Cool noodle dishes at the height of summerI don’t subscribe to the Korean belief that eating hot food in hot weather makes you cool. When a friend took me out for a boiling pot of chicken soup on one of the worst dog days of the summer, I lost control.
The newly opened restaurant Hyegyo in southern Seoul was created for those who cannot stand the discomfort of eating hot dishes in the Korean summer, and I gave the manager a nod when he told me Hyegyo means “wise buckwheat.”
Keeping up with the “well-being” and “organic food” trends, Hyegyo specializes in country-style dishes made from buckwheat in a clean and pleasant interior lit with paper lanterns. Its menu, written mostly in Korean but including several key English words, such as “nutrition rice,” and “well-being,” reads like a brochure from a diet clinic.
The first page of the menu explains how “wise” it is to savor the health benefits of buckwheat, which in the old days was considered food for poor people.
To try this new, health-conscious meal, I asked a friend who recently became aware of the tight fit of her jeans. She was in the middle of “mesotherapy,” an expensive and painful treatment in which multiple injections are administered to burn the fat tissues in the body. She also has been on a diet and exercises at a gym. She jumped at the suggestion to go lean on lunch, a rare treat in Korea.
Past noon at Hyegyo, at the surrounding tables were mostly Korean ladies who lunch having the lunch set. At a slim price of 12,000 won ($12), the meal offered a choice of buckwheat noodles, buckwheat patties and some curd.
The three main dishes were varieties of buckwheat noodles freshly made in the kitchen. Gyomyeon is similar to Japanese soba, or cold dark noodles served on a bamboo strainer, accompanied by a dipping sauce. Cheongmyeon is noodles served in iced broth, while hongmyeon is noodles served with red chili pepper sauce. Each dish costs 8,000 won.
We chose a bowl of cold noodles in soup, and for an appetizer we ordered a plate of memil sugyoja, or handmade buckwheat dumplings (10,000 won).
A friendly waitress told us the memil mukbap (9,000 won) was a unique and popular treat at Hyegyo, so we decided to give it a try.
The boiled dumplings, served with soy sauce on the side, were very lean, tender and delicious. They were similar to the ones sold in Chinese restaurants, but they left a clean aftertaste.
The cold noodles were served in the manner of Korean naengmyeon in cold broth. The delicate bean sprouts, pickled daikon and cucumber strips, and cherry tomatoes topping the noodles added a refreshing touch. The noodles were subtly dark and bland, the way fresh memil noodles are supposed to look and taste, but the dish was so bland that we added vinegar to spice it up, the way Koreans enjoy mulnaengmyeon.
Mukbap, which according to the restaurant originated in Gangwon province, was a crude combination of muk (tofu-like curd) and bap (rice). There was a bowl of burlap-colored curd made from buckwheat served in cold broth, plus a bowl of steamed rice. The waitress told us to put the rice into the cold broth and mix, a suggestion with which my hungry tablemate happily complied.
In terms of refined dining, mixing curd in cold broth with warm rice is considered far from classy or tasty, but dumping the rice into just about any soup is a common and practical habit among Korean diners.
The iced broth cooled and toughened the rice, but the rice, curd and vegetable toppings jumbled all together in the naengmyeon broth was surprisingly sweet, tasty and refreshing. This was a very homey dish, and what could have been an extremely lean meal was made filling by the bowl of rice while remaining low in calories and price, it seems.
Upon leaving the restaurant, we were content, with our stomachs “cool” on an August day, and with room for some cool desserts elsewhere. This was a light, affordable summertime meal that allowed us to have a pleasant time at a chic outdoor cafe nearby.
English: On the menu, not spoken.
Hours: 11 a.m. - 10 p.m.
Location: Opposite the Volvo showroom, south of Seongsu Bridge in Sinsa-dong.
Dress code: Smart casual.
by Ines Cho