Chances are I don’t have what it takes to be much of a food critic. Good criticism demands a certain degree of objectivity and when it comes to food I’m about as biased as you can get. To paraphrase Will Rogers, “I never met a meal I didn’t like.”
Okay, maybe not every meal. Live octopus has yet to make a fan of me. What with the wriggling and the sliminess and all that. But for the most part my eating adventures in Korea have been great and my writing about Korean food will be less of a critique and more of a celebration.
Unless I review a meal of live octopus. Then the gloves come off.
After a winter that seemed to last six months, and a spring that lasted all of six days, summer has arrived full force in Korea. And, boy oh boy, summertime in Korea does not mess around.
It’s all heat, humidity, rainstorms, and the odd typhoon or two. A sticky, sweltering affair.
It takes me twenty minutes to walk to work each morning. By the end of those twenty minutes I look like I’ve just completed the Boston Marathon. And “air conditioning” is very nearly a dirty word at my budget-minded school.
I generally feel pretty miserable come five o’clock. And hungry. Not a winning combination.
But Korea has me covered!
In just about any one of the many, many restaurants to be found in this great country I can settle myself down on the floor and order up a bowl of Korean noodles, specifically naeng myun (냉면.)
What is naeng myun, you ask?
Well, the name literally means “cold noodles” and that is an apt, if terse, description. More specifically, naeng myun is a meal of cold noodles in a stainless steel bowl that comes in two main varieties: “mul naeng myun” is served in a tangy, icy broth, and “bibim naeng myun” is served in a spicy red pepper paste. Both are fantastic, although I prefer “mul naeng myun” which was enjoyed for the purpose of this review.
For 5,000 – 8,000 won you can grab a bowl of naeng myun literally anywhere in Korea. Jinah and I did just that a couple of nights ago.
The first thing I notice when the naeng myun arrives at our table are the noodles: they are long, thin, and arranged in a mound about the size of a baseball in the center of the bowl. In traditional Asian culture noodles symbolized longevity and good health and it was customary not to cut them. Our waiter wasn’t much for tradition, I guess, because he thrust a pair of scissors into our bowl and divided the mound into quarters with two quick snips.
Actually, most places cut the noodles these days, although you can ask your waiter to leave them alone if that’s your preference.
The noodles are made from buckwheat, potato, and kudzu – they look like soba noodles. They are a fair bit chewier than soba noodles, however, and this makes slurping a virtual necessity. If you’ve shared a meal with a Korean then you may know that slurping, chewing with your mouth open, and otherwise enjoying yourself is not in the least bit frowned upon. Lucky for me as I have the table manners of a drunk Viking.
The Korean noodles don’t pack much taste on their own and naeng myun depends mostly on its broth for flavor. The broth can be made from beef, chicken, or a sort of vegetable brine – it all depends on the house specialty. That is one of the cool things about dining in Korea: Even franchise restaurants put their own unique spin on what they serve.
Regardless of what kind of stock the broth uses it is going to have a light, delicate, vinegar twang with a hint of sweetness. There is nothing overwhelming about the flavor. It is subtle but unmistakable. The broth is very often icy – about the consistency of a slightly melted Slurpee – and wonderfully refreshing. The Korean noodles are garnished with julienned cucumbers and Asian pears, thinly sliced beef, and half a hard-boiled egg – like the broth, though, house rules apply.
For the most part, anyway.
I’ve yet to eat naeng myun that didn’t come with a hard-boiled egg. Back during the Joseon Dynasty (Ye Olden Times) it wasn’t uncommon for peasants to come home starved after a hard day of work in the fields. The belief was that buckwheat noodles were rough on an empty stomach so you ate the egg first and gave your digestive system a few minutes to get working.
Fact of folklore? I don’t know. But it gives me another opportunity in the day to eat an egg and that makes me one happy customer.
Every city and province in Korea boasts at least one or two native delicacies. Whether this reflects an historical reality or simply the Korean penchant for marketing is beyond me. But word has it that naeng myun originated and tastes best in Pyongyang, what is now the capital of North Korea. In fact, naengmyun wasn’t too popular in the southern half of the country until after the Korean War.
There are lots of reasons to wish for a reunited Korea. And while naeng myun is not at the top of that list, I think it deserves to be on there somewhere. The two Koreas are justifiably proud of their culinary traditions and it will be a wonderful thing when they can again share those traditions as a single nation.
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Paul is a writer and teacher currently living near Seoul, Korea. Originally from Kansas City he misses good beer, football, and his family -- although not necessarily in that order.