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[LLG] Meet the 'ramyeon conqueror' out to sample every instant noodle

Quest for instant noodle mastery leads teacher to world of full-time blogging, giving rise to online ramyeon encyclopedia

Feb. 7, 2024 - 16:40 By Song Seung-hyun
Ji Young-jun, a full-time blogger of ramyeon (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

About a decade ago, Ji Young-jun found himself staring at the shelves in the ramyeon section at a military base commissary.

Having begun his compulsory military service right after a grueling four years studying for and taking Korea's college entrance exam five times, he felt trapped both physically and psychologically -- little seemed to create excitement or interest for him.

But looking at the nearly 50 varieties of ramyeon stacked on the shelves, something stirred within him.

“I should conquer them all,” he thought, not quite understanding where the sudden impulse came from.

That moment at the military supermarket marked the birth of "Ramyeon Conqueror Piki," Ji's alter ego for the next several years, as he moved through some of life's key stages, becoming a university student, an elementary school teacher and a husband.

So far, he has tried some 3,000 different kinds of instant noodles.

"I've reviewed over 2,000 products on my blog," Ji said proudly.

Ramyeon blogger Ji Young-jun poses for a photo during his mandatory military service in 2013. (Ji Young-jun)

Ramyeon encyclopedia

When he began sharing how he was trying a new kind of ramyeon every day, his friends showed great interest.

"They'd ask about the tastes of the different products,” he said.

As he began advising others about the different ramyeon flavors and latest products, his personal mission to “conquer all the ramyeon out there” started to change. It evolved into more of a public endeavor to review, share and document the vast and varied landscape of instant noodles.

"In the military, I'd jot down notes about every type of ramyeon I tried," he recalled. "I was obsessed. Not just with the taste, but with the history, the manufacturing process -- everything."

After he was discharged from the military in 2013, Ji launched a blog dedicated to his ramyeon studies, "Completely Conquering Ramyeon." His blog, which has become a kind of ramyeon encyclopedia, has accumulated 15 million views as of January.

"I discovered this American instant noodle blogger named Hans Lienesch," he said. "And I thought, 'Korea needs its own Hans Lienesch!' So, I became him."

Ji Young-jun poses for a selfie at the Ramyun Library at CU's Hongdaesangsang branch in Mapo-gu, Seoul in 2023. (Ji Young-jun)

The ramyeon room

In his home in Incheon, Ji maintains a room specifically dedicated to his instant noodle adventures. Going into the room is like entering a shrine to ramyeon.

The shelves are crammed full of different varieties as well as boxes and binders full of empty ramyeon packages that he has collected after trying them.

He pulled out a binder, its pages filled with meticulously cataloged empty ramyeon packaging.

"These are Korean ramyeon knock-offs," he says, pointing to empty packages of instant noodles suspiciously resembling Buldak ramyeon, but made in China. "The packaging is almost identical, but the taste? Not even close."

Another binder is dedicated to types of specialty regional ramyeon.

“Did you know there are more than 10 different kinds of ramyeon representing Jeju Island?" he asked. "There are, for example, Jjamppong ramyeon representing Gunsan, instant fried noodles using bibimbap sauce which represents Jeonju, and pork soup ramyeon from Busan," he continued, almost out of breath.

Ask him a simple question like, "What's the most popular ramyeon in the military?" and he will answer almost immediately.

"Spicy and savory -- that's what guys crave the most in the military. Samyang's Gan Jjamppong, Buldak ramyeon, Paldo's Gonghwachun Jjajang -- those are the top three!"

What was he like before that fateful day in the commissary?

Ji said he had always liked ramyeon and had eaten it often, particularly during his college entrance exam prep days.

And when he got into something, he would always dive in deep.

As a child, he was obsessed with stories about China's Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 A.D.), leading him to memorize the names of over 100 historical figures from the era.

And then there was the Japanese animation "Pokemon." This is also the reason his blogger nickname is "Piki,” derived from character Pikachu.

“My wife said she was never into something this deep and is impressed by me," he said, noting the contrast between him and his wife. "That is also the reason she supports me so much."

Korean ramyeon purchased by blogger Ji Young-jun in 2020. (Ji Young-jun)

Full-time ramyeon blogger

In February last year, Ji embarked on a new chapter as a full-time blogger, ending his five years as an elementary school teacher.

"I had always wanted to go full-time, but thought I would do it when I was more experienced as a ramyeon expert," he said.

Ji said it was his wife who most strongly encouraged him to become a full-time ramyeon blogger.

She had reassured him by saying, "If you're going to take on a challenge, do it while you're young. If it doesn't work out, I'll be the breadwinner of the family.”

Ji’s parents, at first, strongly opposed him quitting his teaching job.

"Now, when they travel abroad, they send me photos of instant noodles there and ask me if I've tried them. If not, they buy them as gifts," he said.

Despite his family's moral support, being a full-time ramyeon blogger is no cakewalk, especially financially.

His monthly income, including advertisements and fan donations, is 400,000 won ($300). He appears on TV shows about ramyeon from time to time and also makes YouTube videos.

"I don't take sponsors. I buy all the ramyeon that I try,” he added.

Since his wife is expecting a baby this spring, he briefly took up part-time food delivery work as well for a time last year.

But now he devotes himself fully to "conquering" ramyeon.

“I wake up thinking about ramyeon and go to sleep thinking about it. I never get tired of it,” he said. He consumes an average of 15-20 packages of ramyeon a week.

When asked whether he has any concerns about his health, he said he recently had a health checkup and did not have any problems.

"Also, when doing taste tests, I don’t eat the entire package. So I think it won’t harm my health,” he said. “Besides, (late) Chairman Jeon Joong-yoon of Samyang Foods also ate a lot of ramyeon -- one package every day, I believe, and he lived well beyond 90 years.”

Jeon died at the age of 95 in 2014. The late Samyang Foods founder is also known as the father of Korean instant noodles for creating the first ramyeon product in Korea, Samyang Ramen, in 1963.

Ji dreams of creating a ramyeon museum or at least contributing to establishing one. He has visited two Cup Noodles Museums in Japan for inspiration.

Collecting all the ramyeon packaging after eating them is also a goal of his.

"If you have the package, I've heard that you can recreate the noodles later on, even if they get discontinued,” he said. “My museum visitors won't be able to eat them, but they will be able to touch them. That is the kind of museum that I am dreaming of.”