Koreans usually cite Bulgogi as their favorite wintertime dish and Naengmyeon (cold buckwheat
noodle soup) for the summertime. There are two main types of Mul-naengmyeon:
Pyeongyang-style and Hamheung-style. Pyeongyang Naengmyeon is characterized by softer
noodles due to a larger content of buckwheat, and a clear and mild-flavored broth. Hamheung
Naengmyeon noodles contain a higher percentage of potato or sweet potato starch, resulting
in a more firm and stringy texture. The taste is enhanced by adding generous dollops
of vinegar and mustard to the broth.
Cold Noodles, Warm Toes
Nowadays, Naengmyeon is considered a summer food, but in the old days, the Naengmyeon
experience was a combination of a warm Ondol (underfloor heating system) floor, freezing
winter temperature, and icy-cold Naengmyeon. The broth was made with Dongchimi (radish
water kimchi) brine scooped out of the earthenware crock which was half-buried in the
ground for winter storage. No one knows exactly when Koreans started to eat Naengmyeon.
However, based on the fact that buckwheat was introduced by the Mongol Empire during the
Goryeo Dynasty, one can assume that people living in the mountainous northern region first
began eating it around that time.
A Taste of Home
For the older generation Northerners, Naengmyeon is a nostalgic reminder of the home left
behind. Naengmyeon was initially a specialty of the northern regions, but became popular
across the country when Northerners fled to the South during the Korean War. Having few
means to support themselves, many displaced Northerners began to make and sell Naengmyeon.
It is common to see a number of elderly Northerners gathered in Naengmyeon restaurants.
They are regular customers who come to savor the taste of ‘home’ to which they will
probably never return. That is why Naengmyeon restaurants are bustling with the loud sound
of people talking in thick northern accents, something that is hard to hear elsewhere.
North Korea, the origin of Naengmyeon, still maintains its reputation. In North Korea, they
say, ‘You can’t claim to have been in Pyeongyang unless you’ve tasted Naengmyeon at Okryugwan.
The Okryugwan is a landmark restaurant famous for its Naengmyeon, and is always
on the list of places to visit for dignitaries and even South Korean visitors. It is said that the late
Kim Il Sung, the former ‘Great Leader’ of North Korea, instructed that the distinctive taste of
Okryugwan Naengmyeon be preserved forever.
Mild Pyeongyang vs. Sweet & Spicy Hamheung
The broth used in Pyeongyang Naengmyeon is made by simmering beef, pheasant, or chicken
and combining it with the brine of well-fermented Baechu-kimchi (cabbage kimchi) or
Dongchimi (radish water kimchi). The noodles are served with garnishes such as Pyeonyuk
(pressed boiled meat), julienned cucumbers and pears, and hard-boiled eggs. To fully enjoy
the subtle-flavored broth, only a small amount of vinegar and mustard should be added.
Meanwhile, Hamheung Naengmyeon is served with a spicy sauce that goes well with the
stringy noodles. Adding ample vinegar and mustard can even enhance the taste further. It’s
always a good idea to eat the boiled egg first, in order to soften the blow of the fiery sauce.