Over the last year, I can say with a clear conscience that I never once hoarded toilet paper. But I did stockpile instant Korean noodles, with no thought or care for those who might go without.
I’ve shamelessly elbowed my way through the aisles to pluck the last packets off the shelves of my local Korean grocery store here in Paris, and filled my online shopping cart with as many instant noodles as possible. Because just as it is for most Koreans, ramyeon is my comfort food. The Korean version of boxed Kraft mac and cheese, if you will (or Kraft Dinner if you’re Canadian).
Korean ramyeon is also spelled as ramyun, though the former further differentiates itself from Japanese noodles, or ramen. And while some products are branded as “ramen” over “ramyeon” (Jin Ramen is a good example), if it’s a product of Korea from a leading manufacturer like Nongshim, Samyang and Ottogi, it’s ramyeon. For the uninitiated it’s important to note that Korean instant ramyeon is worlds away from the Cup Noodle or the outdated Sapporo Ichiban brands, both of which are all salt and little flavor. One of my pet peeves is seeing online recipes for “instant ramen hacks” that use these insipid varieties as a base. Because for the same price, maybe a few pennies more, you can dive into a bowl of hot, spicy, soul-soothing soupy noodles in an umami-rich broth that tastes like it’s been simmering for hours instead of five minutes. And the world, it seems, is catching on.
Last November, leading ramyeon manufacturer Nongshim reported that overseas sales of its instant noodles were expected to spike 24% in 2020 over the previous year to amount to $990 million. That figure encompasses huge sales increases in Europe, Canada, and the United States. Nongshim’s sales of its flagship brand, Shin Ramyun—one of my personal lifelong favorites—were projected to reach $120 million in the US alone.
The biggest driver of Nongshim’s runaway success in 2020? The black thriller comedy from South Korea, Parasite, which won the Oscar for Best Picture last year and catapulted both Korean cinema and Korean instant noodles into the global spotlight.
In one pivotal and symbolic scene in Parasite, director Bong Joon-ho distilled the entire premise of the movie into a single dish called jjapaguri, a mash-up of two popular noodle brands, Neoguri and Chapaghetti, topped with premium Hanwoo beef, a rich, marbled cut of meat from cattle native to South Korea.
Food media sites jumped all over the dish—search for “jjapaguri” and Google yields 87,000 search results. Nongshim also capitalized on the momentum and released a Chapaguri ramyeon shortly after. Global interest in Korean instant noodles, Korean cuisine, Korean dramas, and K-pop, already having penetrated the mainstream market thanks in large part to Netflix, BTS, and Blackpink, began to peak, bringing more fans into the fold.
In short, 2020, for all its grim ghastliness, marked another major leap for Korean culture the world over.
Which brings me back to ramyeon. In a year of restaurant closures, lockdowns, and quarantine, we sought comfort food and convenience. Instant Korean ramyeon, Americans would discover, is a cheap and cheerful five-minute flavor bomb of a meal with many different varieties to choose from. Here’s a quick primer of some of my personal favorites:
- Shin Ramyun: Soupy noodles, spicy beef flavor
- Paldo Bibim Men: Soup-less, spicy, sweet, and tangy chili noodles
- Chapaghetti: Black-bean-style noodles
- Samyang Buldak Hot Chicken Flavored Ramyun: Soup-less, stir-fried noodles in a fiery, spicy, sauce equal to 4,400 on the Scoville Heat Unit scale or SHU (for reference, the jalapeño pepper can range between 2,500 to 8,000 Scoville units)
There is also a right way, and a wrong way, to cook instant ramyeon. If the noodles are mushy and dissolve in your mouth, you’ve overcooked them and it’s game over. You’ve just committed a cardinal sin and insulted the Korean flag. Depending on the dish—some are soup bases, some require draining most of the water, and others require draining and rinsing the noodles in cold water—the noodles will have different textures. If you’re a beginner, follow the packet directions. But overall, a good rule of thumb is that noodles should still be a bit chewy between the teeth.
What back-of-the-packet cooking instructions won’t tell you is that you can achieve this ideal texture by lifting the noodles out from the boiling water from time to time and blowing on them; the exposure to air is said to help create a chewier texture. In the end, the noodles should retain some of their curl, akin to a 4-month perm. If they’ve straightened out, again, game over.
Some also swear that order of operations matters as you prepare the dish. In the 2015 Korean series “Let’s Eat 2” currently on Netflix, the two main characters argue over the proper way to cook ramyeon in a North vs. South kind of divide. There’s the “soup base first” proponent, who believes that mixing the powder with the water first allows the noodles to better absorb the flavor once they’re added, while the “noodles first” proponent argues that adding the soup powder to the boiling water too early just allows the smells and aromas to escape quicker. I’ve tried both ways, but I have to say I haven’t tasted much of a difference.
Meanwhile, it’s also important to note that instant ramyeon cuts across all socio-economic households in South Korea. It’s the democratic comfort food of the masses, as Parasite demonstrates—but the economic divide is made clear in the toppings. Like the affluent Park family in the film, moneyed households in South Korea might top their $1.50 noodles with Hanwoo beef, or throw in lobster, gambas, abalones, oysters, and mussels with their soupy ramyeon for a luxurious broth.
But I am not of the Park ilk. One of my favorite ways to pimp out soupy noodles, be it Shin Ramyun or Ottogi’s Jin Ramen, is the Kujirai-style ramyeon, inspired by a Japanese anime series and popular all over Korea. Use about a cup and a half of water to boil the noodles, and use only half to three-quarters of the seasoning packet. Crack an egg in the center, top with lots of chopped green onions and a slice of American cheese, and cover until the egg poaches and the cheese melts. The result is a spicy stir-fried-type noodle dish that’s made intensely savory by the cheese and green onions.
Cheese is another secret ingredient to my Buldak spicy chicken ramyeon (just the regular version, not the satanic 2X spicy version, popular as a challenge on YouTube). To offset the 4,400 SHU, I melt shredded mozzarella cheese in the microwave and slide it on top of the soupless noodles to chew on as a “fire extinguisher” for my palate when things get too spicy, usually around the fourth or fifth bite. For the spice averse, replace water in spicy soup noodles with milk to create a creamy, subdued carbonara-style version of the noodles.
One final and important point when eating Korean noodles, particularly soupy ones: You must slurp. That’s non-negotiable. Like sipping a fine wine, slurping brings air into the mouth and helps cool down the noodles as you eat. And if you really want to impress a Korean, at the end of the meal, after you’ve slurped the last of the broth straight from the bowl, set it down, and let out an appreciative “ahhh” with conviction. You’ll be made an honorary Korean right then and there.
Vivian Song is a Korean Canadian freelance journalist who moved from Toronto to Paris more than 10 years ago. Though she lives in the birthplace of haute gastronomy, her soul food will always be the flavors of spicy, punchy Korean cuisine.