North Korean Noodles

“If there was ever a day to eat cold noodles, this is it” I said to Jessye, my comrade in what was quickly becoming a people’s struggle against the record-breaking heat on the Korean peninsula. Our four legs trampled sluggishly forward; the unblinking, evil eye of the sun watched us as if we were a desert beetle.

The cold noodles in question were naengmyeon (랭면), a dish that originated in Pyongyang and become a pan-Korea dish after the Korean war. I had tried naengmyeon two times previously but each time was left unsatisfied. Personal bias had hardwired my brain to think that meals can only be served hot, not cold. Luckily for me, the day’s heat had fried my wires and even cold cardboard sounded appetizing.

Naengmyeon was experiencing a cultural resurgence lately with an incident that occurred at the historic Korean summit between South Korean president Moon Jae-in and North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-Un.

Before the summit, Moon requested that Kim bring some naengmyeon from a famous restaurant in Pyongyang. Kim granted Moon’s wish, and during the summit’s opening remarks he said, “We’ve made efforts to bring Pyongyang naengmyeon all the way from Pyongyang. So, hopefully, Mr President can enjoy Pyongyang naengmyeon from afar, though I suppose I mustn’t say ‘afar’ now.”

With this jokey show of goodwill, naengmyeon became a symbol of hope for the eventual reunification of the Korean peninsula and people. You can read more about how naengmyeon is having a cultural moment here.

Image result for kim jong un naengmyeon
Photo Cred: http://www.tribunnews.com/internasional/2018/04/27/berkunjung-ke-korea-selatan-kim-jong-un-tawarkan-hidangan-khas-ini-untuk-moon-jae-in?page=3

While the noonday heat had turned the Gangnam neighborhood around Neung Ra Do (능라도 강남점) into an inhospitable ghost town, the restaurant itself was a bustling oasis of activity.

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The restaurant’s interior was simple and modern, with sparse decoration and an area for sitting on the floor and another for sitting at tables.

Ordering was a no-brainer, we got what Neung Ra Do’s was known for: naengmyeon and mandoo(만두), also known as dumplings.

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The noodles were very long, so when the waitress brought them she asked if we wanted our noodles cut. We said yes.

Sweat dripping down my face, I was happy to dip into the cool bath of beef broth, buckwheat noodles, cucumbers, green onions, egg strips, and Hanwoo ( locally raised Korean beef.)

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The long, thin noodles are processed in-house and made with a combination of flour and buckwheat. Neung Ra Do proudly sources their buckwheat from Mongolia.

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Before I tasted this bowl of naengmyon, I thought that describing a food as “mild” was a polite way of describing bland, monotone flavors. With a mouthful of beef broth and cold noodles, I changed my mind about this definition. I realized that mildness, when done right, can refer to rich flavors that are toned down so that the subtle interplay of tastes, whispering to each other on your tongue, can be maximized. Furthermore, naengmyon was the perfect medicine for a hot day — both filling and hydrating.

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As I slurped I looked behind Jessye and saw a picture of the deep-blue volcanic lake on Baekdu-san(백두산), the highest mountain in Korea. Baekdu-San means “White-Head Mountain;” the name referring to the fact that Baekdu-san is always snow-capped.

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The mountain is a symbol for many things in both Koreas and is an integral part of the pan-Korean identity. Those seeking power in Korea have always aligned themselves with the strength of Baekdu-san, the most recent example being the Kim dynasty and their propaganda. A central part of the Kim dynasty’s mythology is that Kim Il Sung was born on Baekd-san and has imbued the volcano’s otherworldly powers.

Propaganda picture: The Great Leader Kim Il Sung and the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, on Mount Paektu.
The Great Leader Kim Il Sung and the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, on Mount Paektu.

Image result for sun mu north korea art

Recently, Kim Jong-Un climbed the mountain and a North Korean newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun, reported that “His eyes reflected the strong beams of the gifted great person seeing in the majestic spirit of Mount Paektu the appearance of a powerful socialist nation which dynamically advances full of vigour without vacillation at any raving dirty wind on the planet.” You can read more about this interesting topic here.

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Kim Jong-Un

The crater-lake I was gazing at is called “Cheonji-ho,” or Heaven-Earth Lake.

