Warning: minor spoilers ahead for the movie Parasite.
The Oscars need a "best use of food in a feature film" category. Because after the gargantuan success of Korean comedy-thriller Parasite which swept this year's award ceremony (it claimed best director, original screenplay, international feature film and best picture), a standing ovation is needed for the film's most visceral culinary moments: a barbecue skewer here, a peach there (cinema's second-most memorable use of the stone fruit after Call Me By Your Name), and the unexpected breakout star, jjapaguri.
The noodle dish, referred to as "ram-don" in the subtitles of Bong Joon-ho's film, is an internet sensation of its own. Recipes abound online, and the hashtag #ramdon yields more than 18,000 hits on Instagram.
"Honestly, before Parasite it wasn't such a huge thing," says David Park, artistic director of the Korean Film Festival in Australia. "But after the film, everyone's making it."
In its simplest form, jjapaguri comprises of two types of Korean instant noodles. There's Chapagetti, the packet version of jajangmyeon (wheat noodles in a black-bean sauce) and Neoguri, the instant version of udon and jjamppong (spicy seafood noodle soup), combined. Jajangmyeon and jjampong are cornerstone dishes of Korean-Chinese cuisine, and the relationship between Chapagetti and Neoguri to jajangmyeon and jjamppong is like Maggi noodles to chicken noodle soup – fast, convenient adaptations of the original dish, primed for the modern era. In short, jjapaguri is the sort of super-fusion-hybrid culinary case study in which anthropologists would delight.
"These two ramyeon [instant noodles] are like the OG Korean noodles," says Park. "We get new brands year after year, but these have been around for a really, really long time." Ramyeon has a special place in Korea's food culture. "Ask Koreans what they'd take to a deserted island, and they'd say kimchi, then Shin Ramyun," says Kenny Son, manager of Korean restaurant Sáng by Mabasa in Sydney.
It doesn't take much brain power to make jjapaguri. Nongshim, the company that produces Chapagetti and Neoguri, has released a how-to video online. (For the record Nongshim has publicly stated the appearance of jjapaguri in the film is not product placement.) Boil the noodles with the dried vegetable flakes – "You want them slightly undercooked – even less cooked than al dente," says Son – drain the water, reserving a little in the saucepan, simmer the noodles with the flavour sachets (all of the Chapagetti, half of the Neoguri), mix through the seasoning oil, and serve. It's simple, affordable and filling.
Son likes to top his with a fried egg, breaking the runny yolk and stirring it through the noodles. Cheese, ddeok (rice cakes) and seafood also make good topping options. "And kimchi on the side is a must with all instant noodles," he says.
Jjapaguri's role in Parasite is memorable. After a rained-out family camping trip, Yeon-kyo, the female head of the household, requests her housekeeper to cook the dish. It's rustled up quick-smart before the steaming bowl is presented to Yeon-kyo, who deftly slurps away. It's a universally relatable moment: the tension of being caught out in inclement weather, the journey home, the sudden cravings for comfort food, and the satisfaction that only a serve of said comfort food can bring.
But that innocuous bowl of noodles takes on a new meaning in Parasite when Yeon-kyo requests the addition of Hanwoo sirloin, a highly prized Korean beef comparable with Wagyu. "It's an interesting analogy of having something expensive paired with humble instant noodles," says Park. "There are three families in Parasite, two poor, one rich. Each jjapaguri ingredient represents these families: the prime steak, Chapagetti, Neoguri, mixed into this one crazy dish. It's symbolism 101."
If we're in the business of noodle symbology, then what of noodle linguistics? In the film's English subtitles, jjapaguri is referred to as "ram-don", a portmanteau of ramyeon and udon. It's one of the liberties translator Darcy Parquet took to convey the sentiment, rather than the direct meaning, of the script. (It also builds a case for director Bong who, through his own translator during his Golden Globes acceptance speech, encouraged Western audiences to overcome the "one-inch tall barrier of subtitles" in international-language films.)
David Park was Bong's translator when the director was a guest at the 2019 Sydney Film Festival. He doesn't recall Bong being particularly fanatic about food and dining out, though points out that his 2017 film Okja tackled the moral quandaries of the meat industry and the future of world food security. But most of all he says Bong, despite being a celebrated director, was an all-round nice guy. "We have this word in Korean, ahjussi, for a man in his 50s. And Bong was like this ahjussi-next-door." He's down-to-earth, he says. Grounded, unpretentious, humble. Just like a steaming bowl of jjapaguri.