A Bowl of Nostalgia: Ramyeon- Sarah Kim

Abstract: This paper outlines the impact ramyeon noodles have on the Korea. The noodles that originated from China found its way to Korea and today is an integral part of the Korean culture.  Ramyeon has greatly impacted Korea both economically and culturally. It has become an important part of the Korean eating culture; it has become a staple food; and it has become a part of Korean pop culture. It is intertwined with our culture, our family histories, and our lives. Ramyeon noodles today greatly impacts cultures all around the world. It has become a popular and affordable way to satiate hunger for people not just in Korean but to everyone.

            These days it may be hard for the whole family to sit down and enjoy one meal. Now a days, both parents in the household have jobs. This also applies to my family. Moreover, my parents’ work schedules are so different that we only have two or three meals when the family sits down and puts everything else in their life aside to eat and talk face to face. My sibling and I call these meals “family sit-together” meals. When my sister comes into my room saying “It’s family sit-together time” I stop what I am doing and join my family. I usually help my grandmother and my siblings set up the table by putting the spoons and chopsticks out, one for each person. Then, for the final step, we get the trivet set up. Korean instant noodles, or formally called ramyeon (라면in Korean), is the perfect meal for times like this. It is a simple but filling meal that is quick to make and eat. It takes less than 15 minutes to make and all the instructions are listed on the back of the packaging. However, for me, as a person who does not know how to cook, it is still hard to get myself to make the ramen. My mother tried to teach me, but she says it does not taste the same when I make it. I remember the last time we had a family sit together, we ate my favorite type of instant noodles, Chapagetti. Chapagetti is the instant noodle version of the black bean noodle, jjangmyeon. This noodle dish is similar to the Beijing Fried Sauce Noodles. Our family did not even bother to put the cooked Chapagetti into bowls before serving it. We have a certain ritual like procedure when eating ramen. First, my mother, who usually cooks the ramen, brings the pots with the ramen and boiling broth. The smell is amazing and nostalgic. Whenever, I smell this outside of my home, it reminds me of these small yet meaningful dinners. Then, everyone grabs their chopsticks and waits to get a few chopsticks of the Chapagetti on the small side plates. But of course, we wait for my grandmother to take her first bite and then we start eating. Ramyeon has played a significant role in my family and in my memories, despite the fact that it is such a simple and inexpensive meal to prepare.

            Ramyeon surprisingly has a long history to it. And when I researched the history of ramyeon, I was surprised it did not originate from Korea. Especially since, “Koreans now lead the world in instant ramyeon consumption, eating about 80 packages a year per capita at home and at restaurants, which add toppings for their customers” (Hurwitz). Moreover, according to Nongshim, a Korean food and beverage company, “Korea’s annual consumption of ramen per capita…is number one for decades.”

            The first traces of noodles were found in China approximately four thousand years ago. “The beautifully preserved, long, thin yellow noodles were found inside an overturned sealed bowl at the Lajia archaeological site in northwestern China” (Roach). Then, from China the noodle was brought to Japan during the Meiji era (Hurwitz). The style of noodle dish that was brought over consisted of noodles with broth made from a variety of different ingredients.  According to Hurwitz, making the broth may take a couple of days to prepare to make the taste. This style was brought to Korea during the early 1960s. A former member of the Board of Directors of the United States Committee of the Council for Security, Kongdan Oh describes the life of a Korean in the 1950s and 1960s. “The Korean economic miracle that was achieved under President Park’s leadership in the 1960s and 1970s is a story of dazzling national transformation from poverty to wealth” (Oh). However, as Koreans were earning money, they had less time spent to enjoy meals. They relied on quick, simple meals. At this time, the instant food companies started to build their profiles. All you need to make ramyeon is the noodles, a pack of sauce or seasoning, and boiling water. The simplicity aspect of making ramyeon helped it boom in industries. Similarly, in Japan “ramyeon’s popularity is due in part to the fact that it is simple to make and quick to eat. It is also inexpensive, making it an ideal lunch, dinner or after-a-night-on-the-town snack for businessmen and budget-conscious students” (Hurwitz). And ever since, the popularity of ramyeon has been on the rise. Today, “by value, instant noodles were the top-selling manufactured food in South Korea in 2012, the most recent year figures are available, with about 1.85 trillion won ($2 billion) worth sold, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Food and Drug Safety” (Klug). Ramyeon has greatly impacted Korea both economically and culturally. It has become an important part of the Korean eating culture; it has become a staple food; and it has become a part of Korean pop culture.

