The Role of Korean Ramyeon
Instant Korean ramyeon is popular all over the world today. It can be found in myriad places, including western supermarkets, majority of Asian markets, and even at the summit of Jungfrau in Switzerland due to its popular demand. In the motherland, ramyeon consumption is about 70~90 ramyeon per person a year, and 3.3 billion for the whole population of Korea every year. Lim Chun-aem, a track-and-field athlete who won 3 medals in the 1986 Asian Games, even stated that she only ate ramyeon and ran to train for the race. Despite the world’s view of being unhealthy and a quick fix to a fast paced life, instant ramyeons are continuing to evolve and carry a significant place on everyone’s table as a staple food; ramyeon creations also reflect the Korean’s open cultural mindset that welcomes cultural identities and enjoys creating hybrids.
The history of Korean ramyeon began in 1963, as a cheap filler food during the post-Korean war age when most were famished. Samyang food came up with their reputable Samyang ramyeon with the help of Japan’s mechanical equipment and started the boon of the stereotypic red and spicy soup. Afterwards, the ramyeon rush continued in the 1980’s when Shin Ramyeon was launched. In a span of 10 years, Shin ramyeon was exported to foreign countries and the Korean ramyeon industry continued to propel forward. As many were tired of the same stereotypic ramyeon, new fusion types began to arise in the 2000’s. Although it has only been 55 years since the start of the first Korean ramyeon, this industry has become one of the most prominent Korean export regime and a part of Korean cultural DNA. Dong-ryun Ko, a Korean engineer, mentioned that “ramyeon is like kimchi (one of the most popular side-dishes) to Koreans. The smell and taste create an instant sense of home.” Similarly, ramen has this impact on many Koreans continuing its conquer in the history of South Korea.
The now leading Korean export regime of ramyeon first started off by exporting into neighboring Asian countries, such as China, Japan, and North Korea. The response was very positive to the point where North Koreans used ramyeon as a mode of diet, food when appetite is lost, ; North Koreans would enjoy Korean ramyeon over all other types, leading to Chinese companies putting Hangul on their products on purpose to mislead the customers into thinking that they were from South Korea. Although the boom in other countries are mainly due to the taste and easy accessibility, I believe that K-Pop and K-drama also had a colossal effect. Through an interview with Ellie Halm, she mentioned that as she was learning the Korean language by watching K-drama, she also learned to eat the food that appeared on the shows, especially ramyeon. There are many dramas and shows that are dedicated to food and cooking, such as “Let’s Eat”. These types of shows promoted the Koreans’ love for their food, in this case ramyeon, that was reflected and spread throughout Asian and Western countries.
Although the consumptions of ramyeon are very high, it is hard to deny the fact that they are as nutrition deficient as any other types of instant ramens when it is cooked and eaten by itself. Purposive fortification with essential micronutrients may provide some additional nutritional value to ramen but it still cannot be the primary and the only source of food for individuals. If consumption is high, it is also known to be positively related to the obesity, cardiometabolic risk factors, and heart failures due to the lack of nutrition and sodium, as one instant ramyeon delivers more than 90% of the recommended daily sodium intake. Just like any other junk food, ramyeon is massively consumed around the world and there are certainly other factors that precede such health risk.
Even though ramyeon is merely known as a quick and filling meal with health risks stated above, there are many culturally significant meanings behind this bowl of noodles that makes it the popular dish that it is today. First, it is known to help overcome hangovers, also known as haejang. Koreans are known to be the second highest alcohol consumer in the world. With such high percentage of alcohol consumption, ramyeon is a meal that is consumed at night or even in the morning after a night out to overcome and decrease the effects of alcohol hangover. In an interview with Jessica Lee, she said, “similar to Americans drinking Bloody Mary after drinking, we eat ramyeon to lessen the hangover”. Second, ramyeon is a one of the necessities that are essential to bring when camping. Ramyeon soup base can be used in all Korean stews to enhance the taste and the noodles can be added for taste at any time also. When at a Korean camping base, the smell of ramyeon fills the air, as most if not all utilize ramyeon in their meals in some shape and form. Indeed, ramyeon is a way of life for Koreans.
Third, ramyeon somehow became a pop culture in recent years. After a successful episode in the Korean Saturday Night Live few years ago, ramyeon became a litote in Korea. It turned into a symbol of seduction. “Do you want to eat ramyeon at my place?” became the modern litote which is similar to phrase “wanna come up to see my etchings?” in America during the mid-20th century. Rather a litote than a double entendre, it became immensely popular across all generations which was contrary to the deep-rooted confucianism and conservationism among the Koreans. In my opinion, the familiarity and comfort of ramyeon have nullified the sexuality commonly associated with the litote.
