By Kim Na-young
SEOUL, Sept. 14 (Yonhap) -- Decades ago, instant noodles were a comfort food that helped alleviate hunger in South Korea. Now, ramyeon has become a K-sensation that is quickly capturing the global palate.
The oil-fried instant noodles with usually spicy soup powder and dried additives were first introduced by Samyang Roundsquare Co., formerly Samyang Foods Co., on Sept. 15, 1963, when South Korea was grappling with a shortage of rice, a key staple food.
In the 1960s, South Korea's rice production was in short supply amid a steep rise in population following the 1950-53 Korean War.
Chun Joong-yoon, Samyang's late founder, adopted the instant noodle-making technology from Japan's Myojo Foods Co. after watching some South Koreans eat leftovers by U.S. soldiers stationed in South Korea because they had no food.
At that time, ramyeon only cost one cent in Korean won, cheaper than a cup of coffee.
Since then, ramyeon quickly captured South Koreans' palate, becoming one of the must-have food items at homes and a comfort food for Koreans to bring on overseas trips.
According to the World Instant Noodles Association (WINA), South Korea had been the eighth largest instant noodle market in the world as of 2022, with a total yearly consumption of 3.95 billion servings.
In recent years, ramyeon has evolved into one of the country's key export items, gaining global recognition in line with the growing popularity of Korean food and culture.
South Korea exported US$522.03 million worth of ramyeon from January to July, up 17.7 percent on-year, to reach an all-time high figure for the period, according to data from the Korea Agro-Fisheries and Food Trade Corp. and the Korea Customs Service.
Last year, the country's exports of noodles, including ramyeon, udon noodles and other instant noodle items, also hit an all-time yearly high of $862 million, becoming the world's second-largest exporter of noodles following China, according to government data.
Industry officials say global attention to Korean culture can be attributed to a fast increase in overseas sales of ramyeon in recent years.
Ramyeon can be found in almost all Korean movies and dramas -- from Oscar-winning film "Parasite" to Netflix's smash hit "Squid Game."
In "Parasite," Nongshim's "Chapaguri" -- a combination of Chapagetti, instant black bean noodles, and Neoguri, Korean udon-like noodles -- is featured as a meal a housekeeper prepares for the son coming back from a family camping trip.
In "Squid Game," the main character, Gi-hun, eats raw ramyeon as a snack to have with South Korea's national spirit soju, a combination frequently enjoyed by South Koreans, outside a convenience store contemplating whether to join the game.
"In the past, foreigners were uneasy about Korean ramyeon due to its pungent taste, but with the popularity of Korean culture, more people have become interested in ramyeon," Ha Sang-do, a food science professor at Chung-ang University in Seoul, said.
Ha added that over the past years, ramyeon companies have expanded their portfolio and improved the quality to suit various palates.
Nongshim Co., the country's top instant noodle maker, saw its sales almost double in North America from $254 million in 2019 to $490 million in 2022, according to company officials.
In 2020, in particular, sales in the region jumped 32 percent on-year thanks to the featuring of "Chapaguri" in "Parasite."
Shin Black Noodle Soup, the premium version of Nongshim's flagship noodle Shin Ramyun, also gained popularity after The New York Times named it as the world's best instant noodle that year.
With the rising popularity, Nongshim's CEO Shin Dong-won announced in July the company's vision to triple U.S. sales by 2030 and top the instant noodle market in the country.
According to market research firm Euromonitor, Nongshim's U.S. market share stood at 25.2 percent, or in second place, in 2021, trailing after Japan's Toyo Suisan, which has 47.7 percent of the market share.
"At first, we had a lot of difficulty introducing ramyeon in foreign countries, but along with the growing popularity of K-pop and Korean culture, the Korean ramyeon has also gained global attention and has been growing fast since," a Nongshim official said.
The official said ramyeon is expected to gain wider popularity worldwide as it is a "proper meal," unlike many instant noodles made by foreign brands, and also delivers Korean culture.
Samyang also raised all-time high overseas sales of 189.9 billion won ($143.28 million) in the second quarter largely thanks to an increase in profitability in the U.S. and China, company officials said.
Earlier this year, Samyang enjoyed global popularity of its spicy noodle product "Buldak Ramen" after global superstar BTS member Jimin's eating of the product prompted a new challenge on YouTube.
"We have seen people around the world enjoying play culture through the 'Buldak challenge' ... We feel very proud that our product played a role in creating an emotional bond among people around the world and believe it will evolve into a bigger K-culture platform," Kim Jung-soo, Samyang's vice chairman, said at an event held Thursday to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the company's first introduction of ramyeon.
During the event, Samyang officially announced the change of its company name to Samyang Roundsquare from Samyang Foods to show the company's plans to focus more on promoting food culture and integrate it with food science technologies.