            Eating ramyeon has become so common in Korea. According to Tim Alper, a writer from the U.K., “Many also have plastic chairs and tables outside, mostly used by noodle fans. In fact, you will very rarely pass a Korean convenience store at any time of day or night without spotting a keen ramyeon eater” (Alper). Ramyeon has inevitably become an important part of the Korean eating culture.  There is now a “Korean custom of eating yasik, or a late-night snack, according to the Korea Tourism Organization” (Hurwitz). The most popular yasik is ramyeon. Interestingly, it “is often called “the food of the people” since it is liked by almost every Korean. It takes only a few minutes to cook. Bring 500ml of water to a boil and put in the ramyeon noodles and seasoning. Stir with chopsticks and let it boil for three to five minutes. Let it cool off for a bit and enjoy” (Hurwitz). Moreover, there are ubiquitous convenience stores that sell ramen ranging from 50 cents to 2 dollars. Inside the store, they have stations that serve hot water so that you would be able to make ramyeon and eat it right away. Unlike the convenience stores in the United States, those in Korea have eating areas both inside and outside the store. At Hangkang Park in South Korea, there DIY (do-it yourself) ramyeon making stations. All you have to do and scan a barcode. Then, the machine will automatically pour in the correct amount of water, set a timer, and tells you when to put in the egg. I have seen these machines on Youtube and I think it is very fascinating. Since it is so easily accessible and easily made, ramyeon bring pleasure to all ages ranging from students who are having a late-night snack after studying to businessmen who are looking for something to eat after long hours of work. At Emory University, I made new friends through eating yashik with classmates who were studying late at the library. Gathering and eating the ramyeon was a spontaneous thing. If it were not for ramyeon, I might not have the friends I am close with today. But the most surprising thing was the fact that they sell Korean instant noodles, Shin Ramen, at Pete’s in the Woodruff Library.

            According to the businessdictionary.com, a staple food is one in which “is regularly consumed in a community or society.” Ramyeon has become Korea’s staple food. Statistics confirm that Koreans consume the most ramyeon each year for the past ten years and it is estimated that each Korean eats up to eighty packages of ramyeon a year (Hurwitz). Ramyeon has also become a food that Koreans need on a daily basis. “Instant noodles carry a broke college student aura in America, but they are an essential, even passionate, part of life for many in South Korea and across Asia” (Klug). Mostly because of how affordable, convenient, and simple ramyeon is. Whenever, my family goes on a vacation, we always pack a couple of ramyeon packages as a safety food. According to my mother, if she eats American food three meals a day, she starts to feel sick. At times like this, eating a pack of ramyeon helps her feel better. I also agree with this. Being away from home and Korean food at Emory, ramyeon provides some relief from eating American food all the time. Ramyeon also comes in many different ways. The basic flour-based noodle part is the same, but “some add chopped leeks or bean sprouts, others add an egg, while still others add a slice or two of processed cheese, which melts into the spicy soup. In fact, there are almost as many ways to customize this dish as there are stars in the sky” (Alper). This reminded me of the noodles that we learned during our class discussions. Noodles are also staple foods in China and Italy. For example, there are different types of Bing for a certain season. Mostly because the Chinese believe that with different seasons, there are different needs and the Bing for each season is able to give you the appropriate nutrients to nurture the body and the mind for each season. This shows us how regularly Bing is consumed by the Chinese and reveals important Chinese cultural values.  The Italians have pasta as a staple food. Pasta comes in many different shapes and sizes to fit the ingredients and the sauces used in the pasta dish. Most importantly, all these staple foods serve as culinary connections to our past and they evoke a sense of nostalgia when consuming the comfort foods. They serve as reminders of our roots and help reinforce our different identities other than our American identity.

