Noodle maker to the worldLee Chang-heon was five years old when his mother first fed him instant noodles, or ramyeon.
Almost 30 years later, he says he feels a “genealogical craving” for instant noodle soup, the same way he craves kimchi or rice. He likes it, he says, because it gives “an instant pleasure.”
Today, Mr. Lee eats instant noodles an average of five times a week, as a meal or a late-night snack. In the Korean navy, he consumed so much of it that his fellow sailors dubbed him “the king of ramyeon.”
Last year, the king was crowned officially: Nongshim, a Korean ramyeon manufacturer, awarded Mr. Lee first prize in a ramyeon cooking contest for his “seafood and mushroom ramyeon stew.”
“It’s everything,” Mr. Lee says of ramyeon. “It’s cheap, easy to cook and readily available. You could enjoy endless possibilities with it just by giving slightly different changes to its ingredients.”
That is exactly what Chae Ha-na, a 23-year-old baker who is just as fascinated with ramyeon as Mr. Lee is, has been doing in her experiments with the curly noodles in her own kitchen.
“It’s got every element Koreans should love,” Ms. Chae says. “It’s got a steamy soup and a spicy flavor. Most importantly, it doesn’t require special technique to enjoy a pleasant meal.”
Ms. Chae, who was also a contestant in Nongshim’s noodle contest, came up with a full-course meal using ramyeon in every course.
The appetizer was noodles simmered in cream; the entree was “ramyeon steak,” noodles mixed with minced beef; and dessert was “ramyeon jelly,” noodles inventively mixed with strawberry yogurt.
Appetizing? Many Koreans might think so.
Though instant noodles got their start in Japan, today instant noodle soup is a bigger part of the average person’s diet in Korea than in Japan, or China for that matter.
In fact, Koreans’ consumption of instant noodle soup, whether called ramyeon or ramen, exceeds their consumption of bread and of any type of grain besides rice.
To get a sense of just how popular ramyeon is in Korea, consider this startling fact: If you took all the ramyeon consumed in Korea in one year and strung all the noodles together into one single noodle, the noodle would be 380,000 kilometers (236,000 miles) long.
Currently there are over 160 varieties of instant noodles sold in Korea. According to a food industry journal, Shikpum Journal, 3.7 billion servings of ramyeon were consumed in Korea last year, for total sales of 1.3 trillion won ($1.1 billion). And that figure doesn’t include some of the newer types of organic noodles put out by health food companies, such as noodles made from potatoes, barley, mushrooms and even rice.
According to the Shikpum Journal survey, the average Korean eats about 79 servings of instant noodles per year. That’s about twice as many as the average Japanese person eats, even though Japan is the home of instant noodles.
China consumes more ramyeon in total ― not surprising, considering the size of its population ― but less per capita.
The Korean ramyeon industry is big. Many experts contend that the advent of instant noodles has revolutionized the eating style of Koreans today, in that it stimulated the development of the instant food market, which was nonexistent before ramyeon. Sales of Korean ramyeon have been growing by 4 to 5 percent every year, according to the Shikpum Journal survey.
But that isn’t just because of Korean consumption. Korean ramyeon is becoming increasingly popular overseas as well.
In China, a promising market for Korean food manufacturers, a discount shop based in Shanghai reported that its best-selling instant noodles were Korean ramyeon.
That was considered a very encouraging sign by local noodle makers, who see Shanghai as a reliable barometer for the overall Chinese market.
Sin Ramyun, one of the Korean noodle maker Nongshim’s best-selling products, is currently being exported to 60 nations worldwide, including most Southeast Asian countries, where Korean ramyeon has been a huge hit. It’s now carried in airport duty-free shops, local department stores and major North American retailers including Costco, Safeway and Wal-Mart.
“It used to be gim (dried seaweed) that was considered the most popular souvenir for Japanese tourists when they came to Korea,” said Choi Ho-min, a public relations representative at Nongshim. “Now they’ve shifted to kimchi and Sin Ramyun.”
Soaring overseas sales would seem to reflect a successful marketing strategy on the part of Korean manufactureres, who deliberately promoted their products as an exotic delicacy aimed specifically at higher-income consumers.
In China, Korean noodles currently cost about twice as much as Taiwanese or Japanese noodles. But the popular sentiment among noodle marketers here is that no matter how effective the marketing strategy, “taste speaks for itself” and Korean noodles carry enough intrinsic value to penetrate the global marketplace.
“Our main marketing strategy was to try as much as possible to keep the essential values of Korean ramyeon, which is noted for spicy and tangy soup,” Mr. Choi says. “China is literally flooded with instant noodles, so it’s a bit of a stretch anyway to try to satisfy the tastes of all consumers. So far the reaction has been good.”
The fervent response to Korean ramyeon may come as a surprise here, considering the number of health concerns many experts have been publicly raising over the decades, based on laboratory tests.
Obesity is a common concern health authorities have cited. A single pack of ramyeon contains about 430 calories. The noodles, which are made out of imported flour, are said to carry large quantities of preservatives. The seasoning packets included to boost flavor are said to contain a high amount of sodium, which, according to medical reports, Koreans get more of than they need as it is.
The ramyeon industry has also gone through some distasteful public battles. In 1989, Samyang and Ottoogi, two major food manufacturers here, were sued by a local consumer group for using industrial oil in the production of its ramyeon, which is forbidden by the local Food Safety Act.
Production was discontinued while the legal battle went on for six years. But in 1998 a court sided with the companies, saying that the tallow the companies imported from the United States ― which was classified for industrial use there, but not approved for use in food ― was acceptable to use in Korea “based on local eating habits.”
The situation was calmed when the then-Health and Welfare Minister appeared in a television advertisement eating instant noodles. But in some medical sectors, instant noodles are still referred to as “cancer noodles.”
Health concerns aside, ramyeon is still a favorite snack for the average Korean. The convenience aspect ― they take less than 10 minutes to finish cooking ― is an attraction for busy people, who stop for a quick slurp at convenience stores and office rooms between meetings or classes.
Nostalgia is another appeal used by companies like Samyang, which has used the same color and design for its plastic wrapper for 40 years.
Instant noodles were introduced in Korea shortly after the Korean War, when the country suffered from a shortage of rice. So for decades, ramyeon was a symbol of poverty in Korea, a supplement for those who could not afford proper meals. That may partly explain its popularity among younger consumers who didn’t live through the war.
“During our busy days, we sell well over 100 packages of noodles,” says a salesclerk at a Buy the Way convenience store near Seodaemun, where more than half of the shop’s customers are students and young office workers. According to the clerk, instant noodles outsell most food items in the store, except for water and canned soda.
A manager of Tteumsae Ramyun, a franchise restaurant in downtown Seoul that has been specializing in instant noodle soup for nearly 20 years, also attests to its popularity. “Noodles are an all-time favorite snack for Koreans,” the shop manager says. “That’s why it sells.”
Mr. Lee, the “king of ramyeon,” says he will continue to work on his ramyeon recipes, some of which incorporate Chinese medicinal herbs and European spices. He says he hopes to compile them into a book, and maybe even set up a franchise restaurant.
“We’ve adopted other kinds of noodles, like pasta, udon and soba,” says Mr. Lee. “But there is still a sentiment that views ramyeon as a low-quality food and spaghetti as a wholesome meal, when I think it comes nowhere near the taste and the cost of the ramyeon we have.”
by Park Soo-mee