Lunchquest has been in a dormant state during the pandemic. Reviews, particularly critical ones, have felt out of place. I’ve still been posting various whatnots from food adventures over on Instagram, so I’ve been far from silent.
I’ve been fortunate to have been kept fairly busy with one thing or another, in recent times. With the slow reopening and move towards finding our collective way in the “post level 0” world, I got to thinking about whether Lunchquest should return in some form or another. Daily reviews will never return, but I still think about food and drink a fair bit. I could return to monthly posts which was the format I was favouring when the pandemic intervened. But I don’t find myself in and around new restaurants and cafes quite as much as before.
Like I suspect is the case for many people, the current state of affairs feels really weird to me. I’m just about to finish the latest phase of my 9-5 existence. Things are feeling a little directionless for me; in a good way, I think. But while my mental health has been as blessedly settled as ever, the last few months have felt like tough going.
When pondering what format a restart of sharing food thoughts might take, a predictably stupid idea hit me: “maybe I should just eat a SHIT TON OF NOODLE POTS and see if anything interesting happens”. And so I bring you today’s long read.
This idea might have been better timed at the start of lockdown one, what with us all largely confined to quarters and seeking culinary inspiration aplenty. But maybe as we currently struggle not to return to bad habits, the timing is just about right.
The scope of this exercise was to find a bunch of things in pots – mainly noodles, but the odd leftfield addition to keep things interesting – and see whether they were any good. I have not been a noodle pot person down the years and don’t have a hinterland of student Pot Noodle anecdotes to rose-tint my perceptions. I have increasingly become a great fan of all things Korean, so I approached it in part as an exercise to connect with some of the noodle pots I’d seen in Korean dramas and on Korean cooking channels from YouTube.
But Pot Noodle is probably where we have our strongest common point of reference, so this exploration deffo begins and ends with these iconic items. And in that regard, I have good news for you: if you happen to enjoy Pot Noodles, particularly the much-vaunted Bombay Bad Boy (surely we should consider renaming it the Mumbai Mad Man, or perhaps that is just as inappropriate?), you are in for a treat.
Well, I say a treat…
I am not here to praise the Pot Noodle – quite the opposite – but if the world of noodle pots has only extended as far as the Pot Noodle for you, you are about to be welcomed to a world of fun.
Let me take you through the various pots in the order I sampled them, before concluding with the winners and losers.
Koka – curry flavour
My adventures began with a Koka noodle pot in curry flavour. I bought it from the local Costcutter. This featured a fairly classic set-up – a pot containing dry ingredients that required the lid peeling back, the addition of boiling water, a period of expectant waiting, then the arrival of a meal ready to consume.
In the case of Koka, this featured two sachets atop a noodle portion. These were a curry powder and flavouring combo plus dehydrated vegetable shreds. After a two minute steep in boiling water followed by furious stirring, the pot was ready for me to tuck in.
This was quite a soupy version, with the liquid fairly decent. The noodles had good separation, but the veg was pretty sad. The carrots had all sunk to the bottom. This was not the last case in which the effects of gravity brought unhappy results.
Koka was a decent place to start. It turned out to be a good, middle-of-the-road noodle pot.
Kabuto chicken ramen noodles
Next up we had Kabuto, which are available in various varieties from Sainsbos (and I dare say other supermarkets). I opted for the chicken ramen noodles. The pot looked potentially promising, but things didn’t quite work out as well as expected.
The method was along familiar lines, but this one really suffered from the effects of gravity seen to a small extent with Koka. Mixing was a significant effort and even then I ended up with a desert of unmixed bits at the bottom of the pot.
The aroma was not enticing and partly due to the ineffective mixing, there were lots of weird pockets of flavour, leading to a really inconsistent taste experience. This was not great.
Ko-Lee Go Noodles – curry flavour
Ko-Lee Go Noodles were another Costuctter purchase. Our prep method was just a single curry and dried veg sachet. This seemed to cope with the challenge of gravity slightly better than the first two had, leading to a more even overall experience. But things were a little underwhelming and it felt a bit like a rubbish version of Koka.
Nongshim Shin Cup
The first of the really big hitters arrived in the shape of the classic Shin cup. This is an absolute Korean staple, produced in South Korea since 1986 by the Nongshim company. I bought these from my local Asian supermarket in Tollcross, but you can find Shin cups in Co-Op and various other supermarkets.
