When you’re a Korean kid, the first thing you learn how to cook is ramyeon (라면), the instant noodles with soup. You put a pot of water on the stove, let it boil, add the ingredients in the package and the noodles, add extra ingredients if you want, let it boil for a couple of minutes longer, and then slurp away! (Slurping isn’t necessarily rude in Korea, by the way.) You’d also eat ramyeon if you don’t have the time to cook, in the mood for a midnight snack, stuck in a hotel room on an overseas business trip and need a taste of home, don’t feel like eating out or delivering in, or just plainly because you like the taste.
Instant ramyeon comes packaged with noodles, a soup powder packet, and a geondeogi (건더기) packet which is an assemblage of freeze dried vegetables and other ingredients. These ingredients define the ramyeon’s characteristics. Ramyeon is as essential to the Korean diet as is rice and kimchi, so it’s not surprising there are many different varieties available on the market, all with their own particular taste and style.
The following is a quick introduction to Korea’s ramyeon. Based on total sales and brand power, here are:
The Top 10
Launched in 1963, Samyang ramyeon (삼양라면) is the oldest Korean ramyeon brand. The packaging and soup formula has changed a bit since then but is most similar to the taste of budaejjigae (부대찌개). The noodles are pleasantly springy, but the texture fluctuates with the amount of water used and time while cooking, adapting well to the cook’s preference, even more so compared to other ramyeon. Accordingly, the noodles of Samyang ramyeon are most commonly used when making not only budaejjigae but other jjigae as well; so much that the company started selling the noodles only (without the soup packets) for that purpose.
Samyang ramyeon is simply the “original” ramyeon. When you’re in the mood for the simplest, non-particular, generic ramyeon, this is what you go for.
Although Samyang ramyeon is the oldest, there is no doubt whatsoever that in the realm of ramyeon, Shin ramyeon (신라면) is king. Launched in 1986, it still is the bestselling ramyeon of all time, with its marketshare a whopping 25% of the whole ramyeon market. This is the ramyeon which will be served to you at a diner, which people will choose to buy when going on an outing, which Koreans crave the most when overseas, whose soup packet will be used to “cheat” when making soup without a base stock. It’s almost like K-pop, you might not like it at first but after a taste you just can’t get enough. It’s extremely addictive.
So what makes this ramyeon so special? The ‘shin’ (辛) simply means “spicy/hot”. If you’re used to Korean food, you probably already know that the spiciness in Korean food comes in various levels and different aftertastes. There is hot spiciness that leaves your tongue all tingly; there is also warm spiciness that leaves savoury sweetness behind. Shin ramyeon’s spiciness is a nice blend of both. You get the prickly hotness and then the sweetness in a spoonful. The soup is beef and shiitake mushroom based, which goes well with whatever extra ingredient you might throw in.
Shin ramyeon is so popular that besides the regular product page on the company website, it has its very own website: http://www.shinramyun.com
Neoguri (너구리) means “raccoon” in Korean, but the company never quite explained the reasoning behind this naming, not even when they first launched the product in 1982. The ramyeon is noted for its commercial catchphrase “Take a chubby raccoon with you”, referring to its noodles. Neoguri has the thickest noodles among all the varieties of ramyeon so if you prefer noodles with a bit more body, this ramyeon should be a good choice. The soup is based on the savory taste of dashima (다시마, kelp). The ramyeon comes in two styles: gentle and spicy.
Ojingeo Jjampong (오징어짬뽕) is the ramyeon-ified version of the popular Koreanized Chinese dish of squid jjampong. The noodles are accordingly thicker than regular ramyeon noodles and the soup has a splash of spiciness without being too hot for kids. This ramyeon is most popular as a hangover morning cure as well.
I personally like to add more seafood to this ramyeon to deepen the flavor, while also adding cheese to enhance the spicy edge.
Anseongtang-myeon (안성탕면) is named after the city where the ramyeon soup factory was situated, emphasizing the effort the company put into making the soup. The soup is based on the flavors of ugeoji jangguk (우거지 장국, green leaf vegetable soup) sold in the traditional country markets; deep, rich, and nutritious. Anseongtang-myeon comes with only a single soup flavor packet and no geondeogi (good news for those who dislike certain vegetables such as mushrooms). The soup is on the mild side although has a slight spicy undertone.
Masineun ramyeon (맛있는 라면) literally means “delicious ramyeon”. Being launched in 2007, it’s only been a short while since this ramyeon showed up on the market, but its popularity has been growing quite steadily. The ramyeon has a wide range of vegetable ingredients – it says 60 on the packaging – such as carrots, bok choy, broccoli, and shiitake mushroom. The noodles have less of an oily texture compared to other ramyeon and because the soup isn’t heavily meat based this ramyeon would appeal to those who prefer a cleaner and lighter taste. I actually find it a bit too light so I add in a whole lot of extra ingredients while cooking.
