South Korea should be the envy of all Americans. They have better movies, better boy bands (with better fans), a better body politic, a better bead on how to beat this pandemic. It should come as no surprise that South Koreans also enjoy better instant noodles.
A few months ago, I wrote about how Shin Ramyun, the iconic and now ubiquitous instant noodle product produced by Nongshim, had compromised its quality when reformulating its noodles for a cup noodle version. I also noted in passing that I thought Shin Ramyun Black, a putatively premium version of that product, was inferior in every way to the less expensive original. I followed that piece up with a comparison of Nissin Cup Noodle(s) products produced for the American and Japanese markets, in which I found some distinct differences, and determined that I vastly preferred the Japanese versions to the American.
I suppose it was inevitable that someone would suggest that I do a similar comparison of Nongshim products, trying Korean versions of Shin Ramyun and Shin Ramyun Black side-by-side with American versions of those products, to see what, if any, differences existed, and whether I preferred one over the other. When someone did, I asked my father, who lives in Seoul, to send over a few samples of some of the most popular instant noodles—the Shin, the Shin Black, but also Nongshim’s Neoguri seafood-flavored noodle soup, which has been enjoying some wider recognition because of the fact that is one of the components in “Jjappaguri,” the now viral instant noodle mashup dish known in the English-speaking world as “Ram-don,” which figures prominently in Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning film Parasite. (He also sent over some Jjapagetti, which I’m saving for...science?)
Here, then, is the result of a side-by-side comparison of all three products, which I stupidly did in a single day—well, actually, which I stupidly did over the course of an hour and a half, bringing my total sodium intake in that hour and half to, according to the US packaging on a single Shin Ramyun Red and my back-of-the-envelope calculation of how much of each bowl I ate, approximately three times your (well, my) recommended daily value.
Unfortunately, given the limitations imposed upon us all by the pandemic, I was the sole taster in this series of tastings (my wife, quite understandably, refused to fully participate, but did sneak a few tastes here and there; my daughter is too young to be subjected to an onslaught of sodium of this kind, yet); I also had to serve as the cook and the photographer, so my apologies for the quality of the photos, and for the fact that this review is entirely subjective: I knew in every instance beforehand which bowl contained which product, and I have a stated preference for noodle soups designed for a non-US market.
That being said, I prepared each dueling set of products simultaneously, following the instructions on the packaging exactly and weighing out the amount of water called for in grams, and using similarly sized cooking vessels to control for possible evaporation of water during the cooking process and, thus, intensification of seasoning. Between tasting each product I took a couple swigs of water and ate a small bit of white bread to try to cleanse my palate, which didn’t really work but it did provide blessed, albeit temporary, relief from the onslaught of salt.
Shin Ramyun Red
Visually, the Korean and American versions of Shin Ramyun Red are identical, save for the languages imprinted on the packaging: The noodle blocks look the same, the flavoring packets look the same, and the instructions are the same—add the flavoring packets and noodles to 550ml of boiling water, then cook for four and a half minutes and serve. Initially, the ramyun in the bowls also looked pretty similar to me: the signature fiery red broth, the yellowish bouncy noodles bobbing beneath the surface, the scattered bits of rehydrated vegetables floating appealingly on top.
But upon tasting each version, the differences were apparent. The noodles in the American version have a flavor that I can only describe as being dusty, and there is an added mineral bitterness, likely from the inclusion of Vitamin B supplements like thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), and niacin (B3), which, according to the translation of the Korean ingredient list provided to me by our social media editor, Jina (who enlisted the help of her mother: thanks, Jina’s mom!), aren't the same as the supplements in the Korean version, which appears to only use riboflavin. Riboflavin is commonly used in alkaline noodles as a dye, but it and other B vitamins are typically included in packaged products in America as nutritional supplements; their taste should be familiar to anyone who eats cereals like Cheerios, the healthful-seeming backdrop, along with the taste of toasted grains, that serves as a foil to sugar, more sugar, and artificial flavorings. That taste sort of leeches into the broth, too, so the Korean version has a cleaner taste.
Another immediately apparent difference; the American version’s broth is both spicier and flatter. I found the spiciness surprising because I typically think of the average Korean’s tolerance for capsaicin heat to be much higher than the average American’s. The flatness I can only speculate about, since both products use a range of umami-rich or -heightening additives like disodium inosinate, disodium guanlytate, disodium succinate, as well as several hydrolyzed extracts that, to my eye, read like euphemisms for monosodium glutamate. Whatever the specific makeup of flavor additives, the result is that the Korean broth has a rounder flavor that tastes a little less aggressively salty than its American counterpart (ramyun being ramyun, it’s still incredibly salty).
