I was only in Seoul for two days, but I went out of my way to eat 냉면 (naengmyeon) while I was there. After having eaten it several times in Korea, I’ve basically stopped ordering it in restaurants here in the States. Once you’ve had a really good bowl, you can’t accept anything less.
Why is it so hard to make well? Consider 물냉면 (mul naengmyeon), the classic summer version of the dish. Imagine, if you will, a bowl of buckwheat noodles piled high in a cold broth, with a few slices of beef, cucumber, and Asian pear, all topped with a boiled egg.
Simple, right? And… well, simple. It probably sounds fine, but not particularly appealing.
The magic happens when you put some care into the noodles and the broth. The noodles are thinner and silkier than soba. Truly good noodles aren’t simply a vehicle for a broth; they actually taste like something. And of course, the right levels of chewiness and slurpiness are essential. As you can imagine, there’s a world of difference between homemade and dried noodles. As you also might guess, most restaurants don’t make their own noodles.
And then there’s the broth. Naengmyeon is a classic North Korean dish (mul naengmyeon is often called Pyongyang naengmyeon, after the North Korean capital). Given its origins, very few people actually know how to make the broth correctly. True mul naengmyeon uses a clear, rich stock made from beef and pheasant.
Naengmyeon is generally served with spicy mustard, rice vinegar, and sugar on the side. If the broth is good, the condiments are largely unnecessary — maybe a dash of mustard for heat and a tiny splash of the vinegar to accentuate the flavor. At most restaurants, the broth is so mediocre, the condiments serve as the flavor.
We ate mul naengmyeon at the original 강서면옥 (Kang Seo Myun Oak) in Seoul the day we arrived, just before setting off to Pohang. There’s actually a second restaurant in Los Angeles, but it’s nowhere near as good as the original. These folks are master craftsmen. You can taste the quality of the ingredients in everything they make, which is cooked perfectly.
How good is their naengmyeon? There’s food that tastes good, and then there’s food that feels good going down. Their naengmyeon was both. At most places, I leave some of the broth, partially because there’s so much of it, but mostly because it’s not that great. At Kang Seo Myun Oak, my bowl was absolutely clean afterward. I drank every last drop.
I also got to try something new — 한우소편육 (Hanu So Pyun Yuk), steamed, sliced beef shanks made from Korea’s native Hanu beef, which is often eaten with naengmyeon.
These were absolutely perfect — moist, tender, beefy. As with the naengmyeon, it felt good going down. There’s nowhere to hide with food like this. Your ingredients have to be great and your technique exquisite to pull it off.
After touring Gyeongsangbuk-do, we returned to Seoul, where I had chance to eat one more bowl of naengmyun. This time, we had 비빔냉면 (bibim naengmyeon) at the best bibim naengmyeon place in Seoul, bar none: 오장동흥남집 (Ojang Dong Heungnam Jib).
Bibim naengmyeon comes from Heungnam in North Korea, where seafood and sweet potatoes are plentiful. The noodles are made from sweet potato starch, and it’s often served with raw, marinated skate.
Ojang Dong Heungnam Jib is a family-owned restaurant founded in 1953. It’s in the neighborhood where my Mom grew up (Ojang Dong). It was her favorite naengmyeon place then, and it’s her favorite place now. It’s also my favorite naengmyeon place, not just because of sentiment, but because the food is so incredibly tasty.
As with mul naengmyeon, most restaurants butcher this dish. Again, it starts with the noodles. The proprietors make their noodles from their own sweet potatoes, which they grow in Jejudo. The noodles are slimy, but firm, with just the right amount of chew. The spicy pepper sauce is just about perfect: substantial texture with a nice balance of spicy and sweet.
I finished my bowl in about six minutes, then spent the next ten minutes waxing poetically about how perfect everything was there. I badly wanted another bowl, but I decided to hold out so I could eat other meals later in the day. That was almost certainly my dumbest decision on the trip.
Damn it. I want a bowl right now.