Lessons in naengmyeon

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I seem to have lost my groove, maybe even lost the taste of my hands.  I had a bad experience with jellyfish two Sundays ago.  I stupidly fried chicken in a sweltering hot kitchen.  And this past Sunday, when I hosted a barbecue at my friends’ place, nothing worked quite right.  I’d picked a classic Korean barbecue menu: galbi or flanken-cut short ribs with plenty of greens, seafood-green onion pancakes, and mul-naengmyeon, or cold noodles in an even colder beef broth.  Should have been easy, should have been fun.  Instead, the pancakes were slightly flabby.  The ribs were fine, the way all charcoal-grilled meat is fine, but they weren’t great.  I’m not sure if it was the quality of the meat, the marinade, or the amount of time they spent in the marinade.

And then the naengmyeon.  Oh the naengmyeon.

Naengmyeon in Korea is like pizza.  Completely ubiquitous, but almost no one makes it at home.  If they do, they buy the dried noodles complete with a little silver pouch full of “seasoning,” inevitably loaded with MSG.  Kind of like the pizza in the supermarket freezer case.

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It’s also as popular as pizza, a cheap, delicious meal, especially in the monsoon days of Korean summer.   No one I know can say whether they like mul-naengmyeon, cold noodles in broth, better than bibim-naengmyeon, cold noodles in a sharp, bright spicy sauce.  Everyone likes both.  Both dishes play on the Korean preference for the tang of vinegar-spiked foods, cut with a good but not overt amount of sugar, with mul-naengmyeon taking on the sinus-clearing flavor of Asian mustard, heavy on the horseradish.  And whatever the noodles are made of, sweet potato or buckwheat or arrowroot, they’re intensely chewy to the point they’re almost impossible to break just with your teeth.  In a naengmyeon shop, everybody will be hanging their heads over their bowls with noodles dangling out of their mouths.

I think it’s why many non-Koreans are often befuddled by naengmyeon.  Chewiness is not a virtue for many Westerners, and noodles made out of buckwheat have a pallor that would be off-putting to a lot of Americans.  No matter though, that just leaves more naengmyeon for the rest of us!

But craving naengmyeon in New York is hard.  There are no good dedicated naengmyeon shops in Manhattan, and every time I order a bowl, it’s more in memory of the more exemplary versions I’ve had.

So even though Koreans in Korea rarely make their own naengmyeon, I felt like it had to go in the cookbook, for all those sad souls who crave a taste of something they once had.  (And those even sadder souls who don’t even know how it tastes, but are curious to try.)

The good news is that despite the naengmyeon mess I made during dinner on Sunday, I have found over the course of experimentation that it’s not so hard to make something that tastes at least as good as what you’ll find on 32nd Street.  With some more work, I think I could make something even better.  The recipe still needs tweaking, but there are clear-cut lessons I’ve learned.

1)   Avoid cooking naengmyeon for more than 4 people, max.  It’s actually best as a solo or two-person lunch.  Make it for yourself and someone who loves it and deserves it.  If you cook a big batch of noodles at once, they’ll start to stick together before you can dish it all up.

2)   The frozen noodles are better than the dried ones.  They stay chewier and are less likely to stick together into a horrifying ball of mush.  Noodles can end up looking like those record-breaking rubber band balls, but worse, because the noodles are all gray.

3)   Hamhung-style sweet potato noodles are slightly softer, less macho tough in flavor than Pyongyang-style buckwheat noodles.  I prefer Pyongyang-style, but it’s all a matter of taste.  You’ll see it written on the package, that is if you read Korean.  Or you can copy these characters: 함응, or Hamhung; 평양 or Pyongyang; and 칡 or chik, if you want to eat the chewiest of the chewy, black noodles made of arrowroot.

4)   The easiest way to keep noodles chewy is not to boil them, the way most packages instruct you to.  Instead, place the noodles in a large, broad bowl and pour in boiling water to cover.  Let it sit for 20 -30 seconds if frozen, 2-3 minutes if dried, and then rinse furiously under cold running water.  They’ll soften sufficiently while still being chewy.  This will not work though, if your bowl is full of enough noodles to feed ten people.  See Lesson #1.

Lessons learned.  I hope I get back into my groove soon.

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