After a few tastings, alternating between each bowl, I decided to dig a little deeper into each one to get a better feel for each experience, and I found that the main differences between the two, as has been the case with the previous taste tests of various instant noodles, lies in the noodles. The American ones are less chewy and easier to cut with your teeth; the Korean noodles have a squeakiness, a resistance to being cut, that translates to a far more pleasurable eating experience.
The noodles also seem to affect the quality of the broth, and not just because of that dusty supplement flavor. Looking at the two soups, it’s evident that the American broth is a little murkier, with globules of fat that are a little smaller and thus more evenly distributed, whereas the Korean broth is more translucent, with globules of fat that are both clearer and larger. According to the ingredients lists in English and Korean, both products use palm oil, so the differences in the way the oil interacts with the products’ soups isn’t because of different oils behaving differently, which I’ve observed when making ramen at home—saturated fats and unsaturated fats pool differently on the surface of broth. Rather, the way the oil behaves in the different soups is likely due to the composition of the soup liquid, which in turn is affected by the amount and kind of starch released into the liquid as the noodles cook.
That the muddier, American broth is spicier could be attributed to different formulations, but it could also be a function of the way the fat is distributed in the broth. As capsaicin is oil soluble, it stands to reason that a more even distribution of the oil in the broth would result in a greater exposure of the tongue to the capsaicin in the seasoning, and so the two formulations could be equally spicy, but the effect might be more pronounced in the American version, where a higher amount of starch or whatever it is that’s making the broth murkier is helping the oil to distribute itself more evenly in the broth.
The verdict here, if it isn’t immediately apparent to you already, is that I preferred the Korean version by a mile.
Shin Ramyun Black
I had dreaded this test specifically for a very long time because I really dislike the American Shin Ramyun Black, and I briefly considered skipping it since, I reasoned, my opinion of Shin Ramyun Black is so indelibly stained by considerations that have nothing to do with taste—its higher price, the audacity of trying to improve on Shin Ramyun Red, a perfect product—that there was no way I could provide an even-keeled, albeit fundamentally biased, opinion on the matter.
Thankfully, I decided to do it, because it turns out that Shin Ramyun Black is an amazing instant noodle product, a hall of famer, perhaps one of the best on the market, if not the best on the market. But, of course, I’m only referring to the Korean version.
Unlike Shin Ramyun Red, the packaging of Shin Ramyun Black is different in the United States than it is in Korea. It’s not just the languages printed on the packet; the orientation of the packaging is different, with the American one presenting a kind of horizontal landscape, in contrast to the Korean one’s vertical framing. The preparation instructions are different, too. The American version instructs you to prepare the noodle soup in the same way as you would a Shin Ramyun Red, where you dump the flavoring packets and the dehydrated vegetables into boiling water along with the noodles and cook everything together until the noodles are sufficiently rehydrated. The Korean version has a slightly different approach: into the pot of boiling water goes the dehydrated vegetables and one flavoring packet, but the other flavoring packet, the one that presumably makes Shin Ramyun Black different from the lesser Red, is saved until the end, when you stir it into the cooked broth and noodles.
The other most striking difference was the contents of the dehydrated vegetable packet. Whereas the American one comes with the same vegetables, albeit larger pieces of them, included in Shin Ramyun Red—that is, dried scallions, dried mushrooms, and dried carrot—the Korean one comes with dried scallions, dried mushrooms, dried bok choy, and dried chili peppers, as well as dehydrated bits of scrambled egg and what looks like ground beef.
On the taste front, the two products are entirely different. The American Shin Ramyun Black is everything that I’ve always hated about the product: barely distinguishable from the cheaper Shin Ramyun Red, with those same dusty noodles. The Korean version, however, is remarkably good: It smells beefy, and the promise of that aroma is realized as soon as you take a sip of the beefy broth, which, just like the Korean Shin Ramyun Red, also has a roundness of flavor that is absent in the American version. What most surprised me, though, was how much better the Korean Shin Black is than the Red. It isn’t just that the soup is tastier, or that Nongshim appears to have engineered a more-ish quality to it that short circuits the parts of your brain that are warning you about all the sodium in the bowl before you; it’s also that the dehydrated vegetables taste all right, the dehydrated egg is surprisingly inoffensive, and the little clumps of cooked, dehydrated, and rehydrated beef aren’t totally disgusting (as they can be in many Cup Noodle products from Japan).
