After 12 hours of research and testing we are confident, and excited we get to say, that Samyang Godd Jjajangmen is the best instant jjajangmyeon available today! With its sweet and slightly spicy sauce, chewy noodles, and clean taste, Samyang puts out an instant jjajangmyeon that will delight young and old alike. Come check out how the rest of the pack fared!
This test was full of surprises, and Samyang winning out was one of them. Clearly one of the dark horse brands, they came out strong with an instant jjajangmyeon that somehow simultaneously delivers a clean, traditional feel and a fresh, modern twist. The only instant jjajang that came with a spicy kick it definitely helped it to stand out above the rest. Not spicy enough to warrant advertising it in the name, there is a distinct, tingly sensation that hovers around the tip of your tongue throughout the chew. When you're going through a big pile of greasy, savory noodles the lift from the spice helps keep things interesting. The sauce itself is sweet, and minus the spiciness, gets close enough to a bowl of jjajangmyeon from a restaurant to satiate your late night cravings.
One thing we discovered through our test is that while there is a high variation in the shape of the noodles, the texture is dependent on cook time more than anything else. The shape of the noodles does contribute to a different textural experience, but not really on a better or worse level, I would say it comes down to preference. The flat, somewhat wider noodles that Samyang employs are not necessarily better than the more traditional round ones, but it is a nice change that results in a great texture for an instant noodle.
I honestly had never heard of Paldo before this test and I was pretty skeptical that they would be able to hold up against the more familiar NongShim and Ottogi. A little pricier than the rest (at least in the store I frequent), but Paldo puts out a great instant noodle with a sweet and smooth sauce. They were the only ones that had the sauce completely combined in a single package (as opposed to dry mix + vegetable oil). It really helps to ensure that the resulting noodle mix is lump free, velvety, and perfect every time. I also never realized how much jjajangmyeon relies on sweetness for the overall flavor profile but Paldo wields it here with great confidence. The sauce is very sweet, stepping dangerously close to overpowering, but it walks the line very effectively.
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북경(Bookyung) Jjajang is roughly Beijing style jjajangmyeon, which is interesting as this package definitely tasted the most 'normal' (in a positive sense). Putting out a traditional feel, this is the closest that you can get to a flavor that everyone will recognize as jjangmyeon in instant form. Given that jjajangmyeon is a Koreanized form of a Northern Chinese noodle dish it makes some sense. The wide form noodles Ottogi uses results in a more structurally dense noodle, resulting in a slightly better chew. They also capture and hold onto the sauce a little better than the more traditional round noodles.
Definitely one of the sweetest jjajangmyeon's in our trial, this one would most probably appeal to children. Without the MSG necessary to bring in the umami that would round out the flavor profile, the sweetness (while great) can end up feeling kind of flat and not super vibrant. Not necessarily a bad thing, its still a tasty package of noodles, but to a more experienced palate (aka anyone over the age of 25) you will find yourself missing the more full and complex flavor profile that some more savoriness would bring.
This was the biggest surprise of the entire test, that steadfast, standby NongShim performed the worst out of the whole group. Both of their product offerings came in at the bottom of the barrel. The entire group thought I had made a mistake when I revealed the identities of the lowest rated jjajangmyeons (I had to triple check myself to be sure). If you call your packet of instant noodles 짜왕 (Wang = King) you'd better deliver. Honestly, this bowl of noodles has one overwhelmingly dominant flavor, sesame seed oil. Don't get me wrong, I love sesame seed oil, and its a crucial staple in Korean cooking, but that's all you get here. No sweetness, no nothing; they don't have anything that can compete with the all encompassing nature of sesame seed oil. I admit that its super easy to over do it with the sesame seed oil (one or two drops can make all the difference), but I expected better from NongShim.
This honestly broke my heart. Chapagetti is on the same level as Kleenex, and Band-Aid for brand awareness. I honestly thought that 'Chapagetti' was the name for instant jjajangmyeon. This package got me through college, and when I was freezing my ass off through a Ukrainian Winter my soul pined for Chapagetti even more than for Shin ramen. I never noticed it before, but after doing a side by side comparison it was undeniable... Chapagetti straight up tastes burnt. Some sweetness would help out a lot, but you can't hide the acrid flavor no matter how much sugar you add. I hate to say it, but it really seems that NongShim was simply the only one putting out an instant jjajangmyeon. There really is no other explanation for how such a sub par product could become so ubiquitous.
Definitely not on the same level popularity wise as its internationally beloved predecessor instant ramen (ramyun), jjajangmyeon (often spelled jajangmyeon or jajangmen) holds a special place in every Korean person's heart. I am confident in saying that jjajangmyeon is the Waffle House of Korean dishes; it doesn't matter how much money you have, how cultured/worldly you may be, no Korean is too extra for a bowl of hot chewy noodles in black bean sauce (chunjang).
Ask any Korean boy over the age of 25 what I'm talking about and he'll agree: the most powerful and emotional line in the history of music is from G.O.D.'s - To My Mom. When a boy complains to his mother about them always eating instant ramen his impoverished mother takes her scraped together savings and buys him a bowl of jjajangmyeon... when he asks her why she isn't eating she just replies "자장면이 싫다고 하셨어" (I don't like jjajangmyeon)... trust me, watch the MV. So thank you G.O.D. and jjajangmyeon for making every Korean American boy say "I love you 엄마".
