The craze for Korean ramen continues

An unstaffed ramen shop near Jongno 3-ga Station is open 24 hours. A wall shelf is stacked with packaged instant noodles products of different brands. (Choi Jae Hee/The Korea Herald)

Packaged instant noodle products in various flavors, from spicy beef broth to fried black bean sauce and kimchi soup, are stacked on a shelf that covers about two-thirds of the store’s wall on the right. On the left, a row of automatic machines pour hot water into paper cups and boil it at the touch of a button ready to cook pasta.

After purchasing a can of ramen through a self-ordering kiosk, all you have to do is open the bag and put the dried noodles into the paper container with the seasoning powder. Several benches face the wall, perfect for a solo dinner.

With only 2,500 to 3,000 won and a few minutes of waiting, you can have a hot bowl of ramyun, as it is known in Korea as an instant noodle dish.

The instant noodles are placed in three different paper containers in specialized cooking machines.  (Choi Jae Hee/The Korea Herald)

The instant noodles are placed in three different paper containers in specialized cooking machines. (Choi Jae Hee/The Korea Herald)

The store opened in February last year near Jongno 3-ga Station in Seoul, and is among an emerging number of small, unstaffed stores in Korea.

Buoyed by the contactless trend amid the protracted COVID-19 pandemic, small self-service stores have caught the eye of Koreans, especially lone diners and some who are still not immune, finding it difficult to enter mixed-use facilities including restaurants and cafes under the government’s vaccination pass mandate.

A solo restaurant nicknamed Jeong at Jongno 3-ga said the place is suitable for solo diners working in a busy city.

“I enjoy eating alone while reading webtoons. I don’t really want to make lunch plans with someone else amid the resurgence of the virus. But sometimes I feel embarrassed to eat alone because most of the restaurants near my office are filled with customers during lunch hour.

There were times when she felt the restaurateurs or servers wouldn’t welcome her coming to eat alone.

“This self-service restaurant has a lot of single seats,” said the 32-year-old employee of a medical device company in central Seoul.

For some ramen lovers, the shop is like a food factory, where they can try new ways to enjoy noodles, such as mixing two or three different brands.

“Instant noodles are usually sold in packets, so it is difficult to get a variety of ramyun at home. It is good to be able to mix up the famous noodle labels in small ramyeon shops,” said Kang Ho Min, a 24-year-old student at Kyung University. Hey, my favorite combination is a mix of chapagetti and nyogori in nongshim.

Customers like Kang share different batches of noodles on sticky notes on the store’s wall.

While convenience stores still require minimal effort from guests to prepare pasta, vending machines serve up a fully prepared dish in about three minutes.

A ramen vending machine is located at a highway rest area in Uiseong, North Gyeongsang Province.  (Ko Eun Hee)

A ramen vending machine is located at a highway rest area in Uiseong, North Gyeongsang Province. (Ko Eun Hee)

Often installed in highway rest areas, school cafeterias, or amusement parks, the target customers are people looking for a quick meal, usually with a cost of 2,000 to 3,000 won.

The data shows the deep-rooted affection of Koreans towards ramen. According to data from the World Instant Noodles Association, Koreans consume an average of 80 packages of instant noodles annually, the highest number among the 15 countries surveyed by the organization, including the United States, Japan and China.

Meanwhile, relying on the spread of Hallyu, Korean ramen gradually expanded its global reach.

Korea Customs data Monday showed that shipments of instant noodles in the country hit an all-time high of $607.9 million in the January-November period of 2021, up 10.6 percent from the same period in 2020.

China was the largest overseas market for Korean ramen in the cited period, with exports recording $133.42 million. The United States came next with $70.76 million, followed by Japan with $58.77 million, Taiwan with $29.18 million, and the Philippines with $25.96 million.

“Instant noodles made in Korea are featured in popular Korean media content, including ‘Chapaguri’, a signature noodle dish from the Oscar-winning movie ‘Parasite’, which is partly due to the global popularity of ramyun,” a KCS official said.

Written by Choi Jae Hee ([email protected])

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