Icy naengmyeon warms hearts as tensions thaw

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Icy naengmyeon warms hearts as tensions thaw

Located in a back alley of a bustling old district of hardware stores in central Seoul, the Eulji Myeonok noodle house has no proper business signboards to lure customers; all it has is the restaurant’s name painted above the doorway in out-of-fashion calligraphy.

The dish is finding new popularity following April’s inter-Korean summit, and a long queue was quickly forming outside of the two-story restaurant at lunchtime of a weekday holiday in early May, even though the busy Eulji-ro commercial area was largely empty.

“I come to this place as often as time allows to have the genuine taste of naengmyeon [Korean cold noodles],” said a 61-year-old man who was seen going into the restaurant with his wife and daughter after waiting outside.

The wife described him as “an expert of Pyongyang naengmyeon,” a regional variety of the Korean cold noodle, from North Korea’s capital city, for which the decades-old restaurant is known.

“This is how real naengmyeon should be. My father and father-in-law, who both came from Pyongyang, also approved of it as genuinely Pyongyang style,” the man said, preferring not to be identified.

“I first came here about 40 years ago with my parents who wanted the feel of their hometown in North Korea,” he said, recalling his North Korean-born parents who weren’t able to go home after the 1950-53 Korean War divided what was previously one nation.

As his fellow Pyongyang naengmyeon lovers do, sometimes with slight variations, he counted Eulji Myeonok and three other noodle houses - two in the same area in central Seoul and the other in the border city of Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi, near North Korea - as the top places that best preserve the originality of naengmyeon, whose origins are arguably as a summertime delicacy popularly eaten in northern Korea since the last Korean kingdom of Joseon (1392-1910).

Eulji Myeonok is run by a daughter of a North Korean refugee who fled to the southern side during the civil war and opened a restaurant, selling her hometown dish of thin buckwheat-starch noodle in cold beef broth, topped with simple pickled white radish plus thin slices of beef.

“The key selling point of Pyongyang naengmyeon is its simplicity. To some people, it could come as bland, but it has its own depth of flavor,” he noted as he was waiting for a bowl. “I can never get used to other regional versions of naengmyeon,” he added, referring to more strongly spiced noodle dishes widely eaten in the South.

For Pyongyang naengmyeon beginners like 39-year-old office worker Lee Ji-young, however, it was not the taste, but a measure of curiosity that triggered a trip to Pyongyang naengmyeon houses, a phenomenon following the successful event of the summit meeting between President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on April 27.

Bowls of naengmyeon brought from Pyongyang’s Okryugwan restaurant, called by its followers as “holy ground,” for the summit’s banquet session were a major source for ice-breaking jokes between the two leaders gathered for a rare chance to discuss the denuclearization of North Korea.

“I would like President [Moon] to relax and enjoy Pyongyang naengmyeon brought from afar,” Kim was televised live as telling Moon during their meet-and-greet session. Kim then said “Oops, I shouldn’t have said ‘from afar,’” making eye contact with his younger sister next to him.

It was one of the first-ever moments Kim interacted with the South Korean media and he succeeded in making it a chance to revamp his image as a warmonger who conducted four nuclear weapons tests and dozens of missile launches so far during his seven-year reign.

With the so-called noodle diplomacy, major Pyongyang naengmyeon restaurants across the South were inundated with waves of South Koreans wanting to experience the North Korean delicacy at the date of the summit.

Nearly two weeks after the summit, the popularity is still growing.

“At the date of the summit, nearly 30 percent more customers than the average came to have a taste of our naengmyeon,” a staff worker at Eulji Myeonok said. “Even after the summit, 10 or 20 percent more dinners continue to visit,” she noted.

In the wake of the interest, about 20 online petitions have been filed with the Blue House, calling for an opening of a South Korean branch of the North Korean Okryugwan restaurant.

The Blue House has not review the petitions because they have not garnered the 200,000 online votes.

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