Naengmyeon


Mul naengmyeon

I asked my students what they will do over their summer break, most will study, some will eat ice cream and more will eat naengmyeon. Naengmyeon (냉면, cold noodles), could well be the perfect summer-time light meal. The northern cities of Pyongyang and Hamheung are famous across South Korea for different regional variations of this dish, with the main distinction being the noodles. They’re always thin and toothsome when properly cooked, but Hamheung style has noodles made from (sweet) potato starch, making them chewier than Pyongyang’s buckwheat version.

Regardless of the origin, there are two main types: mul naengmyeon and bibim naengmyeon. Pyongyang is famous for it’s mul (물, water) naengmyeong, which has a mane of noodles in a refreshingly iced meat broth. The best places will freeze the broth to a chilly slush, so melting won’t dilute the flavour. Mul naengmyeon is also a common end to a BBQ meal, though most places serve up a lacklustre bowl.

Bibim (비빔, mixed) sees dry noodles mixed with a gochujang-red sauce, often served with a teapot of cold broth so you can mul-ify your bibim if it spiciness overwhelms. Both versions have julienned cucumber, boiled egg and pickled radish. Sometimes slivers of Korean pear are added providing a surprising sweet hit, and when grilled meat isn’t served on the side, there may be thin slices of well-cooked beef or pork. The bibim naengmyeon at my local Hamheung naengmyeon spot even has minced meat mixed through the sweet and spicy sauce.


Bibim naengmyeon

Hamheung naengmyeon is most famous as bibim, often with crunchy ammonia-scented hongeohoe (홍어회, fermented raw skate) in the mix, a variation called hoe naengmyeon (회냉면). The fish is about as delicious as it sounds but thankfully the noodles are easily ordered without. Downtown Seoul’s Ojang Dong is home to a cluster of old Hamheung Naengmyeon joints. At Ojangdong Hamheung Naengmyeon the service is as crisp as the air conditioning, but the noodles are righteous. The bibim is the winner. It’s complex, red with a heat that doesn’t completely translate to a fire in the mouth, somehow balanced by a light sourness. The non-traditional-Hamheung mul version has a meatier-than-usual dark broth, notably absent of icebergs but otherwise passable, and is improved when the hidden dollop of spicy sauce is mixed through. These noodles are chewy and long, so request a snip with scissors to facilitate eating.

At 8,000 won a pop ($6.70AU), this may be the most expensive bowl of naengmyeon I’ve ever eaten, and it’s probably not even the best. As with many restaurants in Seoul, it’s not really worthwhile to go out of your way to get this this place. Neighbourhoods are packed with hidden gems that no one person can have explored. So if you’re in the area, give one of these places a go. Otherwise, pick any one of the thousands of naengmyeon joints, and order mul if it’s got Pyongyang in the name, or bibim if it’s Hamheung. And let the naengmyeon do its job, which is to be simple, refreshing and light.

 

One of my students, a cheeky mischievous kid who I can’t help but like, said that this summer break he’ll “go to the bank”. That’s where the air conditioning is. Me, I’d prefer to eat naengmyeon.

 

Ojangdong Hamhung Naengmyeon
오장동 함흥 냉면
Bibim Naengmyeon and Mul Naengmyeon 8,000won each.

From Dongdaemun History and Culture Park subway station, take exit 6. Continue straight for about 400 metres and you will see a cluster of Hamheung Naengmyeon places.

Google map

Posted in Korean, Seoult and Pepper | 1 Comment

Nakhon Si Thammarat markets

Markets in Nakhon Si Thammarat run to a strict time schedule. The morning market, right next to my hotel, certainly isn’t lying. Kicking off before the sun, this fluorescent cavernous concrete box is all but tapped out by the time it’s too hot. It’s got more than enough to hold interest: tropical fruits bothered by ants, a rainbow of vegetables, flowers, fish, meat, mini mountains of curry pastes. Around the edges is where you’ll find the prepared food, styrofoam containers of sweet treats, pyramidal packages of leaves filled with sticky rice and pork. There are drink carts serving up coffees double-sweetened with sugar and condensed milk, and orange Thai tea. An array of rice and noodle soups are available, as well as prepared curries and salads to sit down and eat with rice, or to be packed into air-filled plastic bags and taken away. Every morning during my short stay I wandered over, sleep still in my eyes and woke up while walking up and down the aisles, always something new to see.

