Oodles of (cold) noodles
It’s summer in Seoul. We are officially in the thick of the hot, sticky, moist, unforgiving, godless part of the year. You and some friends are sitting around deliberating about how to beat the heat. Suddenly, you have an epiphany: naengmyeon.
You could have suggested the beach, some cold brews, the family-friendly Hamilton pool or a bevy of other common options to survive the sultriness. But no; you, champion-of-the-swelter, have come up with a brighter, bolder solution. They may not carry you on their shoulders for it, they may even give you a strange look for suggesting wet, cold noodles, but one stop at one of Seoul’s finest naengmyeon joints and they’ll all be thanking you. Not to also mention feeling a heck of a lot cooler.
For those not in the know, a quick naengmyeon lesson: Originating in North Korea, naengmyeon was originally a delicacy served chiefly in Pyongyang and Hamhung. It is documented to have been around since the Joseon dynasty, though the dish only became extremely popular after the Korean War.
The two common varieties of naengmyeon are mul (water) naengmyeon and bibim (mixed) naengmyeon. Mul naengmyeon consists of the thin, North Korean-style noodles dunked in ice and broth, complimented by a boiled egg or slice of boiled beef (sometimes both), julienne cucumbers, Korean pear and often white kimchi. Alternatively, bibim naengmyeon does away with the broth and ice for a slab of red pepper sauce. Pyongyang-style noodles are made from buckwheat, while Hamhung consists of potato or sweet potato starch. Restaurants generally specialize in one of the two noodle kinds. Now that you’re a full-fledged naengmyeon connoisseur, here are some spots to check out.
The authentic feel
Eulmildae (Yeoksam Station, 10,000 won)
Eulmildae first gained its reputation in Mapo. The original restaurant in that location has become the standard for others to be judged against on the west side of Seoul. This success led to a second branch in Yeoksam, the one at which I dined. It’s a little tricky to find, but wholly worth it.
Eulmildae is nested deep within a dingy building that could be dubbed a food mall. There is a vast array of restaurants on the basement floor — some alluring, others not, but all near-dives. Walking through the building reminded me of early ‘90s Hong Kong flicks, with their stuffy edifices and tacky colors. Perhaps the walk glorified my particular experience, but it definitely put me in the mood for something utterly Asian.
Inside it was all business: plain decor, simple silverware and tightly permed, jet-black hair sported by the majority of the staff. As expected, the food did not disappoint. A friend and I tried both the mul and bibim naengmyeon, and it’s safe to say that the texture of the noodles shines at Eulmildae.
One often associates naengmyeon with chewing and slurping for extended periods, with noodles stupidly slapping your chin. While scissors are a usual must with naengmyeon, here it is not so. The Korean pear placed atop the arrangement was perfectly sweet and crunchy, contrasting the taste of the broth. In fact, the broth may be the weakest point for Eulmildae, but it enables creativity in what to add, such as the spicy mustard sauce and vinegar offered at the table (though I’ve seen sugar and more used).
The bibim naegmyeon was tasty and not too spicy, but we agreed the real winner here was the mul naengmyeon. It’s also worth noting that Eulmildae is slightly cheaper than other spots.
The place to appease all
Bongpiyang (Gangnam Station, 12,000 won)
If you find yourself in a group setting and would like to whet your palate with some wet noodles, but others have objections, Bongpiyang is an ideal compromise. It is a chain, but one respected by bloggers and foodies alike.
The decor within is slightly more upscale than the rest, though that’s compared to the very casual naengmyeon standard. They offer quality galbi for the more carnivorous, or less adventurous, of your companions.
Where Eulmildae offers superb noodles, the broth at Bongjpiyang is piquant. It has a full, bold flavor, as opposed to the blander, less stimulating soup of its competitors. Here, too, the mul naengmyeon takes the cake. Their prices are slightly higher, so come with a thicker wallet, especially if you are planning on having some galbi, too.
The most impressive
Hamhung Naengmyeon (Yeondeungpo Station, prices mixed)
I generally steer towards the Pyongyang-style naengmyeon, but Hamhung Naengmyeon threatens that preference with each visit. Not only are the noodles different here, their particular specialty is “hoe” naengmyeon: potato starch noodles served with a spicy-sweet red pepper sauce and raw fish, typically stingray. The combination of the chewy noodles and fresh fish creates a taste at complete odds with other kinds of cold noodles.
Kimchi mandu (dumplings) of admirable heft further entice many potential customers. This is a place where you can expect traditional touches, lots of floor seating and hustle-bustle at peak hours (and possibly a wait, but it moves quickly).