            Finally, ramyeon has become a part of the Korean pop culture. Mukbangs are very popular in both Korea and the United States. “Mukbang is a mashup of two Korean words: “mukja,” or “let’s eat”; and “bang song,” meaning “broadcast.” It originated in South Korea, but it’s gone on to garner international attention and recruit legions of mukbangers and fans alike, all united by the desire to watch ordinary people consume extraordinary amounts of food” (Matthews). There are literally millions of these broadcasts online streamed live and on Youtube about ramyeon. When I am at Emory, Korean restaurants that serve this dish are a thirty-minute car ride away so during the semester, I see a lot of Chapagetti mukbangs. Mukbangs are very popular today. They are videos people upload on social media and Youtube of them eating specific foods. Some people to an ASMR version, in which I recommend listening to the video with headphones or earphones on. Some people may say that watching people eat makes them hungrier, but for me I feel better. There is a specific challenge called the Fire Noodle Challenge that became really popular. Many famous Youtube channels participated in this challenge like Buzzfeed, REACT, and the World of Dave, just to name a few. “The noodle, officially called buldak ramen, became popular in Seoul after YouTube users took on the “fire noodle challenge,” which requires a person to consume the incredibly spicy food as fast as possible” (Lee, H.). In most of the videos people are panting, running for a glass of milk, and some end of tearing up because they cannot handle the spice. I personally tried this noodle and there is also a “nuclear” version of the buldak ramen, which is two time spicier. It was very spicy and the pain seemed to never end. Through these challenges and the birth of mukbangs, ramyeon has become the most popular it has ever been. “It was just a spicy ramen kids like. But in the second half of last year, it began to reverse. The jackpot exploded abroad. More and more people are looking for products in China, Thailand and Malaysia. Revenue, which increased by 5% annually, soared 30% last year. I didn’t do much marketing” (Lee, J.). Ramyeon is an integral Korean dish that helped further share the Korean culture.

            Not only did ramyeon help spread the Korean culture but as it became more associated with pop culture, it also became more popular in Korea. In the United States, the advertisements we see online and on television, rarely feature celebrities. They usually consist of normal people. On the other hand, there are a lot of advertisements that feature celebrities or influential people in Korea. In Korea, “they’re a means of persuading viewers that celebrities are just like us, to encourage us to make associations with them in our minds. After all, why else would companies…. present celebrities in such unglamorous situations as getting food all over their faces while slurping noodles” (Turnbull).  Even a former LA Dodgers baseball player Ryu Hyun-Jin shot an advertisement for ramyeon in 2014.  An interesting trend I noticed was that the models for the ramyeon changes often. If another celebrity’s profile is on the rise, the ramyeon companies will most likely shoot another advertisement with the new celebrity.

            Last but not least, ramyeon became the center of a new Korean slang term which holds the same meaning as “Netflix and Chill” in the US. The phrase “Ramyeon meokgo galrae?” translates to “Do you want to eat ramyeon at my place?” This phrase was taken from a movie called “One Fine Spring Day” released in the year 2001. Saying this enables “young people to ask their date to come over to their place without having to muster up the courage to say the words out loud” (Yim). Ramyeon has also infiltrated Korea’s dating culture and also Korean dramas. This phrase is often said playfully and by young characters to check if feelings are mutual. A recent Korean drama “What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim?” released in June 2018, used this phrase. The short clip featuring this scene has up to 300,000 views. Hence, Ramyeon has become a part of the Korean pop culture in many different ways through its presence in Youtube videos, advertisements, and Korean dramas.

