Two places to help beat summer heatThe return of the enervating Korean summer weather is marked by the ubiquitous flags in restaurants announcing the arrival of naengmyeon.
A bowl of chilled buckwheat noodles served with soup (mul-naengmyeon), spicy sauce (bibim-naengmyeon) or raw fish slices (hoe-naengmyeon) is a year-round favorite among Koreans, but summer is the peak season. Each restaurant or chain may sell the same dishes with slight variations, but invariably advertise the dishes’ two famous origins, Pyongyang or Hamheung in North Korea, as if the two cities provided the official seal of approval.
South Koreans’ rush to eat authentic naengmyeon has turned a handful of jobless North Korean refugees into naengmyeon hawkers. Perhaps South Koreans with a blind penchant for real North Korean dishes foolishly generalize that all North Koreans know how to make great naengmyeon. Well, it doesn’t take a noodle lover to know that a North Korean passport is not the same as a naengmyeon certificate.
Two restaurants in Seoul that have stood the test of time are Ojangdong Hamheung Naengmyeon and Pyongyang Myeonok. Both restaurants, which have a more than 50-year history, are owned and operated by families whose parents, uncles and grandparents came to the South during the Korean War in the 1950s. Both restaurants have clean but humble diner-style interiors and have maintained the same satisfying taste for years at affordable prices, about 6,000 won ($6) to 7,000 won. As a result, they are packed at mealtimes and often have long lines of people waiting outside.
That reputation and popularity are coveted in the old commercial district in northern Seoul near Ojangdong Hamheung Naengmyeon, as “knock-off” naengmyeon restaurants crowd the vicinity. On top of that, valets claiming that their restaurant is the authentic Ojangdong Hamheung Naengmyeon make it confusing for first-time visitors. The best way is to accompany a Korean-speaking friend who can confirm the authenticity, or verify the place with the photograph above.
Once you’re seated, the waitress promptly takes your order and serves the dish. The menu is very simple ― mul-naengmyeon, bibim-naengmyeon and hoe-naengmyeon, besides a few fancier cold cut meat dishes. Often the staff members ask you to join other customers, which is obligatory. So I sat with an elderly couple, who were apologetic about sharing the table.
Compared to noodles originating in Pyongyang, the Hamheung noodles are tougher, since they contain potato or sweet potato starch.
The sauce is a combination of red chili pepper paste, garlic, chives, molasses and other ingredients.
One of the traditional ways to serve the noodles is in a semi-opaque soup made from dongchimi, or Korean radish pickles slowly fermented in a chilled soup during the coldest time of the year.
Dongchimi is customarily made in the fall, when the Korean radish is at its sweetest and crunchiest, and preserved in earthen jars in cool places for months. The complex taste of the chilled soup, made from the long fermentation ― salty, bitter and bland all together ― and the natural sweet juice extracted from ripe radishes produce a unique taste, which most Koreans find homey, appetizing and delicious.
The popular choice here is the traditional naengmyeon topped with cucumber slices and slices of raw fish, which might be too adventurous for newcomers to Korean cuisine. The sauce is spicy and sweet; the fish is fresh and tender. The noodles are toothy. Delicious, the way a great naengmyeon is supposed to be.
A Korean man in his 60s said he has been coming to the restaurant after church on Sunday since he was single. After they married, he and his wife began coming together.
Compared to Hamheung-style naengmyeon, the Pyongyang naengmyeon has more varied ingredients, and there is a noticeable difference in the texture and taste.
The dish has a noble origin, as the city has a rich history of its own culture.
Most Pyongyang naengmyeon are made with beef stock, but there are versions made with dongchimi soup, a popular ingredient. The noodles have the distinctive, bland taste and slightly toothy texture of buckwheat. Because the soup is made from boiled beef and assorted vegetables, including radishes, mushrooms and onions, the sauce is simpler.
At Pyongyang Myeonok, the sauce consists of a choice of salt, vinegar and red chili pepper powder. Toppings include slices of pear, slices of cold beef or pork, cabbage kimchi and boiled eggs. Many people order a plate of steamed dumplings as well. And, the restaurant’s traditional Pyongyang-style cabbage kimchi, which comes as a complimentary side dish, has a great number of fans.
The uniquely delicious combination of tastes that results from the blandness of buckwheat and the sweetness of the meat and vegetable ingredients has been the secret recipe of the owner, Byun Jung-sook, who at the age of 78 still works in the kitchen every day.
Vivacious and charming, Ms. Byun is proud of her family heritage in North Korea. She says her family used to own a restaurant named Daedong Myeonok in Pyongyang. “Everyone in Pyongyang knows it,” she declared.
When asked what she thought about naengmyeon restaurants opened by North Korean refugees, she retorted, “What do they know about naengmyeon anyway?”
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. daily.
Location: Behind Anse Hospital in Nonhyeon-dong; Apgujeong station (line No. 3, exit 3.)
Ojangdong Hamheung Naengmyeon
Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. daily, except for 1st and 3rd Tuesdays.
Location: Near Junggu District Office junction; Euljiro 4(sa)-ga station (line 2, exit 8.)
by Ines Cho