Korean cuisine is full of exciting and delicious food that people in the west are only just beginning to discover. It is often compared to Japanese food, and with such close cultural ties between the two countries, there are inevitable similarities. But it would be a mistake to assume that Japanese and Korean food are essentially the same thing.
When it comes to satisfyingly savoury noodle dishes, there are obvious parallels between Korean ramyeon and Japanese ramen. In fact, ramyeon was directly inspired by ramen, and is best described as a spicier, punchier instant version of its more refined Japanese cousin.
What is ramyeon?
Ramyeon is one of South Korea’s favourite comfort foods, with the average person consuming an impressive 80 to 90 packets every year. It is made up of dried, curly noodles, freeze-dried vegetables and a sachet of powdered soup, and is rehydrated in boiling water to make a quick, tasty meal. It comes in a variety of flavours, and can be eaten by itself or with added toppings.
Invented in the 1960s by Korean businessman Jean Jon-Yeon, Ramyeon was intended as a quick and convenient way to feed people in times of hardship after the Korean War, with the original packets retailing at the equivalent of 1 cent. Jon-Yeon was inspired to develop ramyeon after discovering instant ramen during a visit to Japan, but while the flash-fry method of drying the noodles is the same, the flavours are different, with ramyeon noticeably spicier than ramen.
Korean culture in general has been making its mark on the west in recent years, with K-pop and K-dramas both having a growing following in the US, and the interest in all things Korean was given a boost in 2020 thanks to best picture winning film Parasite. Sales of ramyeon noodles skyrocketed, and more stores are stocking them as a result. If you want to grab yourself a packet or two, try your local Asian store, or even a regular store, and try to track down genuine Korean noodles, as these tend to be more flavourful. You may see them labelled as ‘ramyeon’ or ‘ramyun,’ and with the Korean characters ‘라면’.
Varieties of ramyeon
There are many different types of ramyeon, but the examples below are a taster of what you can expect.
Kimchi ramyeon is seasoned with real fried pieces of kimchi for a tangy, spicy, unmistakably Korean flavour.
Shin Ramyun is a cult favourite with a spicy, beef-flavoured broth. At 2,700 Scoville Heat Units (SHU), it’s pretty fiery, but by no means the spiciest ramyeon available.
Kkokkomyeon is made using a white chicken-flavoured broth.
Jjapaghetti is an instant version of jjajangmyeon, or noodles in black bean sauce. It was featured in the film Parasite, leading to a boom in sales.
How to cook ramyeon
If you want to keep things simple, cooking ramyeon is as easy as adding hot water, but for an extra-tasty dish, try adding some toppings.
Ramyeon noodles - 1 packet
Water - 2 ½ cups
Egg - 1
Scallions - 2, white parts only
Step 01 Add the water to a pan and turn the heat all the way up to boil the water as quickly as you can.
Step 02 When the water has boiled, add the noodles and powdered broth, then cover and boil for a further 1 minute.
Step 03 Lift the lid and use a spoon or spatula to flip the noodles over.
Step 04 Crack the egg directly into the ramyeon, then replace the lid and cook for 2 minutes. Do not stir, as you want the egg to be whole at the end.
Step 05 Dice the white parts of the scallion.
Step 06 Remove the pan from the heat and add the sachet of dried vegetables, along with the diced scallions.
What is ramen?
Ramen is a Japanese noodle soup with an umami flavour, made with wheat noodles and various savoury toppings. Unlike ramyeon, it is typically made fresh, and great care is taken over the ingredients and preparation, with specialty broths like tonkotsu taking almost a full day to make.
There are instant versions of ramen available, and some people in the west may actually be more familiar with this, but fresh ramen was around long before instant varieties were invented, and is generally considered to be ‘true’ ramen. Both instant and fresh ramen have an umami, savoury flavour, and are rarely spicy.
Varieties of ramen
Over the years, ramen has diversified into many different varieties, including plenty of regional specialties. From these many varieties, five styles have emerged as the most popular.
Tonkotsu ramen is characterised by an intensely flavoured, cloudy broth, made by boiling pork bones for several hours. Made properly, it can take the best part of a day to prepare.
Miso Ramen, as the name suggests, is flavoured using miso paste. It can be made using various different types of miso, with white miso, red miso and barley miso among the most popular.
Shoyu Ramen is Japanese for ‘soy sauce ramen’ and is the original ramen variety. There are many different ways to make shoyu ramen, but it is always flavoured using soy sauce.
Shio Ramen means ‘salty ramen’ and is made using salty ingredients like seafood or boiled chicken bones.
Tsukemen are thick noodles that are served alongside the broth instead of being submerged in it. Each noodle is then dipped into the broth before it is eaten.
How to cook ramen
As we have already seen, preparing fresh ramen can take hours, and needs an article all to itself. But if you’re looking for instant noodles with a savoury, umami flavour, and less of the heat you might find in ramyeon, try this simple recipe for instant ramen.
For the ramen:
Ramen noodles - 1 packet
Water - 2 ½ cups, boiled
For the toppings (all optional)
Scallions - 2, diced
Step 01 Place the noodles and the contents of the broth sachet together in a large soup bowl.
Step 02 Add your desired toppings to the bowl.
Step 03 Pour the boiling water over the noodles, and cover the bowl with a plate.
Step 04 Leave it to sit for 3 minutes, then remove the lid, stir and enjoy.
The main difference between these two noodle dishes is that ramen is usually prepared fresh, while ramyeon is always a dried, instant dish. There are also differences in flavour, with ramyeon tending to be far spicier than ramen. Ramyeon is made with spicy broth, and even spicy toppings like kimchi, while ramen relies more on savoury, salty, umami flavours.