Lastly, ramyeon is rationed out as emergency food in Korea. Along with other essentials, ramyeon is distributed as staple food in areas affected by natural disasters. Due to its durability and mobility, ramyeon is distributed to both victim and rescuers. During the Sewol ferry incident in 2014, thousands of ramyeon was distributed to the emergency shelter for everyone to quickly consume food and resume rescue works. Tons of ramyeon are occasionally shipped to North Korea as part of humanitarian efforts. Even when hot, clean water is unavailable, ramyeon is eaten raw which is also considered a delicacy. Following that concept, there is even a snack in Korea called “ppushu ppushu smash noodle” which is essentially a raw ramyeon noodles with seasonings. It is consumed by smashing the noodles into pieces and mixing up well with given seasonings. This simply showcases the undying love Koreans have for ramyeon. According to Koby Han who has completed two years of military service in Korea, a variety of ramyeon is rationed to the soldiers weekly to be consumed as an addition to the given meals. Even during his combined military exercises with the United States Forces in Korea (USFK), ramyeon was rationed out to both Korean and American soldiers. Koby claimed that ramyeon is a delicacy every soldier love to eat after completing his guard duty overnight and it creates inseparable bonds with your comrades. From such perspectives, I can infer that ramyeon is indeed a soul food that fuels the spirits of Koreans in any occasion.
Creativity with ramyeons is one of the reasons why it is so popular and well-known. So many different recipes could be made with one ramyeon by adding different ingredients. Relating it to the interview that I have done with Sandy Lin, Sandy talked about the balanced diet that Chinese noodles can have by eating it with different sides, such as vegetables and meat; this can also be true with Korean ramyeon. Countless of ingredients can be added, such as bean sprouts, bean paste, carrots, potatoes, meat, milk, and even coke to advance it into a better balanced and nutritious meal despite its lacking nutritional values when eaten alone; ramyeon can also be added to existing, traditional, nutritious dishes and add on to the delicate taste. Tim Alper, a journalist, has been living in Korea for over 10 years and has been conducting what I see as the most effective fieldwork, participant observation. Participant observation is an inside perspective on culture of an individual who can apply his or her outsider’s perspective in order to draw wider conclusions. It involves everyday tasks that are essential in learning culinary tradition and understand the final outcome. Tim Alper saw countless different combinations of ramyeon that were made by people living in Korea. I believe that these countless customization led to the fame that it has today.
Furthermore, ramyeon can also be mixed from two different types. For example, the most famous and popular mix would be jjapaguri. This is a mix of two different ramyeons, jjapagetti and neoguri, that is known to make an unprecedented taste that captured the hearts of hundreds and thousands of citizens of Korea. This recipe first originated from the soldiers who were experimenting during their free time and the recipe was available on the internet, but started its boom when it hit the TV in 2013. Since then, people started to share their recipes of mixing different types of ramyeon together on the internet. Furthermore, some ramyeon companies responded by actually manufacturing the popular ramyeon mix recipes. For instance, the popular mix of buldak-bokkeum noodle with jjapagetti was eventually produced as a single ramyeon product called Jjajang-buldak by the Samyang food company. These types of versatility in the ramyeon recipe led to people sharing their own recipes with their friends and family, creating time for them to bond and connect. Seen in the reading, The Dog who Ate the Truffles”, special recipes were passed down to their family members as they were spending quality time together, allowing time for bonding, understanding, and connecting with each other. This parallelism shows that ramyeon is not merely a quick, easy, and unhealthy meal eaten in the fast paced society, but method for members of society to connect and share time together while sharing a bowl of ramyeon. Such phenomenon is also a fine reflection of a common symptom among the Koreans: the parrot effect. Koreans tend to like doing what others are doing, often resulting in an ubiquitous fashion, styles and delicacy. Mixing of ryameon became an instantaneous phenomenon, thanks to the parrot effect, which eventually resulted in a mass love for creative ramyeon mixes. This also reflects the strong unity and sense of togetherness among the Koreans; the cultural DNA.
As ramyeon transformed into a meal, instead of merely being a quick fix, fusion ramen came to surface and showed the versatile mind that Koreans have, accepting other cultures and identities as part of their own. After countless similar stereotypic red and spicy ramyeon, fusion ramyeon were made. These ramyeon not only represent Korea, but different countries. For example, there are curry spicy ramyeon, a fusion of Korean and Indian taste, bean paste ramyeon, a fusion of Korean and Chinese taste, soba ramyeon, mix of Korean and Japanese, and more. I believe that this reflects upon Korean mindset of being open to myriad societies, and cultures.
In my personal experience, ramyeon was a comforting food that helped me feel as if I was home when I was in a foreign place and feel calm when I was upset. Although it is merely a bowl of noodles that could be fixed in 5 minutes, I could relate to the bonding that could be formed via food as mentioned above for ramyeon and the book “The Dog who Ate the Truffle”. In my case, my brother and I have been growing up in separate countries for most of our lives as we went to school. During summer and winter breaks, we would come back to our house, but still not see each other very often due to our busy schedules. One of the times we would gather together was when we wanted to make ramyeon. My brother would come over to my room and ask me to start boiling the water. We would wait with anticipation for our noodles and even share and try new recipes together. I think these times were very meaningful as I look back at my childhood; it was a conversation starter for us and would get us talking and bonding, which was not an easy thing to do for teenagers. For me, ramyeon was not just a bowl of noodles but also a bridge to connect with my brother.
In conclusion, ramyeon is more than what it is known to be; it has many cultural and historical backgrounds, relating it to the military, foreign relations, quality bonding time with friends and family, and more. It has cultural values and holds a dear place in every Korean’s heart allowing them to take a taste of home wherever they may travel. Due to its phenomenal values, I believe that it is not an understatement to claim that ramyeon is indeed part of the Korean cultural DNA.
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