Archive for the ‘Makguksu’ Category

101 Korean cold noodles

July 31, 2010

I’m not sure I really have 101.  I once got A’s in calculus, but given how long it takes me to calculate a tip now, just follow me and see if my calculations make sense to you.

With the never-ending heat wave that has been summer in New York this year (and summer in Russia and summer in Japan), cold noodles have been the only food I can stand to eat.  Some of them are classic Korean preparations, some of them are riffs, all of them only require that I turn on the stove just long enough to bring a small pot of water to a boil so the noodles can cook through.  Asian noodles have an added benefit — they’re done anywhere from 45 seconds to 4 minutes.  And if you choose carefully, some of the packaged versions at Korean grocery stores are quite good, without any of that chalky MSG taste.

(I love the Pulmuone line of organic noodles packaged in bags, though they are a little pricey and the Pyeongyang naengmyeon broth was too sweet.)

Let’s start with the different noodle possibilities:

  1. Pyeongyang-style naengmyeon, pale-gray buckwheat noodles
  2. Hamhung-style naengmyeon, yellow sweet potato starch noodles
  3. Chik-naengmyeon, black arrowroot noodles
  4. Makguksu, describes buckwheat noodles from Gangwon Province, but often used to refer to thin white wheat noodles
  5. Kalguksu, chewy, knife-cut noodles made of wheat
  6. Dakmyeon, sweet potato glass noodles
  7. Jjolmyeon, super-chewy, thicker wheat noodles (see photo above)
  8. Somen, thin, tender rice noodles
  9. Memil, thin, wholesome-tasting buckwheat noodles, similar to Japanese soba

(I know there are more — what am I missing?)

These noodles are used in some classic preparations, like mul-naengmyeon, in cold broth, bibim-naengmyeon, in a spicy-tart sauce, or japchae, noodles stir-fried with beef and vegetables.

I’ve been eating a lot of kongguksu, wheat noodles served in a cold, vegetarian soymilk broth, the most refreshing carb-plus-bean protein dish ever.

What I really love, though, is that almost all of the above noodles can be cooked, rinsed under cold running water, and then made into bibim-guksu or “mixed noodles.”  And like bibimbap, which is “mixed rice,” what you want to mix with your starch is completely up to you.  Summer produce is particularly inspiring.

Here’s my running start at

good ingredients to put into bibim-guksu

some of which are Korean and some of which are not:

  1. Shredded green cabbage, particularly awesome in jjolmyeon
  2. Shredded red cabbage, just as sweet as green and more psychedelic in color;
  3. Julienned cucumbers;
  4. Julienned carrots;
  5. Julienned zucchini;
  6. Blanched soybean sprouts;
  7. Blanched mung bean sprouts;
  8. Any sort of baby salad green: arugula, frisee, mizuna, tatsoi, mustard, spinach,…;
  9. Any sort of green sprouts: radish, pea;
  10. Perilla leaves, also known as wild sesame leaves, thinly sliced;
  11. Roasted seaweed, cut into thin strips;
  12. Yeolmu kimchi, made with the green tops of baby radishes;
  13. Chonggak kimchi, made with baby radishes;
  14. Any kind of kimchi;
  15. Muhchae, julienned Korean radish, lightly pickled in vinegar;
  16. Asian pear, thinly sliced;
  17. Fuji apple, thinly sliced;
  18. Boiled beef, thinly sliced and served cold;
  19. Smoked fish, like salmon, trout, or mackerel;
  20. Canned tuna?  Why not?;
  21. Sashimi?  Like a noodle version of hoe dup bap!;
  22. Cubes of tofu, plain, marinated, or smoked;
  23. Hard-boiled eggs.

And of course, some sort of chojang-style sauce to top it all off:

  • ¼ cup gochujang
  • 3 tablespoons vinegar, such as rice, brown rice, or cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon sugar, plus more to taste
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil
  • 1 teaspoon roasted sesame seeds
  • Enough water to thin it out to the desired consistency

So if you have at least 9 kinds of noodles, 23 possible mix-ins, of which you can use any number from 1 to 23 at any one time (though I would aim for 4, personally), how many different permutations is that?  At least 101, right?

If you have any additional noodle or ingredient suggestions, let me know!


When the buckwheat flower blossoms…

March 1, 2009


Gangwon-do is now my favorite province in Korea.  It has it all—the quietly majestic mountains of Seoraksan National Park, the dark blue oceans of Naksan Beach, and food with some of the cleanest, most honest flavors I’ve had in Korea.  I’d thought the food would be boring and starchy—buckwheat, potatoes, sweet potatoes—but the specialties we tried on Friday had so much more going on.

Bongpyeong, a small town about an hour from the coast, has set itself up as the Buckwheat Capital of South Korea.  The town’s hometown hero is an early 20th-century novelist named Lee Hyo-Seok, whose most famous short story is titled, “When the Buckwheat Flower Blossoms.”  It sounds awkward in English, probably because most English-speakers have no idea what buckwheat flowers look like.  They’re not in bloom now, but the pictures at his museum show green fields topped with white flowers, prettier than anything you’d imagine could be associated with the word “buckwheat.”

The restaurants in Bongpyeong trumpet their dishes made of buckwheat, and you would be surprised how many there can be.  (It reminded me a bit of Saravanaas, the South Indian restaurant in New York, where the food is delicious and varied, and 80% of the time, made out of lentils.)


The first dish we ordered at Migayoun was 메밀싹무침, memilmukssak-muchim, a firm jelly made of buckwheat seeds that had been tossed with buckwheat sprouts that had the tiniest yellow flowers at their tips.  It was the kind of dish I can’t stop eating.  The dish, like so many Korean dishes, was doing a balancing act, between the wholesome flavors of the muk and sprouts, the salty tanginess of the soy sauce and vinegar, and the slight spiciness of the ground red pepper and raw scallions.  Hanging over it all was the luxuriously nutty smell of sesame seeds and sesame oil.  I don’t know how easy it will be to find ground buckwheat seeds, let alone buckwheat sprouts in the U.S., but I’d love to try to replicate its fresh, crisp flavor in some way.


The stuffed buckwheat crepes, 메밀전병, memil jeonbyeong, had a completely different texture but a similar aesthetic.  The crepes were springy, as if the batter had fermented slightly, and the filling of tofu and kimchi was more tangy than spicy, a quiet complement to the flavor of the crepes.


But the most famous dish in Bongpyeong is 막국수, makgukgsu, buckwheat noodles served in a vegetable-based broth, though you can also get it cold and soup-less with a sweet and spicy red pepper sauce.  That’s what I had.  The noodles are quite different from soba.  Soba, to me, always tastes very intensely of buckwheat.  I love soba and the way the taste comes through so purely in whatever preparation it’s in.  Here, the noodles were chewy and certainly made of buckwheat, but the overall effect was of the whole dish—the sesame oil in the vegetable broth, the pickled radish in my bibimmakguksu.

I can understand why memil is becoming more popular in Korea.  It tastes healthy, and even though I’m often suspicious of foods that “taste healthy,” I really did love how the flavors that came together were bound by crispness and nuttiness, rather than the rich unctuousness of anything meat-based.