Upon lifting the lid, I could see that the dried veg shreds were already in the noodles. There was an additional flavour sachet to add when adding the hot water.
This took the game to the next level. This pot was very clearly the best yet, with a richly umami aroma, complex flavour, much better veg, and really impressive noodles. The praise I’d read for this pot seemed entirely deserved. We had an early leader in Noodle Pot Quest.
Nissin Soba Cup Noodles
I then moved on to a change in the creation/cooking process. If the internet is to be believed, Nissin were the pioneers of the noodle cup, releasing their first version in 1971. Nissin’s soba cup noodles involved the cooking of the noodles first, with an initial steeping in water – no flavour packets added – followed by a draining to remove the water. There were holes in the plastic lid of the pot to aid this. This was all quite a different experience and I’m not sure I particularly enjoyed it.
Once I’d drained my noodles, I added a sachet of thick syrupy soy sauce-like substance to the noodles and mixed it in. This resulted in quite a consistent flavour experience across the noodles, but it was all a bit characterless. It was interesting to see a different approach, but not the most satisfying set of results achieved.
Pot Noodle Bombay Bad Boy
And then I came to the Pot Noodle experience. Pot Noodle first arrived in Britain in 1977 making the brand the same age as I am. I vaguely remember them being a thing when I was young and some of my older brothers were at university, but I genuinely don’t think I’d eaten one prior to this culinary odyssey.
I chose to start with one of Pot Noodle’s most popular flavours, known as the Bombay Bad Boy. This felt in line with the overall exercise given I’d sampled at least a couple of previous ones that mentioned curry in their name.
I was back to a more familiar preparation process with noodles covered in powder requiring to be topped with hot water then left to steep. A pack of slightly alarmingly labelled bright red sauce was then added prior to a final mix.
The fully prepared item was right on the borderline between “this is disgusting” and “can we even consider this to be food”. The short noodle pieces were flat-out bad. The one-dimensional heat from the chilli sauce pack was the only real discernible flavour and that quickly flamed out with little to recommend it.
This was so very far below the quality of the other items that my immediate thoughts smashed through pity and alarm, and went straight to “Pot Noodlers are going to have their minds blown by the shining lights of Shin cups” and as it turned out many other great noodle pot options.
The Bombay Bad Boy was really, really bad. Let’s say no more about it, for now.
Naked – Thai style egg noodles
It was at this point that I thought something along the lines of “are all UK versions of this going to be terrible?” so I grabbed the most promising looking UK one that I could find to hopefully debunk that myth.
This was a green and black pot called Naked Thai-style egg noodles. We were back to a very simple method with water added and things left to steep. This had a notably promising aroma with strong notes of coconut and lemongrass. Broadly speaking, it tasted of the same. It was really pretty good. It was essentially just noodles in broth but it benefited from that simplicity.
It proved, at least in some measure, that there was no intrinsic reason why UK-produced noodle pots couldn’t be respectably decent.
Ottogi Jin Ramen
I then moved back to a pot acquired at the Asian supermarket. This was called Ottogi jin ramen. There was a soup powder packet to add to the noodles ahead of pour-over and steeping.
This had quite a strong aroma of the type of umami I associate with MSG. It packed good flavour and heat, with the noodles notably good. It was another simple affair, but definitely one of the better ones, so far.
Itsu protein noodles
I then took a fairly unwelcome detour down a dreary cul-de-sac focussed on so-called protein noodles.
This version was from popular sushi chain Itsu and they’re readily available in such supermarkets as Sainsbos. These featured a really odd aroma and texture. The noodles were like badly prepared seaweed – think sea spaghetti gone wrong. This was another really poor offering and not one I’d recommend.
Samyang Buldak – chicken ramen noodles
I then took a trip on the spicy side with Samyang’s buldak spicy chicken ramen noodles. I acquired these in six-pack format on my first ever visit to Costco.
Their preparation was similar to the Nissin soba noodles, with noodles steeped and then the water drained. This involved poking out pre-made holes in the lid which was a little odd. To the drained noodles, I added the entire packet of spicy sauce which proved a fairly bold decision as these were the spicy as fuck! The elegant seaweed and sesame garnish pack helped the look but didn’t tone down the heat any.
I should add that the cooking instructions were in miniscule writing. Much lockdown screen living has no doubt eroded my previously flawless eyesight, but even at the height of my visual powers I would have struggled to read the instructions without the aid of a magnifying glass.
