Rare is the dish that speaks to both a global public health crisis and a nation’s rising soft power. Enter ram-don, a student-friendly mix of two popular instant noodle flavors—and the uncredited star of Parasite, which last month became South Korea’s first Academy Award–winning film.
To South Koreans, “ram-don” doesn’t mean very much. Known locally as jjapaguri (짜파구리 in its original Korean), the term was introduced by Darcy Paquet, the film’s subtitle translator—the mash-up of “ramen” and “udon” was thought to be more comprehensible to an international audience. The dish itself is fusion food, of sorts, combining two Nongshim noodle products: Chapagetti, Chinese-inspired jjajang ramen noodles, and spicy seafood-flavored Japanese-style udon, Neoguri. Each packet costs a few cents apiece.
Actually cooking jjapaguri is straightforward: You boil the noodles, drain all but half a cup of the water, then mix in the two seasoning packets. Together, it produces a high-fat, high-salt meal that’s quick, comforting, and deeply savory. You can virtually feel your pupils dilate and your arteries constrict as you eat.
In the film, the jjapaguri is cooked up in a frenzy by Mrs. Kim, the housekeeper, after she receives an unexpected call from her employer, Mrs. Park. Foreign viewers may have missed the not-so-subtle social commentary: This is inexpensive fare, comparable to Kraft Mac & Cheese, prepared for an overtired child with the very finest sirloin steak.
In the wake of the film’s Oscar success, a rash of New York’s high-end Korean restaurants sold riffs on the meal for as much as $25—a pretty price for glorified instant noodles. But with thousands of people all over the world now waiting out weeks in quarantine, or anticipating an extended stint working from home, there’s no better time to embrace these two gloriously shelf-stable foods. (You can buy them online, or brave the outdoors to find them at most Korean grocery stores.)
If you can readily access non-perishable foods, there’s plenty of room to zhuzh it up a bit. When I made the dish a few weeks ago, I started out with about half a chopped cabbage, in a very half-hearted attempt at introducing any nutritional value. This was sautéed in a wok with a little oil and salt, until the edges caramelized to a pale gold. (You can see step-by-step instructions to something similar here.) Next, I added the noodles themselves, and some steak, pre-cooked on the rarer side of medium-rare. To gild the lily still further, I threw on a scattering of badly chopped scallions (it was late, and I was hungry) and a fried egg. It was wildly decadent, vastly unhealthy, and fabulously good.
There is no upside to the new coronavirus, which has already killed thousands, decimated returns on pensions and savings accounts, and resulted in lost jobs, earnings, and at least one airline. But at least 2020 has provided one brighter spot: a non-perishable, incredibly zeitgeist-y meal, practically made for sitting out the storm.