Six contestants, sitting in a row behind a long horizontal table, placed both of their hands up in the air and listened attentively as the event’s host, Arrman, counted down the seconds on a watch. They were waiting on his signal to begin chowing down on the instant noodles placed in front of them, in hopes of winning the “Let’s Challenge” spicy noodle eating competition put on by Korean instant noodle brand Samyang.
Arrman shouts “Go!”, and the contestants quickly picked up their utensil of choice — a fork, spoon, or chopsticks — and made quick work on chomping down those Cheesy Samyang noodles. The spiciness of this one measures at 4,400 on the Scoville scale, bringing the same approximate level of heat as a jalapeno.
The rules of the competition were pretty straightforward: Contestants had to finish all the noodles in the cup and not have any remaining in their mouths. They could not drink any water during the challenge, only after.
Within 20 seconds, the first contestant to devour the bowl of bright red noodles, Nyi Nyi Tun, stood up fast and opened his mouth to show that he had swallowed all the noodles and showed the audience his empty cup. His lips and tongue were bright red from the noodle’s spicy sauce.
Shortly after, Toe Aung Aung stood up fast, holding up an empty bowl, with his mouth wide open for the audience to see. The other remaining contestants looked stunned by the speed and total disregard for their digestive systems that the first two contestants seemed to display during the course of the challenge.
“It was spicy, but I believe I will win in the evening,” Nyi Nyi Tun had told the audience. A sweaty and teary-eyed Toe Aung Aung, on the other hand, expressed some humility: “I was scared that someone else might be faster, but I tried my best.”
For the past 12 weeks, spicy noodle enthusiasts across Yangon have been lining up to participate in a race to the bottom of the bowl. Samyang’s Korean-style spicy instant noodles are popular across Asia, but this competition was a way to win some big-time bragging rights.
The format was a little complicated: Each week, three micro-rounds of the competition were held. The first two contestants to finish from each round advanced to the finals of the day, after which, in the evening, these finalists would then face off against each other.
The top two finalists from each week then advanced to the grand finals of the spicy noodle eating competition. That’s happening in Junction Square on April 7, when 24 of Yangon’s most spice-resistant, iron-tongued contestants will face off against each other for a grand prize of 500,000 kyats. The runner-up will receive 300,000 kyats.
Force-feeding yourself buckets of Samyang noodles is still somewhat of a novelty in Myanmar, though these Samyang challenges have been a veritable phenomenon on social media platforms like Facebook and Youtube for some time.
Platforms from Buzzfeed to the “mukbang” Youtube channel — a Korean portmanteau of “eating” (meokneun) and “broadcast” (bangsong) — have done the Hek Buldak Extra Spicy Roasted Chicken Ramen challenge, which puts its eaters through an intense 8,000 Scoville Units.
The organizer of the competition in Yangon is the founder of Samyang Myanmar, Su Wai Hnin, who told Coconuts Yangon about the origins of the Samyang “Let’s Challenge” — and, the controversy that her company has faced along the way.
“We saw the Samyang eating challenge on social media and we thought, why not do it as a challenge here as a marketing campaign. People are very passionate about it. In the beginning, we had a first come, first serve system but many people were very frustrated about not getting in and we faced backlash,” Su said.
The backlash was so swift and widespread that she was forced to figure out another way of choosing contestants.
“Now, we have a random generator that we live stream on our Facebook every week before the challenge. That way, everyone knows it is fair and we don’t have to deal with the critics,” Su concluded.
What’s clear is that Yangon’s spicy noodle enthusiasts are passionate about subjecting their bodies to fire and fury, especially for a tidy little sum.
The final contest on April 7 isn’t just for spicy noodle enthusiasts — K-pop lovers in Myanmar will also get their fix because Myanmar’s own K-pop band (we know, how can they be Korean if they’re from Myanmar — to which we say, ask them) Project K will be gracing the stage with their own dance performance and also participate in the spicy noodle challenge.
Can they handle the heat? We shall see.