Anyway, back to my reddening face under assault from these fiery noods. Even though it tested my generally weak powers of spice tolerance, I really enjoyed this pot. The heat was complex and satisfying and the noodles themselves were lovely.
I’ve since found a range of ways to modify the basic pot recipe with additions ranging from peanut butter to meat and veg. This will come in handy when I tidy up the remaining five noodle pots from my multipack, in due course.
Super Noodles – curry
It was with a heavy heart that I returned to the UK for my next noodle pot delight. This time it was a curry noodle pot from Super Noodles exponents, Bachelor’s.
This was a close brother-in-ineptitude to the Bombay Bad Boy. Firstly, it looked awful – like noodles buried in sand – then proved largely odourless and really light on flavour. The noodles were mediocre at best.
Pot Noodle and Super Noodles tend to dominate the UK instant noodle market. On this showing, it’s time to smash that noodriarchy.
Mama – chicken
To banish the Super Noodle ghastliness, I swiftly moved on to a fairly understated pot called Mama. This didn’t look particularly enticing, but the little flavour pack turned the uninspiring look of the pot into a surprisingly good eat. There were super simple but I relished their unfussy delights and not just because of the disaster zone that had preceded them.
Newgate Express – Spicy curry
I grabbed a spicy curry flavour pot by Newgate Express on one of my fairly regular visits to Lidl. My expectations were set very low, but the experience at least proved fairly interesting, with a bit of a rollercoaster of good and bad elements.
Firstly, it featured a sachet of mango chutney to stir through, which felt very unusual but quite welcome.
On the bad side, it featured small noodle pieces which I was learning to directly correlate with a disappointing overall experience. They made things slightly gluey. The bad dehydrated veg didn’t help matters.
But it did undeniably taste of things and most of those things had some relationship with curry spicing. So while it wasn’t particularly thrilling, it comfortably exceeded the Pot Noodle and Super Noodles standards.
Tesco – “free from” curry
It then felt like the moment to try a “free from” pot, so I popped to Tesco and picked up their free from curry flavour noodle pot.
This featured rice noodles which I’m a big fan of. These were fine, but the flavouring was timid and bland.
Blooming Good Food Co – sweet potato and lentil curry
I had my first deviation from the noodle, with a pot from the Blooming Good Food Co featuring a lentil and sweet potato curry.
I had high hopes that this would at least be decent. I was wrong. This was another bland-fest with a fairly unappetising mushy texture. It made me sad.
Nongshim Shin Kimchi
I had been saving the Shin Kimchi noodle pot for a moment of great despair. A fairly inauspicious run of pots had me as close to that place as I ever get.
In the final reckoning – we’ll get there soon, I promise – I think this one is the best overall noodle pot. The dehydrated kimchi rehydrated better than any other dehydrated veg. The spice level was a very pleasing moderate tingle. The flavour was deep and satisfying and the noodles were just great.
But I still had a few more to explore, including some incredible highs and lows.
Mug Shot – Mighty spicy Madras noodles
Mug Shot is another home-grown offering and didn’t look very pleasing to the eye upon initial inspection.
Flavour turned out to be decent despite the very poor noodle fragments. It was not “mighty spicy” but anyone’s scale, but it was far from the worst pot I tasted during this exercise.
Bachelor’s Pasta n Sauce – chicken and mushroom
And speaking of worst pots, it didn’t get much worse than my ill-judged final brush with the sadists at Bachelor’s. I again deviated from the strict noodle path with their chicken and mushroom “pasta n sauce” pot.
It was absolutely fucking awful. It was the only pot I tried where the cooking instructions resulted in something that was so unevenly cooked as to mark it as a straightforward fail. But I persisted through the crunchy and the slop.
Visually, it was a grey monstrosity. Flavour-wise, it was monstrously grey. It was the worst pot meal I sampled. Approach with caution or better yet, do not approach.
Hi – instant vermicelli noodles with beef tripe
And then things moved from the ridiculous to the sublime. I started on an examination of a few pots I’d picked up from the Asian supermarket that struck equal parts fear and intrigue into my heart.
The first one I sampled was called instant vermicelli noodles with beef tripe. The brand looked to be called Hi, but my inability to read various foreign language scripts limits my confidence in that. Indeed, exactly what some of the sachets featured in this and the next few pots actually contained started to become a bit of a mystery.
