A visit to Korea is doubt an adventure for the senses. My sister immediately noticed the ‘stink bombs’ that seem to come out of nowhere while walking down the streets. She complained that Itaewon, Jongro and Sunday mornings in Hongdae were the worst places to experience ‘stink bombs’. However, bad smells aren’t the only overwhelming thing here.
My sister, like so many others, couldn’t get enough of Korean food which is truly appealing to the nose, the eyes and the taste buds. Naengmyeon, or cold (naeng) noodles (myeon), is one a dish like no other; one that will surprise your senses and leave you coming back for more even though you might never think you would.
Korean cold noodles originates from North Korea in Pyeongyang, the capital, and Hamheung, in the north. Naengmyeon is first mentioned in an old book called the Dongguk Syeshigi. It was written by a scholar, Hong Seokmo, in 1829 and contains information about festivals and folk tales. I like festivals and folk tales, but I am more concerned with feeding my usually starving belly, so I appreciate that Hong mentioned one of my favorite foods in his century old text. Hong elaborates and says that naengmyeon was first eaten in the Joseon Dynasty a few hundred years before he came along.
Interestingly, back in days of ancient Kings and Queens, naengmyeon was eaten during the winter time. One site explains the reasoning behind eating cold noodles in the winter by comparing it to the old saying, “fight fire with fire”. In the case of naengmyeon, “fight cold with cold”. In theory, eating cold foods in the winter or hot foods in the summer are supposed to warm up or cool down the body respectively. I have no idea if this actually works because I eat most foods all year around including naengmyeon.
Today, naengmyeon is eaten primarily in the summer. It is refreshing and generally freezing cold. There is nothing better than an icy bowl of naengmyeon on a hot day in July! I think Koreans would agree with this because many naengmyeon houses are closed in the winter or change their main menu to something more appetizing for the cold weather.
As I mentioned before, naengmyeon comes from North Korea. I am a fascinated by this aspect of naengmyeon history simply because there isn’t much South Korea acknowledges about the north. In fact, restaurants boast about their ‘original’ naengmyeon recipes from North Korea. Restaurant owners often put Pyeongyang or Hamheung in their restaurant’s title to attract diners even if it has nothing to do with North Korea. I will go as far as to say that naengmyeon is more than just a simple food; it is a bridge between the South and the North.
Pyeongyang naengmyeon is usually what we southerners call mul naengmyeon or water cold noodles. Mul naengmyeon is served in a large metal bowl filled with dongchimi (radish kimichi) broth and floating ice chunks. Placed neatly inside the broth is a large mound of buckwheat noodles. Julienned slices of cucumbers, Asian pears and dongchimi are used to garnish the dish. On top of the veggies and noodles is half a hard-boiled egg and/or a few thin pieces of cold beef. Depending on the place, the dongchimi broth may be replaced with beef or chicken broth or a mixture of beef and dongchimi broth. Vinegar, sugar and spicy mustard are added to the broth to taste.
There are two types of original Hamheung naengmyeon: hoe naengmyeon (raw fish cold noodles) and bibim naengmyeon (mixed cold noodles). Both kinds of Hamheung naengmyeon are served dry smothered in spicy gochujang (red pepper sauce). The noodles are usually made from potato or sweet potato starch. Apparently back in the day Hamheung naengmyeon noodles were always made from potato starch. Then things got expensive when war broke out so they replaced the potato starch for sweet potato starch. Today Hamheung naengmyeon is made from both types of starch.
Hoe naengmyeon has slices of raw skate fish placed on top along with the usual julienned veggies. It has egg but no beef. Bibim naengmyeon is quite similar without the raw fish. It has more veggies and beef on top. Sometimes condiments are offered, however typically Hoe and Bibim naengmyeon are eaten without the vinegar, mustard or sugar. Hamheung naengmyeon is served with a hot beef broth soup to cut through the spiciness of the gochujang.
Which is better?
Pyeongyang naengmyeon and hamheung naengmyeon are both delicious. I especially love a bowl of cold noodles after a night of heavy drinking and my friends agree. AO eats naengmyeon every week and always on Sundays:
Mul Naeng Myon is the nectar of Gods. It's always appropriate; whether it's slaking your thirst on a hot August day, or reminding you of the summertime feeling in the dead of winter. The crisp vinegary broth makes you feel alive in a way that few other things can. I'm not a very emotional woman, but I literally cried one time at a Kimbap Jeonggu when the waitress brought me a bowl of ramen instead and I was too Canadian to correct her. This might seem like an overreaction, but keep in mind, I was very very drunk.
Keep in mind that although traditionally Pyeongyang naengmyeon is served in a broth, restaurants also prepare buckwheat noodles in the bibim style and vice versa. Hamheung naengmyeon restaurants always have water cold noodles on the menu. Therefore the main difference is not the vegetables or the sauce, but rather the texture of the noodles. Buckwheat noodles are thicker and less chewy than potato noodles. Potato noodles can be very fine and very sticky. It is essential to cut potato noodles in small sections in order to chew them thoroughly.
Naengmyeon can be easily found all over Korea. It is on every local Kimbab Heaven menu. However, the individual naengmyeon house has a lot to do with how good the bowl will be. Every place has their own recipe for the broth and some are much better than others.
If you really want a treat check out an original North Korean restaurant. Hamheung Naengmyeon alley has three authentic restaurants: Heungnam Jip (흥남집) est. 1952, Ojang-dong Hamheung Naengmyeon (오장동 함흥냉면) est. 1953, and Sinchangmyeonok (신창면옥) est. 1980. Hamheung Naengmyeon Alley is located at Dongdaemun History & Culture Park Station exit 6. There are two authentic Pyeongyang restaurants in Seoul: Pyeongraeok (평래옥) in Euljiro-dong, Jung-gu (Euljiro 3-ga Station) and Pyeongyangmyunok (평양면옥) in Nonhyun-dong, Gangnam-gu. The families that started these places ended up in the South when they were displaced during the Japanese occupation and then the communist uprising. There are many elderly North Korean grandfathers and grandmothers who frequent the alley and old Pyeonyang houses to reminisce about the tastes from home.
Lindsey lived and worked in Seoul, South Korea for over 5 years. While there, she dabbled in different areas of work and explored the culture. She spent time teaching elementary students, business English to adults and high school students about college preparation. She also studied Korean, wrote blogs and tasted as many foods as she possibly could including fermented skate fish. Over the years, Lindsey developed a love for Korea and the culture. She is keen to share her knowledge of Korea with others and she will always consider Korea a second home.