As a child, I remember my father cracking an egg into boiling broth to make the ramyeon a more bountiful meal replacement. My brothers and I always looked forward to my mother’s leaving town because it meant that we could have our favorite treat. During my military training, I perfected the art of bbogeuri (뽀글이), the guerrilla method of cooking and eating ramyeon directly out of its plastic wrapper. Like myself, most Koreans have a ramyeon story: The first cup noodle on Hangang. The hangover remedy after an epic night out. The meal that got them through college and the meager entry-level years that followed. Not only is ramyeon one of the cheapest, fastest and easiest meals you can find in Korea, it’s also one of the most iconic.
A tale of two ramyeons
Whatever your account may be, there are a couple ramyeon stories even the organic or slow food advocate can’t avoid these days. It’s the tale of two ramyeons: Shin Ramyeon Black and Kkokkomyeon. Even if you wanted to see what the fuss is about, you can’t, because they’re nowhere to be found. In fact, they’re often out of stock, but for different reasons. From their initial market entry to their short shelf lives, Shin Ramyeon Black and Kkokkomyeon have taken very different paths in ultimately eluding curious and hungry consumers like you and I.
The black label
You may have heard of Nongshim’s Shin Ramyeon before. After all, the chili- and beef-based noodles are Korea’s best-selling ramyeon. On April 15, 2011, Nongshim introduced Shin Ramyeon Black to the masses to commemorate 25 years. Well, at least the masses who can afford the “black label.” The new and improved recipe debuted at 1,600 won—costing more than 1.5 times the original Shin Ramyeon.
What makes Shin Ramyeon Black so special is that it contains additional “beef bone” (사골국물) seasoning, which adds depth to the broth. Compared to the original, the Black has the noticeably rich, marrow flavor found in seolleongtang, a traditional beef brisket soup. What Nongshim neglected, unfortunately, was the fact that most people seeking ramyeon are not after the traditional and wholesome nostalgia of seolleongtang; they want a quick fix, an instant gratification of junk food that tastes as good as it is bad.
Enter the chicken
Kkokkomyeon has a shorter but equally illustrious history. The noodle was first introduced in March by Korean comedian Lee Gyeong-gyu (이경규) on a KBS reality show. Shortly after it placed second in the televised noodle cook-off, the ramyeon was picked up by the food company Paldo for mass production. By the time it hit shelves in early-August, most Koreans knew the story behind Kkokkomyeon.
What sets Kkokkomyeon apart is the chicken stock from which it derives its clear soup—a rare sight in the Korea ramyeon scene. While its albino broth may have turned off some spice seekers, it turned heads when they discovered that it was just as spicy as the average ramyeon, thanks to a lacing of cheongyang pepper (청양고추).
In its first month, Shin Ramyeon Black brought in 9 billion won. But success was short-lived. Curiosity wavered, and sales dropped to 6 billion the following month. Ramyeon enthusiasts returned to the original. Skeptics accused Nongshim of improperly leveraging the seolleongtang reference to create a halo of prestige and wholesomeness about the product. In mid-June 16, Korea’s Fair Trade Commission fined Nongshim 150 million won for false advertisement, which included claims that a bowl of Shin Ramyeon Black was as nutritious as a bowl of seolleongtang. Finally, in late-August, Nongshim announced that it would stop the production of Shin Rameyon Black the following month.
Paldo, on the other hand, sold 6 billion won worth of Kkokkomyeon in its first month, priced at an even 1,000 won. A month later, the chicken ramyeon is still virtually impossible to find in Seoul, due to unprecedented demand. People grab the bright plastic bags off shelves as they’re being stocked. Fast-food Korean joints are selling bowls of Kkokkomyeon at 4,000 won. In response to the demand, Paldo has doubled the production of their cash chicken. This month’s sales are forecast to hit the 10 billion won mark.
The people’s noodle
Why all the drama over noodles? Over the past five decades, no one commodity has leveled Korea’s dining table and impacted the nation’s eating habits more than ramyeon. In the early-60s when much of the population lived in poverty and the average meal cost 30 won, the introduction of the 10 won noodles signified the first truly modern proletarian food. Since then, even as the economy recovered and flourished and Koreans developed tastes for luxury products and imported goods, Korea has become the world leader in per capita instant noodle consumption. Ramyeon has shed its image as an inferior good, becoming a cultural fixture. Having co-evolved with post-war Korea and woven into our busy lives, the simple ramyeon has become nearly as complex as its consumers.
Translated by Yaeri Song
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