Lyle Bento was having a bad night. The electricity at his cooking station kept shutting off; the fuses at IKEA Houston were overloaded under the weight of a DJ booth, bright lights, and five other chefs all cooking for a crowd of 250 people. Bento, a sous chef at Underbelly, was running back and forth between his serving station and a working burner in IKEA's main kitchen, cooking small batches of his budae jjigae and hustling them back to serve the ever-growing crowd of hungry ramen fans.
And when it came time to present his budae jjigae, or Korean army base stew, to the panel of judges at IKEA's Great Ramen Challenge, the music from the DJ booth was so loud that Bento couldn't tell his soup's story. But it was a good story, and Bento was determined that everyone should hear it, so he schlepped his bowl of budae jjigae to each of the 12 judges and told the story at least a dozen times that night.
"Budae jjigae was created following the Korean War," Bento said. "The Korean people were starving in this war-torn country; they could barely even grow their own food." The American GIs who were still stationed in South Korea gave the Koreans their rations, Bento explained. "Stuff like Spam, hot dogs, and American cheese." The Koreans mixed the American rations with their own kimchi, gochujang, and other spices to create budae jjigae—which translated means "army base stew"—and the soup remains popular to this day.
Bento's creation was equally popular with the judges, who awarded the spicy soup the grand Ramen Challenge prize. It hit all the requirements of the Great Ramen Challenge, after all—based on ramen noodles, easy for a college student to make in their dorm room, and costing far less than the $3-per-serving budget set by IKEA—but more importantly, it was delicious.
"I don't even like American cheese," I overheard judge Mai Pham of the Houston Press exclaim. "But this is delicious." Indeed, the cheese melted into the kimchi-laced stew as if it always belonged there, offsetting the sharp spiciness and pungent sour flavors of the Korean broth.
While Underbelly took home the grand prize for the night, it was Uchi that won the people's choice award for its Goldfish cracker-topped ramen—also easy for a college kid to make, although far less flavorful than its competitors at Underbelly and Eatsie Boys, another strong contender. As a judge, I voted for Eatsie Boys sous chef Pat Hart's creation: "Pat thai" ramen, which I plan to make at home soon. The noodles are simply parboiled, tossed in a simple sauce, and returned to a skillet to heat through before being topped with bean sprouts and crushed peanuts.