t at all intimidating. Plus, they weren’t even the weirdest concept on their particular shelf.
▼ That award goes jointly to you, yogurt curry and yogurt tomato ramen.
Many would say that green tea ramen is just about the most Japanese combination possible, and it’s a sentiment Nissin itself seemingly agrees with. Appearing with Mt. Fuji on the package are a geisha, lucky beckoning cat, and a headband-wearing otaku projecting a scene of a Super Mario-style video game onto the drifting clouds above his head.
While some more complex varieties of instant ramen require you to stir in various packets of oil and seasoning powders, Nissin’s Cup Noodle line keeps things simple by just having you peel back the lid and add hot water. Before starting the cooking process, though, I took a look at the contents, which were as green as I’d hoped.
Matcha aficionados will tell you that the tea’s aroma can be as enjoyable as its flavor, and so I lifted the cup to my nose and breathed deeply.
I immediately regretted this.
See, while the largest Japanese text on the package proudly announces “matcha,” directly underneath that is the product’s full description: matcha seafood flavor. For inexpensive instant ramen, dried shrimp are the most common seafood representatives, but Nissin decided get a little fancy with its matcha Cup Noodles, and so they come with thin slices of dried octopus instead.
▼ White octopus slivers sit atop the verdant noodles.
I like octopus as much as the next guy. Actually more, probably, since I long ago overcame my initial revulsion to the unfamiliar-to-Americans-foodstuff. In dried form, though, it’s pretty pungent, and if you were anticipating the delicate, refined scent of green tea, you’re going to be in for a harsh slap in the olfactory senses.
Like almost all instant ramen, Nissin’s unique Cup Noodles take three minute to cook. When they’re ready, the remaining liquid is surprisingly foamy, almost like a freshly whisked cup of matcha.
Giving the cup a few stirs with your chopsticks, as the directions recommend, eliminates most of the froth.
While the broth isn’t as deep a green as matcha itself, it is closer to green tea than ordinary soy, miso, or pork stock ramen broth.
The noodles, with a glistening jade-like hue, really look the part.
But while Nissin’s matcha ramen looks like you’d expect it to, the taste is a completely different story. While the green tea comes first in the name of the Matcha Seafood Flavor Cup Noodle, it’s the seafood that really makes it presence felt. Like the show-stealing second-billed actor in a kabuki play, the octopus is what’ll really command your attention.
▼ “I’m calling the shots here.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with the octopus, as it’s actually pretty tasty, with a flavor that’s nowhere near as harsh as I’d expected from my initial smell test. Backing it up are bits of carrot and egg, which add a pleasingly sweet richness to the proceedings.
In contrast to their appearance, however, the noodles themselves don’t really taste like matcha either, perhaps by virtue of having soaked up the seafood essence of the broth. They stay nice and chewy, though, which helps them play nicely with the inherently firm texture of the octopus.
But hey, green tea is a beverage, so maybe the broth, by itself, would taste like matcha, right? To test that theory, I polished off all the noodles and toppings, gave the remaining broth a few twirls in the container like I would with a cup of green tea, and took a long sip.
Nope, still no detectable green tea. It was primarily seafood with some very welcome black pepper…and oddly enough, a faint trace of what tasted like cheese. Sure enough, checking the ingredient label revealed that in addition to matcha, there is indeed cheese powder in Nissin’s matcha ramen, along with pork and chicken stock, plus onion powder.
So in the end, Nissin’s Matcha Seafood Cup Noodle is extremely hard to evaluate. It’s extremely unique, inarguably affordable, visually compelling, and definitely tasty. On the other hand, there are so many other flavors throwing their weight around that it doesn’t really taste like matcha. Maybe the best thing to do is to enjoy it for being the nice cup of seafood ramen that it is, but boil more water than you’ll need to make it, so that you’ll have enough left to make a pot of green tea to drink afterwards.
Follow Casey on Twitter, where he’ll pretty much eat anything that’s matcha-flavored.