Culture

The Signature Noodle Dish in 'Parasite' Tells a Complicated Class Story

In Bong Joon-ho's Academy Award–winning hit for Best Picture, culture and class tensions bubble up between ram-don noodles.

February 10, 2020
Photo by @koreanbapsang / Instagram

In Bong Joon-Ho’s Oscar-winning film Parasite, class disparities are telegraphed through aesthetics, architecture, and even the characters’ personal body odors. But one scene in particular deftly illustrates the economic gap between the wealthy Parks and the lower-income Kim family—by way of a humble instant-noodle dish.

The scene in question begins with the Parks leaving for a camping trip, only to turn around and head for home when it starts to rain. On their drive back, Mrs. Park calls her housekeeper, Mrs. Kim, to request that she prepare a bowl of “ram-don” for her young son—and that it be ready by the time they arrive home. Mrs. Kim hangs up and is left wondering what on earth “ram-don” might be. In a frenzy, she throws together two types of instant noodles and some cubed steak and, miraculously, it passes muster.

Both regular consumers of Korean cuisine and those less familiar may have been baffled by the scene, and for good reason. The term “ram-don” was invented for the film by subtitle translator Darcy Paquet, as the actual Korean name for the dish, jjapaguri—a combination of two types of instant noodles—was too difficult to translate for an English-speaking audience. Paquet figured audience members would, however, likely be familiar with “ramen” and “udon,” and so he mashed up the two.

According to Jennifer Jung-Kim, PhD, a professor of Korean history and East Asian studies at UCLA, jjapaguri is usually a combination of two noodle products from the Korean manufacturer Nongshim: Chapagetti, Chinese-inspired jajang ramen noodles, and Neoguri, Japanese-style udon reimagined in a spicy, Korean seafood broth. Debuted by Nongshim in 1982, Neoguri was a way embittered Koreans could reappropriate, and thus, openly enjoy Japanese noodles. Nongshim further set Korean ramyeon apart from Japanese ramen in the 1970s, when it developed a beef flavor, as opposed to the ubiquitous chicken flavor.

In other words, jjapaguri is a uniquely Korean dish. Nongshim’s products have come to be the de facto ingredients for jjapaguri, and its role in popularizing the dish in the first place is a possible reason why. But Dr. Jung-Kim says there are other, larger explanations as to why jjapaguri is made with Korean instant noodles. Japan’s colonial rule over Korea in the early 20th century still casts a shadow over the two countries’ relationship, with decades of forced labor and exploitation looming large in the Korean collective memory. More recent trade disputes between the nations have injected new life into these preexisting tensions.

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Top Comment:
“I could write an entire essay on the problematic translation of “Ram-Don” (a made up portmanteau of two Japanese foods in a complicated time of strained Korean/Japanese relationships) by a non-Korean but since Food52 is about food, I will simply add this to the conversation: 너구리 (Neoguri) simply has the best noodles of all instant noodles. It is denser than most, with a very pleasant, not-quite-al-dente chewy texture, and adheres to sauces very well. If you want to try an exceptional instant ramen use Neoguri noodles with Shin ramen seasoning. Unfortunately Shin noodles and Neoguri seasoning results in a decidedly subpar ramen, but that is a problem for another meal.”
— Delancey K.
Comment

“With the Korea-Japan trade war right now, Japanese products are very unpopular and many markets have pulled Japanese goods from their shelves,” Dr. Jung-Kim says. “And most Koreans preferred Korean noodles even before the trade wars, because of their stronger flavors,” she concludes, alluding to the gochugaru- and chunjang-spiked jjampong and jajang, respectively.

Still, even if Mrs. Park had asked for jjapaguri and referred to it by its original name, the dish that appears in Parasite still looks a little different—fancier—than usual. Although jjapaguri is well-known and widely consumed in Korea, Dr. Jung-Kim explains that it’s more of a budget comfort food than anything else. In the film, Mrs. Park’s request that the noodles be topped with high-quality beef elevates it beyond your average midnight snack.

“I don't think jjapaguri is necessarily a marker of affluence,” Dr. Jung-Kim says. What makes the Park family version different is that they put in Hanu—the Korean name for premium beef, similar to Japanese Wagyu—which is as much as twice the cost of beef imported from Australia or the U.S.

Dr. Jung-Kim regrets that the term “sirloin” is used in the English subtitles, which fails to reflect the significance of Mrs. Park calling for Hanu specifically. “It's telling that Bong Joon-ho has the Park family putting in premium Korean beef. That the family can casually use Hanu in a casual dish like instant noodles shows how much money they have. Bong Joon-ho really drives home the point that the Parks live on a different scale. So even when they are eating like ordinary people, it's most certainly not in an ordinary way.”

Here, we give you the building blocks for jjapaguri à la Park. Feel free to put your own extraordinary spin on ordinary ram-don with a soft-boiled egg, a handful of scallions, or “American Kobe.”


