In Hot Weather, You Just Gotta Use Your NoodlesIn Korea, noodles are more than just a popular food; they also carry many traditional connotations, such as a wish for a long happy marriage for newlyweds. And because noodle dishes are typically light and healthy, it is little wonder that regardless of the season almost every restaurant around the peninsula serves some variety of the food.
In the heat of the sizzling Korean summertime, cold noodle dishes become extremely popular. Some ingredients, such as arrowroot, are thought to lower body temperature, while others such as mustard and vinegar are said to help restore the appetite. Many noodle dishes come with cool yet nutritious soups that can give a boost of energy to a tired body. Restaurants and eateries around Korea prepare their summer specials, which can include not only authentic Korean-style noodles, but also other, pan-Asian varieties. In Korea, all noodle dishes can be readily identified by either the myeon or guksu in the name.
Where to Find: Anywhere that displays Naengmyeon Gaesi
(Now serving naengmyeon) signs or flags.
How to Eat: Ask the waitress to cut the noodles if they are too long and slippery. Eat the noodles with chopsticks, then pick up the bowl and drink the soup.
How Much: About 3,500 won ($2.70) and up.
The most popular and common noodle dish in Korea would be North Korean style naengmyeon. Originating from two major cities, naengmyeon is a traditional Korean dish dating to the Choson dynasty.
Naengmyeon is a cold noodle dish served with several toppings, and can come with soup (mul naengmyeon in Korean) or without soup (bibim naengmyeon). The chilled soup stock can be made from beef, chicken or pheasant, pickled radishes or a mixture of these bases. Toppings usually include a slice of pyeonyuk (boiled beef or pork), thinly sliced cucumber, pickled radish, pear and hard-boiled egg. The dish comes with optional sauces that can add extra zing, such as red chili pepper paste, Korean mustard and vinegar.
The noodles are made of buckwheat, a food long-believed by Koreans and Chinese to strengthen digestive systems and buoy the body's energy.
The authentic "folk" version of naengmyeon from the Hamheung region is served with a slice of raw fish such as flatfish or thornback, and very spicy red chili pepper paste is used to season the fish and the noodles. These noodles are usually made from potato starch, a commonly found ingredient in North Korea, rather than buckwheat, and the noodles and fish are mixed together with chopsticks in a soup-less bowl.
It was after the end of the Korean War, in the mid-1950s, when this North Korean dish with its unique texture and taste became popular in South Korea. During the cooler seasons, most restaurants switch back to their regular menus, often replacing naengmyeon with onmyeon, a hot noodle dish.
Where to Find: Most restaurants specializing in this variety write the Korean word chik on their signboards.
How to Eat: Just like you eat regular naengmyeon; but don't cut the noodle.
How Much: About 5,000 won and up.
A new breed of naengmyeon became popular after the medicinal effects of chik, or arrowroot, was widely publicized in Korea during the early '90s. The addition of arrowroot powder makes the dish "chik naengmyeon," which can be served either hot or cold, and there are many restaurants that specialize in this kind of naengmyeon year-round. Chik is known to lower the body temperature, help digest foods, cure hangovers and improve diuretic function. Adding vinegar and mustard may prevent food poisoning and indigestion.
Where to Find: At Korean eateries called bunsikjib (cheap snack joints), usually found near schools.
How to Eat: Mix the sauce thoroughly with the noodles. Eat the noodles uncut until your stomach starts to burn.
How Much: About 1,500 won and up.
Jjolmyeon, another big favorite among Koreans, is also served cold. Jjolmyeon is an inexpensive dish that can be found in corner eateries near schools or inside shopping malls or department stores. The nutritional value may be low, but what makes the dish popular is the extremely rubbery noodles made from potato starch. The cold noodles are topped with shredded cabbage, cucumber and carrot － or any other fresh vegetables available － which are cooling to the palate, but are then given some spice by the sauce. Made from red chili pepper paste, garlic, sugar, vinegar and sesame oil. The toughness of the noodles makes them hard to eat, but young Koreans love this dish.
