My sister and I invented a game a few years ago in which one person gives the other two foods (or ingredients or flavors), and that person then has to say which one she would give up for the rest of her life if she had to choose. Chocolate or vanilla? Salt or sugar? Basil or mint? There are no other rules, but we both get mad when someone says something like, “Bacon or pumpkin?” Only people who don’t care what they eat make this kind of error. Sure, there’s no winner, but it’s a lot of fun to play while you’re waiting for the bus, and if you’re playing with someone like my friend Leslie, you can torture her by asking, “Noodles or rice?”
It’s shocking how hard this question is for a girl who grew up in Rome, but even putting aside the category of Italian pasta, the mere existence of a dish like Korean handmade knife-cut noodles should make the answer clear. And 칼국수, kalguksu, doesn’t even belong in the “Top Five Noodles Dishes of Asia” pantheon! That is how deep that field is.
This is another dish I didn’t appreciate until I ended up in the impoverished Korean-food land of New York City. (This is one area in which Los Angeles beats New York’s ass.) My family’s favorite place to eat these noodles in Seoul is at 산동칼국수, Sandong Sone Kalguksu, which translates into Sandong Handmade Knife-Cut Noodles, located close to the Yangjae subway station. On its business card, it lists right under its name the following three words: “Giant Dumplings—Korean Boiled Pork—Cold Noodles,” but as the name declares, the knife-cut noodles are the best.
On each table, you can find an urn of kimchi, from which you serve yourself throughout the meal. This kimchi has a strong, sharp flavor, but it’s still a little raw with almost crunchy cabbage leaves, and therefore not that sour. You might think you only need to fill the little dish provided for this purpose, but my family ends up emptying almost the entire urn.
The noodle soup is also clean and simple. The broth has the clear, light flavor of anchovy-broth, with some body that likely comes from dashi. The noodles have that irregularity so dear to the hearts of all those who love homemade noodles. They have that important bite, not the Italian al dente standard, but an exemplary chewiness that is so prized by Koreans in a range of foods, there’s a word for it, 쫄깃, cholgeet. You say it twice, cholgeet-cholgeet, if it’s really deliciously chewy. Piled on top of the noodles are a good number of clams, a little gritty but who’s complaining at 5,000 won a bowl? And then there are strips of dried seaweed, carrot, and zucchini, which add a little flavor and a lot of color, which is an important principle in Korean cooking.
It’s not a zingy food. It’s not the kind of thing that will make fireworks go off in your brain, and I can imagine some non-Koreans might even think it a little bland. But that’s what the kimchi is for, and there are days when nothing is as satisfying as a restorative soup of handmade, knife-cut noodles. The answer for me is always the same, “Noodles forever!”