The first oyster mushroom I ever ate was stolen from the the table scraps of a Saudi prince. I was teenager working a summer job in the business center of the New York Palace, one of the city’s most obscenely expensive hotels, where I took care of the printing and faxing needs of conference attendees, manic event planners, and, when they’d summon me from their penthouse suites, members of the world’s 1%. Those in the first two groups were often cordial and polite, as there was an unspoken understanding that we were all just working stiffs who had come to the hotel to do our jobs. That last group, though... it’s not fitting to describe their behavior as rude or nasty. Those words imply that they chose to interact with you as if you were a human being, and nothing about their behavior implied that they saw me or any of my coworkers as human. We were like furniture or potted plants: objects that simply took up space in the environment. I was told by one member of the prince’s security team that I was not to look at the prince or members of his entourage, nor was I to acknowledge them in any way. I was to be invisible. Twenty years later, I have not forgotten how that felt.
The prince ordered room service for his meetings, and lots of it. Though my memories have become fuzzy with time, I remember thinking that he must have ordered everything on the menu at least twice, and that it was way more than his party of about 20 men could eat. As they sat behind closed doors, I sat at my post up front and stayed invisible. I shushed any hotel guests who made what was considered an unacceptable amount of noise. I was as still as furniture.
When they finally left, I went into the back to clean up after them. As I expected, they had not eaten all the food they’d ordered, but they had taken a bite off of every single plate as if to claim each as their own. And in that moment, thinking about all the New Yorkers who’d be going to bed hungry while I threw leftover lamb chops in the trash, I learned that I was not above eating a Saudi prince’s half-eaten whiskey-glazed hanger steak served on a bed of seared oyster mushrooms. I ate it with my hands, because utensils were for people with dignity, and I had already been stripped of mine.
I was not surprised when Parasite won this year’s Oscar for Best Picture, because since its release, every person I know who saw it (myself included) was left rattled and gasping for air as the credits rolled. It was not a horror movie, at least not in the traditional sense. It does inspire a certain type of dread, and for many viewers, that dread sets in when the Park family’s housekeeper is told to prepare a bowl of “ram-don.” Ram-don is a portmanteau of ramen and udon, an Americanized translation of a popular South Korean dish called jjapaguri. What makes the dish significant: jjapaguri is just two cheap packaged brands of instant noodles—specifically, Chapagetti and Neoguri—cooked together in the same pot. It is (why mince words?) “poor people food.” While Parasite’s wealthy Mr. and Mrs. Park might indulge their young son by allowing him to enjoy a dish from the South Korean zeitgeist, they also insist on a version that’s fit for someone of his social class, instructing the housekeeper to add cubes of seared Hanwoo beef, one of the most rare and expensive meats in the world, which the Parks just happen to have sitting in their fridge as if it were lunch meat. Even for most financially comfortable Koreans, Hanwoo steak is meant for a special occasion. For the top 1% of the 1%, it’s just there, like furniture. (And however brilliantly Parasite illustrates the wealth gap, it’s much worse here than in Seoul.)
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Though I can afford Chapagetti and Neoguri, as well as the car that drove me to the suburban H Mart that carries them, I cannot afford expensive steaks for my ram-don. For this, I bought a single nice ribeye, seared it well, and then topped my noodles with just a few slices so that I could stretch out the rest to feed the other four people in my house. And though it’s not how the dish is depicted in the movie, I added a whole bunch of oyster mushrooms, because even if they’re cheap at H Mart, to me, they’ll always feel expensive.
- 1 package Chapagetti instant noodles
- 1 package Neoguri instant noodles
- 1 steak, the most expensive you can afford
- 1/2 cup oyster mushrooms, trimmed
- 1 scallion
Put a cast iron skillet over high heat for 5 minutes, then coat the pan with a bit of oil. Pat the steak dry with paper towels, sprinkle both sides with a pinch of kosher salt, then add to the pan and let sear, undisturbed, until it is deeply browned. Flip over and add the mushrooms to the pan. Cook until the steak is at your desired temperature and the mushrooms are seared. Move the steak to a plate, loosely tent with foil, and allow to rest while you make the noodles.
Bring three cups of water to a boil. Add one half of the flavoring packets from each brand of noodles, then add all the other packets they come with. Add the noodles and cook to package directions, then pour into a large bowl.
Place the mushrooms on top of the noodles, then top with thin slices of steak. Slice the scallion on a bias and sprinkle over the noodles for garnish. Serve immediately.