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My overheated brain dropped me into the middle of Heaven-Earth Lake, now a giant bowl of Naengmyeon, where I floated peacefully in the refreshing beef broth. Green onions and cucumbers floated past me, buckwheat noodles tickled my back. I felt the volcano rumble and I looked up to see the giant face of the supreme leader himself peeking down at me. He smacked his big, murderous lips and stuck his chopsticks into the chilled broth. The god-king was hungry! He began vigorously slurping noodles out from under me, creating a whirlpool that tossed me this way and that. With each gulp his eyes grew bigger with elation and the whirlpool twirled faster and faster.

Image result for Kim Jong Un joan cornella
Artwork by Joan Cornellà

The waitress came by our table and interrupted my heat-induced fantasies. She wanted to make sure that when we ate the mandoo we dipped it in a blend of white vinegar, soy sauce, and red pepper flake that she had concocted for us.

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and then there were two

 

Jessye and I did as she said. The warm dumplings were the perfect compliment to the cold soup, and easily the best I have ever had. When we popped the dumplings into our mouth we had the “aha!” moment that only the best prepared dishes bring out in us. Expertly seasoned pork that leaked exquisite juices, each humongous mouthful gave us a case of mandu tunnel-vision. Like the Rat, Remy, from Disney’s Ratatouille, we found ourselves tasting fireworks. Colors splashed across our pallets each time we chewed on these pockets of joy.

In all, if you find the strength to leave your air-conditioned apartments and challenge the power of the sky’s supreme leader, I would recommend going to Neung Ra Do.

Directions:

7, Eonju-ro 107-gil, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
서울특별시 강남구 언주로107길 7 (역삼동)

P.S.

Here’s a sappy K-POP song that uses Naengmyeon as its main metaphor. An English translation of the lyrics are available below.

It’s so cold, I’m so cold
My teeth are so cold.
Naengmyun naengmyun naengmyun.
My heart is so cold.
Naengmyun naengmyun naengmyun

If I see you, it’s too much. Even if I see you again, it’s too much.
It’s ice cold. My body’s trembling.
Naengmyun naengmyun naengmyun.
Though it’s chewy, it’s too chewy.
Naengmyun naengmyun naengmyun.
Even so, I love you.

Hey-Ya Hey-Ya Fire Fire Oh Lady
Yeah-Ya Yeah-Ya Warning Warning No No
Hey-Ya Hey-Ya Fire Fire do you have time?
Yeah-Ya Yeah-Ya Warning Warning No No

The blinding sunlight is sweetly coming near.
The blue waves are freshly washing over.
That time when I first met you at the beach
Badump Badump I fell in love.

The shy words that were able to be spoken after finding courage.
The appalling words that coldly returned.
(Go away) Oh, how could this be
Oh my oh my na na aiyah

It’s so cold, I’m so cold
My teeth are so cold.
Naengmyun naengmyun naengmyun.
My heart is so cold.
Naengmyun naengmyun naengmyun.

If I see you, it’s too much. Even if I see you again, it’s too much.
You’re so cold. My body’s trembling.
Naengmyun naengmyun naengmyun.
Though it’s chewy, it’s too chewy.
Naengmyun naengmyun naengmyun.
Even so, I love you.

Hey-Ya Hey-Ya Fire Fire Oh Lady
Yeah-Ya Yeah-Ya Warning Warning No No
Hey-Ya Hey-Ya Fire Fire you trust oppa, right?
Yeah-Ya Yeah-Ya Warning Warning No No

I fell in love with you playing hard to get.
At first I didn’t know that I had fallen for you.
I’m I’m I’m like that. I’m really like that.
I’m going crazy, I’m going crazy. I couldn’t even believe it.

Oh, I’m telling you my heart is so, so burning.
Oh, to me, you’re Ave Maria
(Maria) Oh, how could this be
What to do what to do na na aiyah

It’s so cold, I’m so cold
My teeth are so cold.
Naengmyun naengmyun naengmyun.
My heart is so cold.
Naengmyun naengmyun naengmyun.

If I see you, it’s too much. Even if I see you again, it’s too much.
You’re so cold. My body’s trembling.
Naengmyun naengmyun naengmyun.
Though it’s chewy, it’s too chewy.
Naengmyun naengmyun naengmyun.
Even so, I love you.

Oh Love me Love me Baby Yeah Yeah-Ya
Wanna Hold me Hold me Oh yeppi yeppi
Oh Love me Love me Baby Yeah Yeah-Ya
Wanna Hold me Hold me Oh yeppi yeppi

na nana nana nana na nana
nana nana nana nana na nana
na nana nana nana na nana
nana nana nana nana na nana

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