When there’s a global pandemic at your door, there’s very little time left for food snobbery or judgment. On the days that we’re unable to nourish our body and mind through regular interaction and routine, thankfully, there is still the option to nourish through our appetites. In times of uncertainty, eating within your means and indulging in comfort food has never been more important. For me, comfort came in the form of bringing a childhood meal to life, paired with minimal washing up and all shelf-stable ingredients.
By mid-March, due to pre-planned unavoidable travel and the fact I live in Shanghai, I had reached the end of my 3rd COVID-19 induced quarantine, having spent more time isolated at home in 2020 than I have spent living in normalcy. At the time, staying indoors for 42 days felt out of the question; I rode the nauseating emotional roller coaster of anxiety, boredom, frustration and misinformation long before the rest of the world uttered the words “social distancing”.
Upon the eve of Lunar New Year, fresh ingredients were starting to disappear and restrictions intensified. Getting groceries and essentials like masks and sanitizers were almost impossible. Luckily, my partner, being a chef and an all-around prepared-for-anything kind of person, was in the habit of keeping a well-stocked freezer and a shelf-stable pantry in our home. Whilst she was overseas and I faced the worst of the outbreak alone in Shanghai, I thankfully didn’t have to worry about running out of food. Despite this, most days, I felt unmotivated to step into the kitchen. Even as somebody who cooks for a living, I could barely muster the energy to boil an egg.
This recipe for One-Pot Cheesy Ramen was an amalgamation of my nostalgic longing for the soupy cha chaan teng-style instant noodles, which can be found in the local tea cafes all over Hong Kong. "Cha chaan teng" is Cantonese for 'tea cafe', and this noodle style is essentially instant ramen noodles in soup, served with SPAM and/or a fried egg. They bring me back to the weeks on-end where my Mum would travel for work, and our family proteins would rotate between defrosted unagi and a can of SPAM (courtesy of Dad) served over noodles. The addition of cheese in this recipe was derived from a Korean food phenomenon that came on my radar years ago. By placing the cheese directly over the noodles, the residual heat would, in theory, melt in the same way that cheese over a burger patty would. The result is an unparalleled richness in the ramen soup and a stringy, comforting texture that only the addition of cheese can achieve.
Even when cooking with instant ingredients, my principles and intentions behind cooking remained for me. Mise en place, whilst minimal, was essential in ensuring perfectly al dente ramen; fresh, bright vegetables, and crispy, but tender SPAM slices. Additionally, the best thing about making one-pot ramen (besides the fact that it can be cooked and served in the same pot) is that the toppings can be anything that you have on hand. If you’re not a fan of crispy fried SPAM and canned sweet corn, there’s no reason why you can’t switch it up to include anything from oven-roasted chickpeas, to deli slices, or fresh kimchi. In its simplicity, this was the dish that got me out of my food rut and catapulted me back into a regular cooking routine. In the spirit of high comfort and low execution, there has never been a better time to throw some extra attention behind basic meals and I hope that can be the stepping stone that gets you there!