Where to Find: Korean restaurants specializing in Chuncheon Dakgalbi (spicy chicken barbecue).
How to Eat: Mix the noodles thoroughly with toppings and sauce, and share with friends.
How Much: About 8,000 won and up
This is a spicy noodle dish made of either dark buckwheat or chewy white flour noodles, over which a variety of toppings and a spicy sauce are added. When this type of noodle dish is served in a small portion, it is called makguksu. The party platter is called jaengban guksu or jaengban makguksu, and it is believed to have originated from the provincial city of Chuncheon.
A large portion enough to feed more than two people is served on a large plate called a jaengban (tray in Korean). Before eating, the noodles should be thoroughly mixed with various fresh vegetables such as shredded cabbage, cucumbers, carrots, sesame leaves, chili peppers, pear and slices of boiled beef or pork. The sauce is a mixture of garlic, red chili pepper paste, vinegar, sugar, beef broth and sesame oil or optional Korean mustard. It is a visually appealing dish.
Where to Find: Where it says Naengkongguksu or Kongguksu.
How to Eat: Sprinkle salt to taste. Eat the noodles and drink the soup.
How Much: About 3,000 won and up.
Another special of summertime kongguksu. Kong in Korean means "beans." This is a cold flour noodle dish, usually used for kalguksu (hot noodle), served in cold soup made from beans, an ingredient considered very nutritious and healthy.
The beans are cooked, their skin is peeled, and they are then ground using a mill or a food processor with some water. The soup looks like heavy soy milk, but it tastes nutty and delicious. It usually has only one topping: thinly sliced cucumber.
The best of soup of this type is made from a black bean puree with green pulp. Kongguksu served with a light-green soup with cucumber topping looks not only elegant but also refreshingly appetizing. Kongguksu, regardless of its color, is considered most healthy because it is low in calories and has no additives or seasonings except for salt.
Where to Find: Korean eateries and Japanese restaurants.
How to Eat: Add the radish, mustard and green onion to the sauce, and mix thoroughly until the mustard is dissolved. Pick a few strands and dip lightly in the sauce. Repeat until you finish.
How Much: About 3,000 won and up.
Another popular summertime food originates from Japan. It is called zaru soba in Japanese, but naengmomil guksu (cold buckwheat noodles) in Korea. Dark buckwheat noodles are topped with thinly sliced nori (black seaweed or gim in Korean), and served cold on a bamboo sieve is visually exotic. The dipping sauce served on the side is made from a mixture of Japanese soy sauce, a bonito fish stock, ginger extract and sweet rice wine. The addition of grated radish, wasabi (Japanese mustard), green onions and a raw quail egg makes the sauce savory, not to mention truly Japanese.
The beauty of eating authentic soba lies in choosing the right kind of buckwheat or soba noodles. For the connoisseur of Japanese soba, the subtlety of noodles such as nodokoshi is most important － how the buckwheat noodles "feel" before swallowing. Soba noodle should contain at least 30 percent of buckwheat, and can contain up to 80 percent. The higher the percentage of buckwheat contained in the noodle, the tougher the texture becomes.
To enjoy the texture and the flavor, chewing less frequently and dipping the noodles lightly in the sauce are recommended. In Korea, only the darker version called inaka soba is available, and most soba dishes are perhaps less sophisticated than gourmets would prefer.
Where to Find: At most Chinese restaurants; ask before sitting.
How to Eat: With Chinese chopsticks.
How Much: About 5,000 won and up.
Jungguk naengmyeon (Chinese cold noodles) has recently gained popularity in Korea. At first look, this Chinese variety is a cream-colored opaque soup in which Chinese-style noodles are served with toppings. The chilled soup is made from chicken broth, ginger, onion, rice wine and peanut paste. It is the peanut paste that makes the soup thick with a delicious nutty flavor, and among all cold noodle dishes, it is the most filling. Along with a topping, usually consisting of slices of chicken meat, thinly sliced cucumber, tomato or optional jellyfish, shrimp and boiled meat, it can be seasoned with mustard and/or vinegar.
by Inēs Cho