For people outside of Korea, Pyongyang is best known as the capital of North Korea. The name evokes the Dear Leader, robotic displays of allegiance, and people on the brink of famine. For people in Korea, at least when the word “myeon” is attached to it, the name evokes noodles. Chewy, cold, delicious buckwheat noodles.
평양면옥, Pyongyang Myeon Ok, is one of the oldest and most famous noodle places in Seoul. Literally, Pyongyang Noodle House. It’s like calling your Kansas City barbecue place in New York, “Kansas City Barbecue.” The place sees no need to dress up what it does. The dishes are made of faded plastic; the tables are bare and shabby, though clean. The customers know what they’re coming for.
North Koreans traditionally ate noodles like other Koreans ate rice, as their primary starch. (What they’re eating now is a very sad question.) Although the Korean peninsula is small, the size of Minnesota, there’s a considerable range of climates. The northern half, with its higher mountains and colder weather, has little land suitable for cultivating rice. That meant the primary starch became noodles, made out of buckwheat for people around Pyongyang, and made out of sweet potato starch for people around the city of Hamhung. You can find restaurants in Seoul that declare as their own specialty, “Hamhung Noodles.”
Given that they were a less rice-focused culture, it makes sense that northern Koreans were also the first to adopt dumplings from China, with their wheat-flour skins, and make them into a Korean dish. Even sixty years ago, when my dad was growing up in Chungcheong-do, a province a little south of Seoul, few southern Koreans had ever tasted dumplings. My father says the only reason his family ate them was that his stepmother had come from Manchuria.
So this is what you can find at Pyongyang Myun Ok: noodles in cold broth, noodles mixed in a spicy sauce, steamed dumplings stuffed with tofu and mung bean sprouts (but no kimchi!), those same dumplings available in soup, and a very tasty, smoothly fatty steamed pork belly dish called 제육, jeyuk.
I’ve already sung my love song to 물냉면, mul naengmyeon, or noodles in cold broth, so all I can say is that the dish here was quite different but very good. Is it pretentious to say the broth tasted humble? There was a simple clarity that was straightforward and forthright, more satisfying than the cheap vinegar flavor of so many naengmyeon places. My mother says that as popular as these noodles are in the summer, northerners ate them all winter long as well. Sitting there on a cold February day, I could believe it, if the broth tasted like this.
The steamed dumplings were equally good. My mother kept saying they taste better in soup, but I loved the almost sticky, chewy texture of the skin, just thick enough to be more than a vessel, and just thin enough not to overwhelm the juicy tofu, meat, and sprouts inside. It made me want to go home and try rolling out dumpling dough again.
The pork was lovely porky pork. I like this dish best when served with bossam kimchi, the almost raw long strips of cabbage that get wrapped around each mouthful, but I wasn’t going to sneer at this stripped-down version. A simple dip in the salty shrimp dip was enough contrast for the plain, simple pork.
The restaurant does serve a few other dishes—bulgogi; those same noodles in a hot broth scented with sesame oil and sesame seeds; and tray noodles, again those buckwheat noodles served on a giant tray with a variety of vegetables and a red pepper sauce. But everything, everything, is made from food sourced in Korea, as the menu makes sure to point out. Partly, it’s a point of national pride—Korean food tastes best when made with food grown and raised here. But it’s also a statement of the importance of place. It’s Pyongyang Noodle House.