The flaming-hot Korean noodle brand going viral and making millions

SEOUL — Park Jin-hee remembers the first time that he tried South Korea’s famed “fire chicken noodles.” Huddling with a group of friends in his high school dormitory about a decade ago, each person took turns slurping them down — a competition to see who was the best at tolerating the heat.

“It was so spicy that I cried, but it was also so addictive that I ended up eating it all,” Park, now a 27-year-old nurse and food YouTuber. “And even though I had an upset stomach the next day, I ended up coming back to it again. It’s a magical food.”

The heat level of Buldak ramyeon — the Korean word for ramen — depends on individual tolerance. Its spiciness tends to build in one’s mouth, curbed only by a touch of sweetness or a sprinkle of artificial cheese flavor. What’s not subjective is how hot the noodles are right now — what started in South Korea as a spicy food challenge in the early 2010s has become a nearly ubiquitous junk food at home and a cash cow internationally, a long way from ramyeon’s status as a postwar filler food that the government once had to force the public to eat.

South Korea’s Buldak products have gone viral on social media and are making millions worldwide. Here’s the story behind the spicy instant noodles. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

Globally, Buldak has been buoyed by an enduring social media trend where users try it and react on camera. The instant noodle brand is tagged in more than 360 million posts on TikTok and has garnered hundreds of millions, if not billions, of views on YouTube. It’s so popular that Denmark’s recent move to ban some of the spiciest Buldak varieties made headlines around the world — though its maker, Samyang, has disputed the Danish calculations, according to South Korean media reports.

And the appetite for Buldak shows no sign of flagging. Samyang announced last year that more than $2.3 billion worth of Buldak products had been sold globally since the brand was launched in 2012. The company recently reported that first-quarter U.S. sales of its products had leaped nearly 210 percent from the previous year — and its stock was catapulted to a record high last month, not long after Cardi B posted a video of herself trying it.

“The conversation that’s going on around the world — the fact that Denmark is banning Buldak — I think this is indicative of the fact that Korean food has become one of the major cuisines,” said Robert Ji-Song Ku, a professor of Asian and Asian American studies at Binghamton University who has written several books on Korean food history.

“It’s almost a perfect storm. You have, on one hand, South Korea and its popular culture, K-content machinery exploding in the past 10 years with K-pop, K-dramas, K-movies, you name it … And then, at the same time, maybe overlapping but separate, there’s this whole obsession with spiciness.”

In Seoul’s popular youth culture district of Hongdae, a steady flow of foreign tourists trickled into a newly built convenience store called the “Ramyun Library” on a recent Monday afternoon. A young girl set two packets of Buldak carbonara ramyeon on the counter — but when she begged for a third, her mother refused, and a temper tantrum ensued. The pink-packaged noodles are the same flavor that made another girl break down in tears of joy in a TikTok video of her birthday party, which has been watched more than 8 million times.

“It’s very new and, you know, kind of fancy or cool,” Jieun Kiaer, Young Bin Min-KF professor of Korean Linguistics at the University of Oxford who is researching historical Korean recipes, said of Buldak and other Korean instant noodles. But many Koreans have long seen ramyeon as a symbol of economic hardship, or a food for “those who couldn’t afford rice,” she said.

South Korea’s rice fields and economy were devastated by the Korean War in the early 1950s. The United States, a major party in the war and an ally of the South, began exporting surplus wheat flour to the country in part to address widespread hunger.

The South Korean government reacted by passing a series of laws starting in the early 1960s that attempted to convince the public to eat more flour — or at least mix it with rice. Restaurants were banned from selling rice on certain days of the week and teachers would check students’ lunchboxes in schools to see what they were eating.

The United States’ influence on the rise of ramyeon in Korean cuisine “cannot be underestimated,” said Ku, who is on a leave of absence from Binghamton to work on a textbook at UCLA.

That era gave rise to a now-popular genre of Korean food called bunsik, which refers to foods containing flour such as ramyeon but later became an umbrella term for inexpensive, often indulgent snacks. Samyang is credited with introducing ramyeon to South Korea in 1963, after its founder borrowed money from the government to import instant-noodle manufacturing machinery from Japan.

Several bunsik dishes have become viral products abroad, influencing American diets as Asian grocery chains continue to expand in the U.S. market. Bon Appetit called 2021 the year of the Korean corn dog, and a social media craze over frozen kimbap at Trader Joe’s saw the product rapidly sell out last year, all but turning possession of it into a form of social currency. The frenzy appeared to inspire Costco to debut its own version.

Buldak has also begun to pack shelves at mainstream American stores including Walmart, and is “at the heart of the Korean wave,” according to Kiaer.

“People’s participatory desire is huge,” she said. “People can’t just go to Korea,” she added, “but, you know, eating food is very easy … It’s very cheap. ”

Samyang has made a habit of continuously rolling out new Buldak products to drum up excitement on social media, capitalizing on what Kiaer describes as a “gamified” phenomena of spicy-food eating-challenge videos and a roulette wheel of reactions to taste tests. The South Korean government also has a long history of attempting to promote its culture abroad, including a 2009 government initiative aimed at globalizing Korean cuisine.

Before the pandemic, some scholars lamented what appeared to be a looming end to the Korean Wave. But then Netflix began airing “ridiculous amounts of K-content,” Ku said, at a time when people were social distancing and average screen times shot up.

“If you watch Korean dramas, I’m convinced that it’s all engineered this way, right? That it’s all thought of — that the food is so fetishized,” he said. “I think that period of covid shutdown, in some crazy way, created a whole new fan base.”

Park Min-Jung, a popular 27-year-old South Korean YouTuber, once scarfed down eight packets of Buldak in one sitting — and racked up more than 1.1 million views.

“For me, it pairs really well with other dishes,” she said, adding that she thinks “almost all Koreans have had Buldak.”

Ku certainly understands the appeal, but he chooses to abstain.

“I don’t myself consume Buldak because I’m afraid of it, to be honest,” he said, with a laugh.

Julie Yoon contributed to this report.

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