South Korea's late ramyeon king leaves a spicy legacy

Nongshim founder Shin Choon-ho died of a chronic illness on March 27 at the age of 91. PHOTOS: NONGSHIM, ST FILE

SEOUL - He is known as the king of instant noodles in South Korea.

In order to create noodles with a uniquely Korean spicy taste, Mr Shin Choon-ho led a team of researchers in experimenting with various recipes, testing more than 20 types of chilli before inventing the iconic red-packaged Shin Ramyun.

Ramyun, more commonly spelt as "ramyeon", is Korean for instant noodles.

"I'm not trying to sell noodles using my last name," Mr Shin had said when the brand was launched in the mid 1980s. "Shin is just a short and simple way to say spicy."

The Chinese character for his surname means spicy.

More than three decades on, Shin Ramyun has become synonymous with Korean instant noodles.

The flagship product of noodle giant Nongshim is exported to over 100 countries worldwide and earned the company some US$390 million (S$525 million) last year, accounting for 40 per cent of its overseas revenue.

Shin Ramyun, which also ranks No. 1 back home, is indisputably the biggest legacy left by Mr Shin.

He died of a chronic illness on March 27 at the age of 91, leaving a food empire that he carved out on his own after a bitter feud with his oldest brother - the late Lotte founder Shin Kyuk-ho.

Born in 1930 in the south-eastern port city of Ulsan, Mr Shin Choon-ho was the third in a family of 10 siblings.

After graduating with a law degree in 1958, he worked in Lotte's confectionery business in Japan and developed a keen interest in instant noodles, which had just been invented and was gaining popularity.

The older Mr Shin frowned on the idea and reportedly screamed: "How dare you put Lotte's name on instant noodles?"

Mr Shin Choon-ho ended up setting up his own company in 1965 with seed money of five million won to develop Korean noodles and snacks that are different from the Japanese varieties.

The company's first product, launched in 1971, was Saewookkang (prawn crackers), apparently a Korean take on Japanese company Calbee's Kappa Ebisen (prawn chips) but made with rice instead of wheat.

Saewookkang is known as South Korea's first locally-created snack and remains popular even today, accounting for annual sales of about 70 billion won (S$83 million).

It is said that Mr Shin came up with the catchy name "kkang" after hearing his youngest daughter sing the popular folk song Arirang, mispronouncing the word as "ari-kkang".

Nongshim founder Shin Choon-ho (centre) trying out noodles with his team. PHOTO: NONGSHIM

Determined to come up with a Korean ramyeon, he encouraged his staff to soldier on.

"If we can stand on our own, we can go far. We must create our own ramyeon that is loved by Korean people," he famously said.

The spicy beef-base Shin Ramyun was finally launched in 1986 after countless experiments and took the country by storm.

A premium version Shin Black was introduced in 2011 and is hailed by many, including New York Times, as the best ramyeon in the world.

Nongshim's success, however, drove the rift between Mr Shin and his older brother wider.

The two brothers reportedly avoided each other and did not attend family ancestral rites together. The younger Mr Shin was also conspicuously absent at his brother's funeral early last year.

Unlike his fiery-tempered older sibling, Mr Shin Choon-ho was fiercely private and rarely made any public appearances.

He was known to be deeply involved in all of Nongshim's products and retired only in February this year when his health deteriorated.

The altar of Nongshim founder Shin Choon-ho set up at Seoul National University Hospital after he died on March 27, 2021. PHOTO: TV CHOSUN

Mr Shin's eldest son, Dong-won, is expected to take over from him. Three of his four other children are running Nongshim-affiliated companies.

According to Nongshim, Mr Shin's last words to his family were to "love one another". This is viewed as a sign that he had hoped his children would patch things up with their cousins now running the Lotte Group.

To his employees, he voiced hopes that they would continue to "grow Nongshim with the best quality, built out of honesty".

At a March 30 memorial service, Nongshim vice-chairman Park Joon paid tribute to the man who led the company for 56 years and turned it into the world's fifth largest instant noodle maker.

"Chairman Shin always chose a path that other people would not go, and he introduced groundbreaking products that would go on to change history," said Mr Park.

"If there's anything I learnt under his shadow, it's his philosophy to contribute to society by making delicious food and to dream to become world No. 1 with ramyeon."

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