On the other hand, there is the heavy, “strong” ramyeon called Jin ramyeon (진라면). This ramyeon is noted for its thick beef based “strong” soup and comes in two versions: spicy and gentle (non-spicy). The noodles have a pleasant chewy bounce.
The gentle version is usually what mothers feed their young kids, if they have to give ramyeon to their kids at all. It is also my preferred version – if I want spicy I tend to go for other brands. I usually use Jin ramyeon as a base for my ramyeon concocting experiments because the soup serves as a nice base stock and suits whatever extra ingredients you might throw in.
Mupama (무파마)’s soup base is from beef with mu (무, Korean radish), pa (파, spring onions), and maneul (마늘, garlic) creating a deep and clean taste, reminiscent of the traditional beef and mu soup (mu guk, 무국). The ramyeon’s gundeogi packet is rather full, so the adverts always claim there’s no need to add any other ingredients. I have to agree. Sometimes I’ll add an egg, but if it’s Mupama I’m eating, it’s usually because I want something simple and non-complicated. (If I get sick of Shin ramyeon, this is always my second choice.)
Along with the cook-on-a-stove ramyeon, there are always the truly instant types. Wang Ttukkeong (왕뚜껑) literally means ‘big lid’ and is thusly named because of its large sized lid. Since a lot of people like to eat ramyeon by adding a bowl of cold rice to the remaining soup after eating all the noodles, someone from the ramyeon marketing department thought that people who couldn’t be bothered to cook ramyeon properly would also like to add rice to their cup ramyeon and came up with this brilliant idea. (It’s really difficult to add rice into regular sized cup ramyeon.)
The noodles are very thin and curly, and maintain their springiness quite nicely if you don’t let it sit too long. The soup has a slight spicy kick to it without being strong enough to actually be called spicy. Adding additional uncooked ingredients isn’t recommended for cup ramyeon, but many like to add kimchi for an extra punch.
Another just-pour-in-boiling-water type, Kimchi Sabalmyeon (김치 사발면) is the convenient kimchi-and-ramyeon-all-in-one package. The noodles are on the thin side and the kimchi is miniscule to be able to absorb the water quickly, so if you’re a huge kimchi lover I’d advise you to eat this with a separate help of kimchi on the side. It might be more accurate to say this is a ramyeon with a kimchi flavored soup.
Folding the paper lid of the ramyeon into a cone and using it as a makeshift holder to cool the noodles are a common trick Koreans use, especially if the ramyeon is being consumed outdoors or in an environment where other utensils are unavailable.
The extreme popularity of Shin ramyeon is probably the reason behind this spin-off. Introduced just last April to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Shin ramyeon, Shin ramyeon black (신라면 블랙) has already made record sales in its first month of release despite its more-than-double-of-regular-ramyeon price.
The pricing was quite controversial. Although the company emphasized the use of high-end ingredients (there is an additional soup packet for extra flavor), the reaction from most consumers was, “But it’s ramyeon!” Most people certainly tried it out of curiosity; I did as well. But the jury is still out on the taste; whether the price can be justified is the biggest issue.
Not all the noodles in the ramyeon aisle are soup ramyeon! The most popular non-soup ramyeon Jjapaghetti (짜파게티) is actually the instant noodle version of jjajangmyeon (자장면), the Koreanized Chinese black bean noodle dish.
Of course, there are many, many more soupy varieties out there from which you can choose, including vegetarian ramyeon. Take a look around the local supermarket and try out some that catch your fancy. You never know, you might have eclectic taste. My personal additional favorites not on the list are the thick stew like Sarigomtang-myeon (사리곰탕면) and Paldo bibimmyeon (팔도비빔면), a non-soup type to be eaten cold.
Ramyeon tastes great on its own made only with the ingredients provided in the package. However, most ramyeon afficionados know that truly good ramyeon is made with an extra oomph. Adding various ingredients while cooking and creating ones own ramyeon recipe is something that comes naturally to Koreans. The most common extras are eggs and spring onions, which usually go with most ramyeon. Adding this and that to see how the taste evolves is interesting. Some like to add canned tuna or cheese or mushrooms or bean sprouts or dubu (두부, tofu) or shrimp or sausage or even all the leftovers in the fridge. (Like a certain someone who’s writing this post.)
Of course, even ramyeon needs banchan (반찬, side dish). And of course, the number one banchan would be kimchi. “Old” kimchi, i.e. kimchi that has been fermented a long time goes exceptionally well with ramyeon and is a noted food pairing. Ramyeon is also commonly eaten with danmuji (단무지, pickled radish).
So, what’s your favorite ramyeon? Please tell and share what delicious new concoctions you have come up with, too!