This one had six sachets as part of the complex flavour profile that was built as part of the preparation process. The tripe in one of the sachets appeared to be actual meat sealed in a vacuum pack, which was a wild development.
So while I stand by what I just said about the Kimchi Shin cup being the best noodle pot, this took us into the realm of an actual complex meal that wasn’t just a snack, could easily be served for dinner rather just as a lunch of necessity, and even merited being tipped out of the cardboard or plastic pot and into a ceramic bowl. It was a whole different beast and really very impressive as a quick preparation meal.
Indomie Instant Cup Noodles
The next pot, Indomie’s instant cup noodles, struck somewhat of a balance between the elaborate seasoning packets of the previous pot, but with a more simple overall effect.
Again, there were many seasoning sachets but the product was much more snacky. It packed a good complexity of flavour and I very much enjoyed it. It was right up there with the best pots I sampled.
Liubiaoliao – Energy
I continued down the line of more complex pots with something I think was called Liubiaoliao Energy. This stood out as much for its outstanding artwork on the pot as much as the complex flavour mix inside the pot.
This had some relation to the Itsu protein noodles, in that there was an interspersal of chewy textured soya noodles, but this was done deftly to give additional texture dimensions rather than just being a jaw-tiring eat. The overall quality was like night and day.
This was back into the realm of a “proper meal” in pot form. It was excellent.
Lucky Me – Batchoy
It was back to a more classic pot with the Lucky Me batchoy (porky) offering. This was noteworthy for including some garlicky pork scratching toppings which brought an added element. It was otherwise fairly simple, but nicely satisfying.
Nissin batchoy and tonkotsu
I returned to a couple of Nissin cups, this time they were standard water-topped offerings, rather than having a noodle-drain step. They were both porky and fairly similar. These struck me as very reliable, middle-of-the-road options.
Baixang Foods – artificial chicken flavour noodle soup
I then moved into the final furlong with a large pot that was notable for its outstandingly honest name: artificial chicken flavour noodle soup.
I won’t linger too long on the origin of noodle pots and their sometimes confusing relationship between the advertised flavour and their actual content. Certainly, it gets a little confusing when many pots claim to be chicken flavour turn out to be suitable for vegetarians. Anyway…
Refreshing honesty aside, this was a deeply satisfying pot. It packed deep umami notes with plentiful, good quality noods. I enjoyed it very much.
Shoo Loong Kan
It was back to the land of amazing artwork for something called Shoo Loong Kan. As with many of these pots from the Asian supermarket, I wasn’t entirely sure what all the various sachets actually contained (or indeed they were all supposed to go in prior to topping with water) but I still managed to create a very acceptable final product.
This one featured very good noods with spicy sweet potato notes and soy noodle pieces. It might have been on the spicy side for some, but I really enjoyed it.
Pot Noodle – Asian Street Style Malaysian Laksa noodle
My penultimate pot took me back to Pot Noodle for one final check in. This was one on the fancier ones from their range, an Asian street-style Malaysian laksa noodle soup.
Although this was bland and gluey, it was probably the best Pot Noodle offering I’ve tried. Sigh.
Yopokki – sweet and spicy topokki
The final pot was a little bonus deviation into a Korean classic rendered as a pot meal. Tteokbokki (topokki) is a street food classic featuring chewy rice cakes in a spicy gochujang sauce. I am a big fan and it has become a lockdown staple, although this was my first instant pot rendition.
This version was not bad, although it did introduce an additional step beyond the simple addition of hot water that was the preparation method for all other pots. That step was a quick blast in the microwave.
It was a pleasing note to end on and hinted at further pot meal goodness that might still be lurking out there for me to explore.
So overall, I was a bit sceptical about how much delight I would derive from this particular quest, but I was very pleasantly surprised. Pot Noodle and Super Noodles are just grim, sadly, but there’s so much noodle pot greatness available that swerving these particular brands is very straightforward.
As an everyday noodle pot snack lunch, I think the Kimchi Shin is your best option, but some of the more complex offerings, such as Shoo Loong Kan, are outstanding pots that will provide you with a very substantial lunch or midweek dinner. If you’re feeling brave, the one with the beef tripe is totally worth a go, as well.
You can, of course, access instant noodle meals that don’t involve a pot, but maybe that’s a story for another day… Oh, and if I’ve missed your favourite pot from this rundown, let me know and I’ll seek it out.