            For me personally, I realized that ramyeon plays a bigger role in my life than I thought. It is not just a comfort food, but a memory with family. Eight-hundred and sixty-eight miles away from home, ramyeon helps remind me of memories I had back at home. It is these memories that fuel me to get through everyday life. Not only do I think ramyeon this way but also the many people on social media. On Instagram, people use the captions like Ramyeon: ten percent noodles and ninety percent love and No ramen, no life. Last semester, I had a disagreement with my roommate. It was really awkward when we were both in the room and I tried to avoid her from time to time. However, by having a bowl of ramyeon we were able to put our differences aside. We apologized to each other and reconciled. Moreover, the act of eating ramyeon together forced us to sit face to face and eat. By doing this, it made it impossible to ignore her and eat my noodles. I felt like I had to talk to her. At first, it was uncomfortable, but I broke into laughter when we were both slurping up the noodles so loudly. Ramyeon reminded us that we are similar, and we were not all that different inside. It served as a common ground and through establishing that my roommate and I were able to connect to each other. Of course, I did not realize this at the time. I was just happy I had my friend and room mate back. But the class discussions and the assignments reminded me of this event. I come to realize how heavily my life is impacted by noodles- from my Korean culture to my everyday life things like reconciling with a friend.

            In the final analysis, ramyeon has become an important part of the Korean eating culture; it has become a staple food; and it has become a part of Korean pop culture. Ramyeon may not be one of the healthier foods in South Korea, but as the many Koreans believe that “there’s no way any study is going to stop me from eating this,”… his red face beaded with sweat as he adds hot water to his noodles in a Seoul convenience store” (Klug). I recently saw a Youtube clip about ramyeon. In a Korean variety show called, New Journey to the West Season 5 (Shin Seo Yu Ji in Korean), there is a game in which a show participant had to guess five different brands of ramyeon correctly. I was shocked when the participant got them all right without any hesitation. This is how prevalent and important ramyeon is to Koreans. All Koreans know the taste of ramyeon and it goes to the point where we can decipher which companies make which ramyeons. It is intertwined with our culture, our family histories, and our lives. It is a staple food, an affordable way to satiate hunger for people not just in Korean but all across the world in many cultures. The following statement from an enginner from Seoul really sums up what ramyeon is to Koreans. “Ramyeon is like kimchi to Koreans,” says Ko Dong-ryun, 36… referring to the spicy, fermented vegetable dish that graces most Korean meals. “The smell and taste create an instant sense of home” (Klug). Although ramyeon may be an instant food, the effects it has on us are timeless and forever.

Works Cited

Alper, Tim. “Instant Success: Why Koreans Are Crazy for Instant Noodles.” KOREA.NET, 13     July 2016, www.korea.net/NewsFocus/Column/view?articleId=138467.

Hurwitz, David. “They Call It Ramen, We Call It Ramyeon.” Stripes Korea, 19 Nov. 2014,          korea.stripes.com/travel/they-call-it-ramen-we-call-it-ramyeon.

Klug, Foster. “South Koreans Defend Instant Noodle Diet despite Health Warning.”         Thestar.com, 21 Aug. 2014,            www.thestar.com/life/food_wine/2014/08/21/south_koreans_defend_instant_noodle_die  _despite_health_warning.html.

Lee, Jung-jung. “불닭볶음면 2500억 ‘화끈한 매출’… 삼양식품 간판라면          꿰찼다.” Hankyung.com, 4 Dec. 2017,            www.hankyung.com/economy/article/2017120485741.

Lee, Hakyung Kate. “Foodies across the Globe Are Taking Part in the ‘Fire Noodle Challenge’.”  ABC News, ABC News Network, 5 Dec. 2018, abcnews.go.com/International/foodies           globe-taking-part-fire-noodle-challenge/story?id=59594235.

Matthews, Melissa. “These Viral ‘Mukbang’ Stars Get Paid to Gorge on Food-at the Expense of   Their Bodies.” Men’s Health, 22 Jan. 2019,            www.menshealth.com/health/a25892411/youtube-mukbang-stars-binge-eat/.

Oh, Kongdan. “Korea’s Path from Poverty to Philanthropy.” Brookings, Brookings, 14 June         2010, www.brookings.edu/articles/koreas-path-from-poverty-to-philanthropy/.

“Ramen History.” 메인페이지, www.nongshim.com/ramyun/history1.

Roach, John. “4,000-Year-Old Noodles Found in China.” National Geographic, 12 Oct. 2005,     www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/10/4-000-year-old-noodles-found-in-china/.

Turnbull, James. “The Korean Ad Industry’s Celebrity Obsession.” Haps Magazine, 9 Apr. 2012, hapskorea.com/korean-ad-industrys-celebrity-obsession/.

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