Tasteless, boring? Meals in minutes that aren't

Even the most ardent food connoisseurs can find themselves caught in circumstances where cooking a worthy meal is impossible.

Even the most ardent food connoisseurs can find themselves caught in circumstances where cooking a worthy meal is impossible. Much as they prefer fresh ingredients and food served hot from the kitchen, they may have to address grumbling stomachs by resorting to fast and easy instant meals.

The idea of instant meals does turn a lot of people off. They think of it as junk food with little or no nutrition and artificial taste.

Still, many Chinese still tuck cups of instant noodles in their suitcases lest circumstances find them hungry and needing a quick fix.

Of course, instant noodles and rice can be pretty boring, even in the lurch. So this week, we will widen our view of instant meal choices to offer some more palatable solutions to eating on the run.

Instant Sichuan hotpot

This packaged meal has generated a lot of buzz recently because hotpot lovers are delighted to find that chilies and peppercorns can be found in otherwise dull instant foods.

With just one bottle of water, a sizzling serving of the most popular hotpot vegetables and meat can be ready in 15 minutes.

This concoction follows a simple principle used for self-heated military grub. A small heater pack consisting of quicklime, sodium carbonate, calcined diatomite, iron powder, aluminum powder, coke powder, activated carbon and salt can produce heat up to 150 degrees Celsius and a steam temperature of 200 degrees in 3 to 5 seconds after wetting. It can maintain the high heat for 15-20 minutes and keep the food warm even longer.

The packaging of instant hotpot includes a double-layered container, a bag of side ingredients, a bag of dry vermicelli, a stock pack, a heater pack, spiced stewed eggs, instructions and a fork. The whole package weighs about 400 grams.

Instant Sichuan hotpot

To prepare the hotpot, the spicy stock pack at the top of the box is mixed with some water before the meat, vegetables, vermicelli and eggs are stirred in. Then, the outer packaging of the heater pack is removed and placed at the bottom of the box. About 150-200ml of cold water is added to cover the heater pack. The upper box and lid are placed on top immediately and an air hole is opened. The meal will be ready in 15 minutes.

Just like traditional Sichuan hotpot, the instant version is also very heavily flavored and greasy.

Instant Sichuan hotpot can be stored in the office, at home or taken on trips.

If you are uncertain about the spiciness of the food, you can add the sauce pack in moderation and taste along the way to avoid the meal becoming too hot to bear. And one important note: avoid cooking the hotpot on a glass surface because the high temperature may cause shattering.

There are many brands of instant Sichuan hotpot to choose on the e-tail platform Taobao. Each features slightly different sauces and ingredients. Xiaolongkan (小龙坎), manufactured by the eponymous hotpot franchise, is one of the bestselling brands. Its ingredients range over all the classics, from wide vermicelli to duck intestines. The price is around 37 yuan (US$5.37), plus shipping.

Instant Sichuan hotpot is very heavily flavored

Instant local flavors

One main goal in travelling to different places is sampling local dishes. But sometimes, a holiday lands you in a place where only one dish is available most of the time. That’s where instant options can add spice to a trip.

Hulatang, or spicy pepper soup, is a signature dish in Henan and Shaanxi provinces. It’s easy to make, yet mixing the spices and condiments on your own takes time and effort. So instant hulatang soup mixes can be bought to recreate the soup at home by just adding hot water and maybe a few more vegetables.

The Shaanxi hulatang is different from the Henan version in terms of ingredients. Meatball hulatang has more vegetables, like potato, carrot, cauliflower and celery, and it’s often served with chili oil on top and tuotuomo, a dry flatbread pancake. To recreate this delicacy at home using instant products, you can buy the soup mix packs online from brands like Hu Spicy and add additional ingredients.

Hulatang, or spicy pepper soup

Instant versions of other mouthwatering Shaanxi street food favorites, like cold noodles (凉皮) made of wheat or rice flour and mixed with spicy sauces are also available. Or try shredded tuotuomo in mutton soup (羊肉泡馍, yangrou paomo), which can also be found on Taobao.

A typical pack of yangrou paomo contains a soup mix, stewed mutton meat, seasonings and the shredded pancake. Just add water and enjoy.

Sichuan and Chongqing snacks like pugaimian (铺盖面, very wide noodles with hot sauce), xiaomian (小面, a small serving of noodles in spicy soup) and huoguofen (火锅粉,hot pot vermicelli) are also available as instant meals.

Reganmian (热干面), or hot dry noodles, is the No.1 breakfast choice in Wuhan City of Hubei Province. The simple serving of chewy noodles is topped with sesame paste and chili oil sauce. Instant meals of the dish usually contain a handful of dry noodles and sauce packages to recreate the authentic flavor.

Reganmian, or hot dry noodles

One of the most popular street snacks from Liuzhou in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region is luosifen (螺蛳粉), or river snail rice noodles. It is known for its intense flavor and unique fragrance, though it’s not to everyone’s taste.

Finding authentic luosifen outside Guangxi is not easy, so instant luosifen is a solution for those who crave the dish. A bag of instant luosifen usually contains rice noodles, chili oil and pork bone river snail soup mix, along with side ingredients such as fried peanuts, fried bean curd sheet roll, pickled black fungus, white radish and cowpeas.

Luosifen, or river snail rice noodles

Instant soup and congee

Instant soups and congees have been around for a long time, with new flavors emerging all the time.

Japanese retail franchise Muji recently added a few new products in the food aisle, including several instant soups and two congees containing dehydrated vegetables, proteins and rice.

The soup flavors include onion, hot and sour tomato, vegetables and okra, fried eggplant and pork ginger, and spinach and shrimp. A bag of soup selling for 19 yuan contains four servings, and each 4.4-gram soup pack makes a very small cup of soup with a few bites of vegetables and protein. It’s quite generously seasoned.

The two congees — whitebait and laver rice porridge, and mollusk and seaweed rice porridge — are both seafood flavors. Each 13.5-gram pack costs about 9 yuan and contains an acceptable amount of rice, vegetables and meat. Because of the whitebait, scallop and seaweed in the congee, the flavor is quite salty.

Traditionally, portable congee is packaged in tins and ready to eat without any cooking, but most of the offerings are very sweet.

Dried instant congee is expanding beyond that to include more savory recipes like pork and preserved egg congee, shitake mushroom and chicken congee, and spicy beef congee. To improve the texture, oats are also added to the congee mix.

Spinach egg soup is a classic instant soup, as served in Chinese KFC outlets. Tomato egg soup, nori egg soup and cabbage egg soup are also favorites. Nowadays you can find instant soup flavors such as hot and sour soup, Korean kimchi soup and beef soup.

Instant congee

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