I’ve been on a k-drama kick lately (Korean soap operas! So addictive!). It all started about a year ago, when I’d run out of things to watch on Netflix, I was a bit depressed, and was in the mood to watch a romantic comedy– but none of the ones available on Instant Play were floating my boat. One of the pictures at the very end of the lineup was perky and pinkish, kind of like the DVD cover version of ice cream, or maybe cotton candy, and it was called Flower Boy Ramen Shop. I had no clue what a Flower Boy was, but I sure love ramen, so how could I go wrong?
It turns out that Flower Boys are ridiculously pretty, often super rich boys. One of them, usually the hero, seems like a jerk but is secretly decent. And in this show, the Flower Boys all happen to cook ramen. A lot of it. I mean, does it get any better than that, for a ramenophile? Sure, there is a plot, there are twists and turns, love triangles and trapezoids– but I had no idea going into this 16-episode rom-com that there would be so much food on a soap opera. So. Much. Food. And not just ramen, either. Apparently, putting lots of sauce on deep fried chicken feet is a thing, and while I’m not too keen on trying it, I realized that when a heroine is shown to enjoy chowing down (especially chicken feet or some kind of offal), her character is somehow deemed more lovable. It’s a little weird when it’s chicken feet, though, because are there really any bits of meat on those things? They look like they’re all talons and sauce.
I’ve since moved on to Coffee Prince, Lie to Me, My Fair Lady, Pasta, and now Boys Over Flowers and City Hunter. I’ve gone through countless tissues bawling my eyes out and have giggled shamelessly at a simple hug, or the way the hero grabs the heroine’s wrist. I can’t watch these shows in front of my husband or daughter because I’m just not a rational person when I’m watching them. While the soap opera angle is what keeps me helplessly devoting my hours to my TV, the way food is its own character is a big draw for me, too.
I’ve been a ramen fan ever since I saw the Japanese masterpiece, Tampopo (What are you waiting for? Watch it. Right now. I’ll wait.) in middle school. The protagonist goes on a journey to learn how to make the perfect bowl of ramen, and at the time I hadn’t known that all ramen broth didn’t come in a little foil packet. Ramen is actually glorious and soul mending and transcendent– if done right.
Until I had watched all 16 episodes of Flower Boy Ramen Shop, with ramen cook-offs as one of the emotional highlights and declarations of love, my only experience of Korean food had been the occasional bibimbap and a fusion burrito from a local Korean taco truck. Seriously, it’s a brave new food world if you are a Westerner just starting to watch k-dramas. I’ve bought so much kimchi over the past year and I’d like to say I buy more ramen too, but I was already a frequent consumer. I may be a foodie, but I’m an honest foodie and I love my instant ramen. I regularly go to my local Japanese grocery store and stock up– but now I go to Korean mini-marts as well because the jars of kimchi are bigger, and you can get your choice of gochujang, which is Korean hot sauce. Korean soap operas have completely awakened me to a new love– and it’s not even City Hunter’s Lee Min Ho! It’s Korean food. But you guessed that already, right?
Apparently, one k-drama, My Love from the Star, has made fried chicken and beer really popular, but it’s difficult for me to get too excited about it. Since when has fried chicken and beer not been popular? Well, in the States, anyway? On the other hand, kimchi stew (at this point, I don’t even remember which drama featured it, since there are so many dishes on so many shows) and japchae (half meat, half noodle, à la City Hunter) make me salivate on sight.
Last year, my sister-in-law moved to Koreatown in L.A. and while I missed her terribly, I peppered her with enthusiastic texts, asking questions about the markets and the restaurants. She wasn’t really interested and I think she may have been a little annoyed. I was in my Flower Boy Ramen Shop phase at the time, full blast, and could not understand how she could not be interested in some mom and pop bibimbap place right around the corner, or the different varieties of kimchi that must be lurking in the back storerooms of those mini-marts. But she had other things to think about, like moving her life around and jobs.
If you’ve seen these k-dramas, though, you know that moving your life around and bunches of little part time jobs are the norm. Either the hero or the heroine is the ultimate underdog, and food (japchae in City Hunter, ramen in Flower Boy Ramen Shop) is one of the things that provides some comfort– reminding the characters of home, a lost mother, or in some cases even providing the home that they never had before. Food in American shows doesn’t do anything but get eaten. It doesn’t symbolize anything, not really.
Of course, Korean food doesn’t remind me of home, Greek food does that, but when the actors stuff whole juicy bites from their stainless steel chopsticks into their mouths or slurp down ginormous bowls of ramen, it comes pretty darned close. The perfect ramen broth is like your soulmate, and only someone who really loves you can get your kimchi stew or egg rolls just right. Who doesn’t want to feel that kind of love?