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ATK Reviews

Instant Ramen Review: Buldak Is Straight Fire in Noodle Form

In our first ramen review column, we try one of Korea's spiciest and most popular instant noodles.
By Published May 27, 2022

The world of instant noodles is vast—so vast, in fact, it can feel overwhelming for the unfamiliar.

Do you go for the miso instant ramens from Northern Japan? How about the shrimp roe noodles from Southern China? What about Pancit from the Philippines or Mi Goreng from Indonesia? 

Lucky for you, we at America’s Test Kitchen are instant-noodle obsessives, and we’re here to recommend some of our favorite brands.

In this first installment, we’ll take you to a place where instant-noodle culture is rich . . . and very spicy: South Korea.

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The most popular brand of noodles to come out of the Korean Peninsula is Shin Ramyun, instantly recognizable by its black-and-red packaging. The brick noodles are deep fried (intended to be reconstituted in boiling water) and the soup has a fiery red hue. But in recent years, inspired by the Fire Noodle Challenge that’s gone viral on YouTube, there’s an even spicier entrant to the Korean instant noodle game: Buldak ramen—fire chicken noodles.

Buldak is a popular street food found in South Korea. Chicken is marinated in a host of Korean chiles and then grilled over a fire until charred. Buldak ramen (or "buldak bokkeum myeon") puts all the flavors of fire chicken into a very (sometimes extremely) spicy soup noodle.

To partake in the Fire Noodle Challenge, you’ll need to devour an entire package of cooked ramen without taking a sip of water. It is not easy. But participant failures have somehow encouraged more people (myself included) to attempt the feat—and in the process, fall in love with its unique, intensely spicy flavors. 

Samyang-brand Buldak noodles, characterized by their cute fire-spitting cartoon chicken, cost about $2 per package. That isn’t cheap by instant noodle standards, but you may be able to save money by buying in bulk. These thick noodles are forgiving as they don’t turn soft and squishy easily when being cooked for long periods, unlike some of their thinner and more porous counterparts. The texture of the noodles is chewy and springy and has a stronger bite to it than thinner noodles.

The seasoning to Samyang’s Buldak ramen comes in two packets: a sauce bag and a powder bag. Simply stir the sauce into a pot filled with 2.5 cups of water to make a broth and then cook the ramen in the broth for five minutes. Once the cooking is done, add the powder bag, which has seaweed flakes and white sesame seeds, among other flavoring agents. It’s spicy but with a strong sweet undertone, closely resembling the flavor of the iconic Korean dish, buldak (fire chicken). 

The interesting part about the noodle soup is that your first spoonful might taste more sweet than spicy. But the capsaicin burn builds with subsequent sips and can pack quite a punch — one which may linger on the tongue for several minutes after you’ve devoured your bowl. 

A glance at the ingredient list shows why: Chili pepper powder, red pepper powder, red pepper seed oil, garlic, decolorized chili extract, paprika extract, and black pepper powder all contribute to its piquant kick.

If you’re used to authentic Sichuan food or Nashville hot chicken, the level of heat here might not make you miss a beat. But be prepared if intense spice is new territory for you. 

Fire chicken ramen purists can eat the instant noodles as is. I, however, like to grate some cheese on top (yes, cheese!) and pair it with a perfect fried egg. Want to take it up a notch? Chopped scallions and furikake are your friends. This is what’s great about Buldak ramen: It’s not supposed to be subtle but layers flavor upon flavor upon flavor. It’s the noodle equivalent of an uppercut and a roundhouse kick—and somehow, I want to keep coming back for more punishment.