Koreans love noodles. Actually, I think all cultures love noodles. But in Korea noodles are more than just a meal, they are a reason to celebrate. When I was a little boy in Korea, my mother would take me to a Chinese restaurant to eat delicious noodles topped black bean sauce, called jjajang-myeon, on my birthday. To this day, I still remember the loud smacking sound of the dough slamming on the table as the chef made the chewy noodles by hand. I still think black noodles are better than cake.
I also remember the winter days when my mother would take flour, water, and some oil to make noodles that she would cut by hand and boil in a clam broth. I would often beg my mother to make this simple noodle soup dish. She told me if I was good, she would make it for me. I would be good so I could watch my mother roll out the dough and cut the noodles with a sharp knife.
Even today, noodles are an important part of the Korean culture. I can’t count how many times I have seen Korean TV dramas have the stars cook or eat instant noodles. The little copper ramen pot has become a popular Korean souvenir because of all of the Korean movies and dramas. Many foreigners now know the Korean kitchen hack of using the lid part to cool the noodles off before eating.
The Symbolism of Noodles
Noodles are symbolic of long life and thought of as a luxury food. On a birthday, one of the meals during the day should be noodles for it means that the person will live a long, prosperous life. This is especially important on the 60th birthday.
Another occasion where you must have noodles is at a wedding. The specialty noodle dish is called janchi-guksu, which translates to banquet noodles. In the past, having wheat was a luxury, so these noodles were usually only eaten at weddings. Again, they symbolized a long and prosperous life for newly married couples. The light noodles in a light and crispy anchovy broth are often topped with green onions, bright orange carrots, black seaweed, and strips of yellow and white egg. It is as delicious to eat as it is to look at.
Now, if you are at a wedding and someone asks you, “When are we going to get to eat your noodles?” the person might be asking you when you plan on getting married. But, it could also mean that person would like to know if you might be single and would be available for a date.
Geographic Importance of Noodles
Noodles in Korea are closely related to the history as well. Naengmyeon, or buckwheat noodles, were originally from the northern regions of the Korean peninsula. A bowl of chilled buckwheat noodles in light radish kimchi broth was a popular wintertime dish to have in the cold weather while sitting on the hot, heated floor in a room. They say that buckwheat was first introduced to Korea by the Mongol Empire during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392).
Now, the most famous area for naengmyeon is Pyongyang City and the most renowned restaurant for it is called Okryugwan. In the past, all the important dignitaries of North Korea and, sometimes, lucky South Korean guests would visit this famous restaurant. They said that Kim Il-Sung, the former great leader of North Korea before Kim Jong-il and Kim Jung-eun, ordered the flavor of Okryugwan noodles to be preserved forever. And, as we know, whatever the Korean dictator ordered had to be done.
Now if soup noodles aren’t really your thing, another favorite Korean dish is bibim-guksu, which means “mixed noodles.” The noodles are mixed with vegetables such as cucumbers, onions, slivered pears, and a spicy sauce. However, long ago, this noodle dish was made from strained buckwheat noodles mixed with vegetables, pear, chestnut, beef, pork, and a sesame soy sauce. This dish was called goldong-myeon, which means that different things were mixed together to make it. The current version of spicy bibim-guksu was invented after the Korean War, in the 1950s. At that time, wheat was more readily available and Koreans developed a strong taste for spice. Hence the dish of chilled wheat noodles mixed with vegetables, kimchi, and spicy sauce was invented.
Finally, a noodle dish that we cannot forget about is kal-guksu, or knife cut noodles. I had mentioned in the introduction about how my mother would make these knife-cut noodles for me. These days, the types of restaurants offering kal-guksu range from the rustic to the very luxurious. In the Jongno―3ga area there is a street that has about five different types of such restaurants. The oldest one boasts it has been around for 40 years serving noodles in clam soup.
The most famous kal-guksu restaurant in Korea has to be Myeongdong Gyoja. This place serves silky noodles in a pork and beef broth with little homemade dumplings. The noodles are the star here and many people have tried to imitate the dish without success. The kimchi is also the spiciest and most garlicky I have had in Korea and it goes perfectly with the savory broth.
Well, I hope you learned something about noodles, noodles, and noodles today. Now here is a list of places you can go get them.
My Favorite Jjajang-myeon Place
#7-3, Pil-dong 2-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul, Korea
My Favorite Janchi-guksu Place
Inside Gwangjang Market, #2-1, Yeji-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul / +82-2-2267-0291
My Favorite Bibim-guksu Place
#139-1, Seosomun-ro, Jung-gu, Seoul / +82-2-755-0659
My Favorite Naengmyeon Place
#26-14, Jangchung-dong 1-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul
+82-2-2267-7784 / www.naengmyon.net
My Favorite Kal-guksu Place
#25-2, Myeong-dong 2-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul
+82-2-776-5348 / www.mdkj.co.kr
Park Sung Eun email@example.com
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