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Growing up with instant noodles

<h5>The ramen selection at the Princeton University Store.&nbsp;</h5>
<h6>Albert Lee / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
The ramen selection at the Princeton University Store. 
Albert Lee / The Daily Princetonian

Many people associate instant ramen with college students, and for good reason. Ramen lunches, dinners, and occasionally breakfasts are so ubiquitous among college students that the Princeton University Store dedicates an entire shelf to this convenient meal-in-a-cup. Unlike many of my peers, however, I fell in love with instant ramen from an earlier age. Since childhood, instant noodles have served as a constant in my life, following me wherever I go.

I’ve tried dozens of instant ramen varieties, of all flavors and shapes. Of all the brands, my family most worshiped Shin Ramyun, a Korean variety of instant noodles I frequently saw advertised on TV when I visited my grandmother in Seoul. Whenever my mom went to H Mart, a Korean American supermarket chain, she regularly brought home two or three boxes.

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On weekends, my dad and I would often share three packs of ramen for breakfast. One pack was never enough for one person, and two was too much. He would poach eggs in the same pot, adding scallions and chili peppers to enhance the noodles’ lab-perfected flavor. When we sat down to eat, he’d serve my noodles in a bowl, making sure not give me too much broth. Like the classic Korean dad he was, he ate his ramen out of the lid of the pot, reminding me of the dangers of too much sodium while he consumed enough salt to brine a turkey.

When I was a kid, I didn’t spend as much time with my dad as some of my friends. As a postal worker, he didn’t have a conventional work schedule, and the only day I saw him for extended periods of time was Sunday. Living away from home, I’ve developed a deeper appreciation for the moments that we did have together.

My mom had a more flamboyant way of making ramen. A maximalist in almost all areas of life, she would take sliced rice cakes and dumplings from the freezer and add them to the soup, thickening the broth into a hearty stew. Korean convenience foods, especially combined, made up a significant part of my diet as a child. I didn’t realize it at the time, but her hybrid creations were likely her way of making cheap foods exciting for me and my brother.

When I started cooking for myself more often during my virtual freshman year at home in Chicago, I often emulated the dishes my mom made for me when I was a kid. When deadlines piled up and I had little time to make anything else, I could always rely on a packet of instant ramen and a pot of boiling water to nourish me when I grew tired of eating last night’s leftovers. Ramen was a stable presence in an otherwise chaotic and disheartening year.

When it came time for me to move on campus my sophomore year, my parents and I piled my belongings into the family minivan and drove the 791 miles from Chicago to Princeton. After arriving in New Jersey, we rapidly located the nearest H Mart to buy snacks, having depleted our car stash.

After nearly missing the entrance — my dad always complains that the roads in New Jersey are too narrow — we pulled into the H Mart parking lot. My parents helped me pick out three boxes of ramen, which I later piled on top of my wardrobe. For the most part, the boxes remained undisturbed. I would often forget they existed until my friends pointed them out to me when they visited my room.

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I grew to appreciate them more, however, at the end of fall semester. When COVID-19 cases rose in December, I spent most of my time in my room working on assignments. In the days leading up to my exams, I would often substitute meals from the dining hall or Wawa with ramen to save time and money, a strategy many college students have adopted before me. Slurping shrimp-flavored ramen while pouring over my molecular biology notes, I was glad my parents had the foresight to make sure I had an ample supply of food in my room.

Despite my deep love for it, instant ramen is not my favorite food or even my favorite noodle dish. I much prefer pho and mul naengmyeon, a Korean dish of thin, chewy noodles in ice-cold broth. At one point, I even resented my parents for feeding instant ramen to me so often; as a little kid, I sometimes complained to my mom that I wanted a “normal” breakfast when she made her army-base-stew-like concoctions. “Normal” to me meant more “American,” a construct supposedly at odds with the culture my parents grew up in.

Since then, I’ve thankfully rejected this view. Looking back at my childhood, I’m grateful that my parents had options like instant ramen that made feeding me and my brother easier, now that I better understand the difficulties they faced as immigrant parents. When I grow up — actually grow up — I don’t want to forget this. Instant noodles will always have a special place in my heart, my family’s soupy potion for hunger and homesickness.

Albert Lee is a Senior Writer for The Prospect who often covers music and artist profiles. He can be reached at alberthl@princeton.edu.

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Self essays at The Prospect give our writers and guest contributors the opportunity to share their perspectives. This essay reflects the views and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a Self essay, contact us at prospect@dailyprincetonian.com.

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