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.
“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.”