“Korean ramen, in the way I make it, is something that I basically made up,” says chef Esther Choi of Mokbar.
There was a time when ramen mostly fell into two main categories: the Japanese style of craft noodles in a rich broth, or instant noodles that were considered the ultimate broke food. But now, with ramen's surging popularity both in America and worldwide, noodle-slurpers everywhere are rejoicing from all the different available options that would've seemed like a fantasy just some years ago. As chefs continue to open ramen restaurants and build empires around the dish, our palates have been blessed with a growing number of choices that include ramen burgers, Michelin-starred ramen, and even mud-themed ramen. And now a chef in New York is looking to bring cold Korean ramen to your bowl and chopsticks as well.
The typical Korean version of ramen (also known as ramyun or ramyeon) tends to fall in the instant noodle grouping, but there's a lot more to the story than that. For Koreans, instant ramen isn't just a meal during tough times—it's a nationally treasured dish. In fact, Koreans are the largest consumers of it worldwide, eating it at any time of the day and in dozens and dozens of variations.
But chef Esther Choi of Mokbar in Manhattan wants to dissociate ramen from that conventional image.
"Korean ramen, in the way I make it, is something that I basically made up," says Choi. "To Koreans, ramen is instant ramen and that's sort of what everyone grew up with. But then I just thought that with Japanese ramen on the rise, why can't there be its own Korean version too?"
As its executive chef and owner, Choi opened Mokbar in 2014 as New York's first and only Korean ramen bar. But don't expect to dine on something that even remotely resembles instant noodles and powdered flavor packets. Choi's menu incorporates high-quality, craft noodles that are traditionally used in Japanese ramen, but combines them with authentic Korean flavors instead.
And it isn't all hot ramen, either. With New York's summer weather already in full effect, the three cold Korean ramen dishes currently on her menu are sparing ramen aficionados from their usual sweat-dripping summertime sessions for a more cooling and refreshing dining experience.
In general, cold noodles are a staple in Korean cuisine. And that's where Choi gets a lot of her inspiration. She's preferred cold noodle dishes to hot ones for her entire life, making her expertise in the matter a strong point in her cooking.
"Cold noodles dishes are great because of the noodle itself. It takes a long time for it to get soggy compared to being in a hot broth, so it really maintains the integrity and bite of the noodle. That's what I really love about cold noodles. I can take as long as I want to eat it without worrying about the noodle's texture."
For both Koreans and non-Koreans alike, Choi's cold Korean ramen dishes are transcendent in their originality and vision. Her seaweed "miyeok" ramen is based off a traditional Korean soup that is primarily eaten for breakfast on birthdays and by new mothers shortly after giving birth. Choi has taken the ingredient of seaweed from a Korean dish that is very much connected to commemorating life and placed it in an energizing bowl of cold ramen that instantly beckons the summer beach with its flavors, colors, and aromas. Dried shrimp, anchovies, and konbu in the ramen's broth also invoke the wonders of the ocean water, which is exactly what Choi was going for.
Choi's soybean "kong" ramen centers around soybeans and the flavor of sesame. Wanting to cater to all different types of diets, this vegan ramen was created with the purpose of having the diner leave Mokbar feeling not just satisfied, but healthier than they did when coming in. Her vegetable "bibim" ramen is a cousin to the classic dish of bibimbap, which is how many novices dip their toes into the waters of trying Korean cuisine. The seven types of vegetables in the bibim ramen provide an aesthetic familiarity that's comforting to any Korean food enthusiast. And from her three cold Korean ramen options, this dish's gochujang sauce sates the cravings of customers who appreciate the typical spiciness in Korean food.
Korean ramen that isn't made from instant noodles is still a pioneering concept for many who haven't yet tried it, and that's especially true for its cold versions. But Choi wants people to open their minds when it comes to trying cold noodle dishes.
"I really hope people see all the potential in cold Korean ramen. Cold noodle dishes are never meant to be heavy," she says. "It's a comfort food for the summer."