How to Make Ram-Don

Serves: 1

Ingredients

  • 1 well-marbled sirloin steak (6 to 8 ounces)
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 tablespoon neutral oil
  • 1 packet instant jajangmyeon noodles, such as Nongshim’s Chapagetti
  • 1 packet instant jjampong noodles, such as Nongshim’s Neoguri

Directions

  1. Bring 4 cups of water to boil in a medium pot.
  2. While waiting for the water to boil, prepare the sirloin: Pat it dry and season on all sides with salt and pepper.
  3. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat.When the skillet is smoking, add the steak and cook for 3 to 5 minutes on both sides. Set aside to rest.
  4. Once the water is boiling, add both types of noodles and cook until just-tender, 4 to 5 minutes.
  5. Strain the noodles, reserving 4 to 5 tablespoons of the starchy water.
  6. Return noodles to the pot over low heat and add the Chapagetti seasoning, half of the Neoguri seasoning, and the reserved noodle water. Stir until the seasonings are well blended.
  7. Thinly slice the steak and add to the noodles. Stir and serve.

What was your favorite food scene in Parasite? Slurp about it in the comments!

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Sara Coughlin

Written by: Sara Coughlin

Writer, worrier, cereal eater

17 Comments

Steve February 19, 2020
I have now made this twice. I really enjoyed it. Thank you for a great article and a nice recipe!
 
Delancey K. February 17, 2020
Sigh. I could write an entire essay on the problematic translation of “Ram-Don” (a made up portmanteau of two Japanese foods in a complicated time of strained Korean/Japanese relationships) by a non-Korean but since Food52 is about food, I will simply add this to the conversation: 너구리 (Neoguri) simply has the best noodles of all instant noodles. It is denser than most, with a very pleasant, not-quite-al-dente chewy texture, and adheres to sauces very well. If you want to try an exceptional instant ramen use Neoguri noodles with Shin ramen seasoning. Unfortunately Shin noodles and Neoguri seasoning results in a decidedly subpar ramen, but that is a problem for another meal.
 
Wook J. February 14, 2020
Jjapaguri is a new recipe as it came to be popular among the younger generation within a few years. that's why Mrs. Kim didn't know the term. So, this scene represents the economic gap between the younger generation (quality gap between Park's son's jjapaguri and Kim's children's jjapaguri).
 
Estergen80 February 16, 2020
Yes, this is a more accurate reading of what went down in the film. I grew up as a Korean American kid with Chapaghetti and Neoguri as two different instant noodles. I haven’t eaten that stuff in a long time and didn’t realize the two had merged to become one delicious jjapaguri. Damn. Now I want to try some.
 
Annab February 13, 2020
These comments/corrections are as fascinating as the article! They all point out the difficulty of describing Korean ingredients to a Western audience, and, in fact, point to the cultural tension between Korea and Japan - the writer uses a Japanese comparison like Wagyu for the Western audience in part because most of us lack the frame of reference. I hope to see more articles like this - thoughtful AND entertaining.
 
Surin February 13, 2020
Hey can we stop using photos with chopsticks sticking upright in bowls of food, please, Food52? Like that is a big taboo in East Asian countries and just...yikes.
 
Dani February 13, 2020
Yeah, except that photo is an instagram post from a Korean food blogger. So....
 
Grace C. February 16, 2020
Resting on the side of the bowl is alright. It’s not ok when the chopsticks are sticking straight up, stuck in the middle of bowl.
 
Erin D. February 12, 2020
"and Neoguri, Japanese-style udon (jjajangmyeon) reimagined in a spicy, Korean seafood broth"

I could be wrong, but I'm 98% certain that jjajangmyeon (noodles in black bean sauce) has nothing to do with Japanese style noodles. It's actually considered a Chinese dish. Perhaps the author meant jjamppong to be in those parentheses. Jjajangmyeon is actually what Chapaghetti is an instant version of.
 
Brinda A. February 12, 2020
Hi, thanks for pointing this out, and very sorry for this misplaced descriptor/inconsistency! You are absolutely right; this should be correctly reflected across the piece now.
 
Hye W. February 12, 2020
jjajangmyun: k-version of beijing zha-jiang myun, made with Tian mian jiang, 甜面酱. chaphagetti is the instant version of the korean adaptation.

jjampong: also spelled champon. it may have shared roots with nagasaki champon; but unlike japanese version (clear, non-spicy chicken-kotsu base, 長崎ちゃんぽん) korean jjampong, a staple menu in kor-chinese restoe, have chili-oil based, spicy hot chicken-seafood broth. neoguri is a instant version of this maybe-once-japanese-but-became-chinese-korean noodle soup. the 'udon' has been added to stres extra thick noodles (like udon, vs. other wheat-based thin noodles).

so both noodles are product of cino-korean cross; not much to do w japanese...
 
Matthew E. February 11, 2020
Another Nongshim noodle to try is Shin Ramyun. I grew up eating this at my best friend’s house, always made for us by his grandmother. This is my preference over the other two, individually. However I have not tried them together as mentioned. And yes, please make the noodles just as described, to everyone reading, 4-5 tblspns of the starchy water, made to your preference. Great article. Awesome movie. Amazing night at the awards.
 
Daniel Z. February 11, 2020
I cannot wait to try this recipe, fascinating story.
 
Kristen M. February 11, 2020
This is such a fascinating story—thank you for sharing it with us. I love that I'll have more context when I finally see the film (soon!).
 
Dustybread February 10, 2020
Interesting read. One thing I’d like to point out, though, is that Hanu or han-woo is not a Korean version of anything Japanese. Han-woo is a cattle breed native to Korea.
 
Vaga February 10, 2020
Thank you for the interesting and well-researched article! I'll have to give the recipe a try, even if I can't get hanu.
 
simonandrew89 February 10, 2020
Its nice recipe thanks for sharing