The quality of the Korean Shin Black made me think that, possibly, the American Shin Black could be improved by the consumer by simply stirring in the extra green packet of seasoning right at the end, as you’re instructed to do by the Korean version. I would’ve tested this for the sake of science, but for personal reasons I was and am in total quarantine from the outside world, and I only had one package of American Shin Black to fool around with. But a closer look at the products’ ingredient lists suggests that if there is any improvement, it would be minimal, since the primary flavorings of the Korean version appear to be beef, kombu, dried shrimp, and dried mushroom, whereas the American one contains beef, kombu, dried sandlance, and dried mushroom. Which is to say, the formulations are different.
The verdict here is that Shin Ramyun Black, despite everything I thought I knew, is a damn fine instant noodle product that I’d be happy to eat any time, provided it is the Korean version. The American version still seems to me to be a vastly inferior product, although I think that stirring in the extra green packet of seasoning at the end has the potential to improve it.
While I am worryingly familiar with Nongshim’s Shin Ramyun products, I can’t say the same about its Neoguri Seafood Noodles, and part of that is I’m not the biggest fan of udon-style noodles. For whatever reason, my preferences skew toward alkaline noodles of the kind you find in ramen, and udon has always seemed to me to offer an inferior eating experience and, in certain moods, sometimes makes me feel like I’m chewing on a bunch of worms.
That being said, I enjoy a Neoguri from time to time, and that’s mostly because it seems to have an unapologetically seafood-forward flavor, a rarity in the American instant-noodle market, and since there was some possibility that a comparison of Korean and American Neoguri could shed light on the relative differences between Shin Ramyun products, I thought it couldn’t hurt (figuratively, as it actually did physically pain me to eat these last two bowls after the first four) to add them as (anec)data points in this larger (anec)test.
The first thing that stood out to me that with the Neoguri, like the Shin Ramyun Black, was that the contents of the packaging were different. The Korean Neoguri contained within it a small square of dasima, the dried laver that the Japanese refer to as kombu, and the American one did not. Other than that, the instructions were also slightly different: the Korean one called for adding 550ml of water, as opposed to the American’s 500ml, and given the inclusion of the dasima, that seems to make sense.
But the most surprising part about these two products was that, as far as I could tell, the noodles were identical. Unlike the Shin Ramyun alkaline noodles, there appears to be no difference in the formulation of Nongshim’s udon, and, consequently, none of that dustiness I thought I observed in the American Shin Ramyun products was present in the American Neoguri.
However, despite the fact that the noodles seemed the same, the American version’s broth was, like the Shin Ramyun broths, spicier than its Korean counterpart, which suggests that there really is a difference in the formulation of the broths, and that American consumers of Nongshim products really do prefer a spicier noodle soup than Korean consumers. The Korean version also had a rounder flavor, but in this instance that seemed inevitable, given the square of dasima used in the soup’s preparation.
What is there to say? I vastly prefer the Korean versions of Nongshim’s instant noodle soup products, although I’ll happily eat the American Neoguri any time. But as with the other pieces I wrote comparing instant noodle products for different markets, I want to emphasize that this isn’t just a matter of personal taste; this is a matter of taste conditioning. If you grew up in America eating American processed foods, you might not find the flavor of nutritional supplements to be objectionable, if you notice it at all; you may, in fact, prefer the flavor profile those supplements provide in processed foods, due to a lifetime of exposure to it. Nongshim, like other major multinational processed-food companies, has no doubt done a ton of market research, and if the formulations are changed to adjust for the taste preference of their target markets in different countries, it probably isn’t because they think “Americans like bad food, let’s give it to them!” It’s probably because they think “Americans like what they like, and we want to make money.”
As with the Cup Noodle, part of the problem consumers in America face if they prefer Asian instant noodle products over their American counterparts is that we are quibbling with the preferred tastes of a vast majority of our instant-noodle-loving compatriots. That these products are demonstrably different and arguably better abroad means that there is a possibility, however vanishingly small, that awareness of the possibility that these products could be made to be better here at home could lead to a gradual shift in taste preferences over time, and maybe we Americans could demand more from the noodle makers, even if it’s just spiking the broth formula with a little bit more seaweed flavor.
Correction: The article incorrectly referred to riboflavin as Vitamin B12, when it is in fact B2, and mischaracterized the formulas for American and Korean noodles. Two online retailers were also incorrectly highlighted as selling Korean versions of these products to consumers in the USA. We deeply regret the errors.