For that alone we at Goghism would be more than happy to highlight a dish that is so important to Korean and Korean American culture, but has yet to break through to the rest of the world in the way that it deserves. It also doesn't hurt that my birthday happens to fall on a national holiday where eating jjajangmyeon is tradition. Korean food is only growing in popularity in the US and I have had no trouble introducing my non Korean -American friends to the dishes I grew up with. However, jjajangmyeon is the one dish I've seen push back on. It might be because you don't normally see black colored food (coffee and chocolate are more of a dark brown). I myself have some slight discomfort when I see squid ink pasta so I can't fault someone entirely for being a little skeptical when seeing a bowl of the ol' black stuff. Regardless, jjajangmyeon is here to stay, and my love for it requires that we do what we can to make it a national dish; because I'm not going to live in Flushing, NY forever, and I want to be sure there's a good 자장면집 (jjajangmyeon house) nearby.
On a trip to South Korea with my father we decided to make the trek to a restaurant in Incheon that was supposedly the birthplace of the Koreanized version of Chinese Zha jiang mian, 炸酱面 that would become the identity defying jjajangmyeon we have all grown to know and love. It was in all honesty the 'finest' jjajangmyeon I've ever eaten, the ingredients were incredibly fresh, the sauce light, almost creamy, and presented beautifully. But after we finished, my father and I kind of looked at each other sheepishly; my father finally broke and admitted "this jjajangmyeon is really good... but kind of sucks". Why? It wasn't the greasy, umami packed, stick to your ribs, and shake your soul bowl of noodles we were expecting. Not to say that fresher ingredients are a bad thing at all, but jjajangmyeon is the hamburger of the Korean food world. You can get fancy for sure, but don't lose sight of what makes a hamburger so great.
There really aren't that many components in jjajangmyeon, you're really just talking about noodles and sauce. The noodles need to be chewy (nobody likes mushy noodles), and grab onto the sauce well. Every time I've eaten a bowl of jjajangmyeon I'm left with a substantial amount of sauce left at the bottom of the bowl. Totally normal, but it's crucial that your noodles pick up as much of that sauce as possible so you know... you're actually eating jjajangmyeon and not a pile of plain noodles. Its great seeing some variation in jjajangmyeon sauce but for the most part we're looking for a sweet, umami packed, velvety rendition that will keep us coming back for more. The texture of the sauce should come from oil or fat, reaching a perfect emulsion that coats the inside of your mouth, and your tongue. It's not really a creamy feel like with I would expect from say an alfredo.
If we were at a restaurant I would look at the toppings and additional flavorings (ground pork, shrimp, fresh cucumber, etc), but with the instant version we won't be adding anything extra. Honestly, jjajangmyeon is kind of indescribable, its a very distinct flavor profile that has no equal. I almost don't even taste the jjajangmyeon as I'm eating it (probably because I eat so fast), but it's the overall experience (and the resulting satisfaction) of getting through a bowl of jjajangmyeon that keeps drawing me back. And that to me, is the pinnacle a cultural dish can reach; when talking about and eating it is more about expressing who you are as a Korean American than it is the actual flavor of the dish. So with that humble admission, we strap on our battle gear and dive into finding out once and for all what package you should turn to at your local store.
We by no means are claiming to have super sophisticated palates, or more experience eating jjajangmyeon than your average Korean American, but we do have the time and lack of propriety to go to a Korean grocery store and buy a buttload of instant jjajangmyeon. With the most popular (and available) instant jjajangmyeon's we could find I conducted a blind taste test with my father and three of his friends (all experienced jjajangmyeon eating OGs). I cooked all of the brands according to their package directions and served them together side by side. Participants were allowed to go back and forth between bowls and adjust scores accordingly. Using the below rubric the four of them compared noodle texture and consistency, sauce flavor, mouth feel, and overall level of satisfaction.
I went through all the Korean grocery stores in my neighborhood and picked up any instant jjajangmyeon I could find, I live in Flushing, NY so I'm pretty confident their selection is larger if not at least matching any Korean grocery store in the US. The packages don't necessarily have to be labeled as jjajangmyeon (as there are a lot of variations in spelling), but it does need to be an instant noodle in a chunjang based sauce (not soup broth).
I'm pretty confident that we hit the major instant jjajangmyeons out there, there aren't nearly as many as instant ramen, but if we encounter any new ones in our travels we'll definitely pick it up! Let us know if you find any on your journeys!
As difficult as it is to see NongShim fall so far in our perception of what good instant jjajangmyeon is, it is heartening to see a much wider product offering in this world than only a few years ago. Competition in this way is good, and the pack getting larger only means more option for the consumer. I guess we can consider ourselves fortunate that the old standby we have all loved for years comes out last in a blind test. That means that we all have no where to go but up in our instant jjajangmyeon eating lives. NongShim, maybe you should just keep Chapagetti the way it is, we can always return to you when we're feeling nostalgic, in the meantime we'll be going out to bigger and better packages with delighted stomachs.