Ever-expanding universe of ramen
Barley, maize noodles and self-cookers lead Korean ramen trend
Published : Sep 11, 2017 - 14:44
Updated : Sep 17, 2017 - 18:26
Ramen -- or ramyeon, as instant noodles are known locally -- is widely recognized as Korea’s soul food.

Korea is the leading consumer of ramen per person in the world, each person eating about 76 bowls per year, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

The dish’s popularity was palpable at the annual Ramen Fair that took place at the Coex Convention and Exhibition Center in Seoul from Sept. 9-11. In its third year, some 80 companies set up 230 booth at the fair.

On Sunday, the fair was packed with groups of friends, families or solo visitors standing in long lines to try different types of ramen. 

A visitor holds a bowl of Japanese ramen at the Ramen Fair held at Coex Convention and Exhibition Center on Sunday. (Rumy Doo/The Korea Herald)

Visitors stand in line to sample ramen at the Ramen Fair held at Coex Convention and Exhibition Center on Sunday. (Rumy Doo/The Korea Herald)

International ramen brands abounded. Available for purchase were China’s Kangshifu, Bijia, Qiaqia and Baixiang; Indonesia’s Indomie, ABC; Thailand’s Mama, Waiwai and Yum Yum; and Vietnam’s Acecook. Japanese ramen, popular in Korea, took up a significant portion of the fair with brands such as Itomen. These ramen incorporated traditional cuisine of the countries, such as China’s spicy hot pot known as malatang, Japanese miso and Vietnamese rice noodles were incorporated into the foreign dishes.

Typically loaded with sodium, fat and carbohydrates, ramen is a guilty pleasure. One trend in Korean ramen at the fair was healthful instant noodles.

Ramen makers from different parts of the country sought to create healthier forms of ramen with noodles made from non-flour, low-gluten ingredients that are the specialty products of their regions.

Macsobahn is a company that makes ramen with organic barley grown in Goseong County, South Gyeongsang Province, and rice. The noodle is 60 percent barley, with potato starch added in to make it firmer.

Barley ramen is showcased at the Ramen Fair held at Coex Convention and Exhibition Center on Sunday. (Rumy Doo/The Korea Herald)

Barley ramen has been in development for five years and was launched this year, said Je Hae-soo, Macsobahn CEO. “We’ve taken out MSG (monosodium glutamate) entirely and added more concentrated natural flavoring,” he said. “It’s pricier, but there’s a higher demand for healthy ramen options. I’m finding that consumers are willing to pay slightly higher prices.”

Another health-conscious version of ramen is onion ramen, which incorporates onions grown in Hapcheon County, South Gyeongsang Province, into the noodle dough, and onion flakes in the broth.

“There is a sweeter, cleaner taste to the broth,” said 35-year-old restaurant owner Kim Jae-seon attending the fair. He had the ramen at last year’s event.

Alali Food, first established in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in China, has devised a method of making noodles with 100 percent maize, zero sodium and no preservatives. The method has been patented in China.

“It’s not deep fried. No additional sodium is added. It goes through a drying process that we’ve developed and perfected,” said the company’s CEO Lee Chang-wook.

“Our philosophy is to make food that is green, healthy and safe. We’re trying to come up with ways to make noodles with zero additives, which preserve the natural nutrients of the grains we use.”

“This year, we’ve focused on bringing in foreign brands and independent local brands from different regions that are harder to find in the market, rather than well-known ramen brands that everyone can easily access,” said Hong Whee-sun, director of the Ramen Fair executive office. “We sought diversity and differentiation.”

Visitors cook ramen on a DIY stove at the Ramen Fair held at Coex Convention and Exhibition Center on Sunday. (Rumy Doo/The Korea Herald)

Electric stoves designed specifically for cooking ramen were also a huge hit. The stoves, typically found at convenience stores with outdoor terraces, pensions and PC game rooms, have been enjoying steady sales for the past decade, according to manager Choi Young-jun of Incu M, a manufacturer of such stoves.

The stoves retail at about 1.5 million won ($1,325). Users are able to boil ramen on disposable foil dishes and add ingredients to their liking.

“Buyers say that people like the do-it-yourself cooking experience,” said Choi.

By Rumy Doo (