One sunny afternoon we drove to the edge of town to buy supplies for a home cooked meal, and visited what became my favorite market in Nakhon Si Thammarat. Set up on concrete and grass, underneath big umbrellas, this place was relaxed and friendly despite the fact that it was on an army base. The market actually surrounds the PX. Here, the highlights were steamed and ready to eat red corn, unidentified succulents and a huge range of take-away prepared food. We bought steamed beans, ferns and tiny eggplants with a fishy dip from a display of softened vegetables and plastic bagged sauces, ready to accompany any meal. Fish fresh from the grill, sweet sticky rice desserts and the freshest morning glory. For snacking there was a twist of crunchy fried chicken skin and a stick of eggs (top picture). These eggs have had their insides carefully removed and whipped up with spices before being put back inside the shell for cooking. They turn out a little bouncy, eggy and lightly flavoured in the most unexpected way.

Toomtam took those ingredients back to a balcony-turned-kitchen and turned them into a feast. Much in the way I always wish to do when I’m on holidays, but lack the knowledge and equipment. I continue to content myself with merely wandering the markets, buying what I can and enjoying the atmosphere and experience. Thankful that these markets have survived and hopeful that they’ll continue to resist the allure of modernity, a death knell for markets across Asia.

On my last day in NST, after a final breakfast in the morning market, Toomtam handed me one of those leaf-wrapped parcels, a snack for later. Later that afternoon I sat in Suvarnabhumi airport, amongst the fast food and duty free shops and carefully ate the fatty stewed pork and sticky rice. It tasted wholesome and delicious, a wonderful, though short-lived souvenir.

Posted in Thailand | 1 Comment

Gamjatang

You’ll see gamjatang (감자탕) described as pork spine stew, but don’t let that put you off. ‘Spine’ feels too visceral and gnarly for this comforting and frankly delicious dish. Think of it instead as a pork bone stew with vegetables, just like your grandma would make, if she had a penchant for chilli.

Gamjatang is peasant food, hearty and filling. It’s commonly eaten at ridiculous-o’clock to stave off, or cure, a hangover, or as an excuse to continue drinking, which means that gamjatang joints are often open 24 hours. Every version I’ve had has been different, of varying degrees of spiciness from gochujang and gochujaru, with any combination of enoki mushrooms, perilla leaves, mugwort, onions, spinach, cabbage and potatoes (gamja, 감자). Wild sesame (perilla) powder (들깨가루, deulkkae garu) and fermented soybean paste (된장, deonjang) are essential additions that round out the meaty spiciness. The cooking is finished at your table, excellent as you can order bokkeumbap to finish, terrible if you’re starving. Some places will also serve it in individual portions, which arrive bubbling and ready to eat, cheap and filling. Or, they may have something similar: bone hangover soup (뼈해장국, ppyeo haejangguk) though I can’t guarantee it’ll make you feel better after a hard night.

So gamjatang is potato soup, right? Well, gamja (감자) does mean potato but they’re not strictly necessary. So we’re talking about a potato-less potato soup then. Well, not really. Gamjatang has a long history, starting before potatoes were introduced to Korea in the 19th century. Back then, the word for pig backbone was also gamja (감자). Or so the internet and my Korean friends tell me. And although I’ve heard rumours of a second explanation, gamja most certainly does not mean affection, a ruse my boyfriend tried on me. To complicate the issue even further, it is also known as gamjaguk. While both are words for soup, tang (탕) is the polite form, so using guk (국)  indicates a certain friendliness or warmth.

There is a moderately famous gamjaguk street in my neighbourhood. You know the kind, where every restaurant serves the same thing and has been doing so for decades. The sort of place you want to visit to eat one dish expertly prepared, though perhaps not in the most luxurious of settings. This street is a short walk from my house, and a slow waddle home. We always visit Daerim Gamjaguk (대림감자국), the first restaurant on the right, for no reason other than that our first meal here was sensational.

Now, let’s get back to that spine business. If you don’t like picking meat off bones, this dish isn’t for you. And while we’re on tips: don’t wear a white shirt, or if you do, ask for an apron. At first glance it may seem all bones, but exploration will deliver a bounty. Scrape the meat off with your spoon, then pop the vertebrae apart and suck off what’s left like a caveman. The meat and tendons will have softened, with the whole lot permeated by the superb broth, not overly spicy, and undeniably Korean.

This version has lots of vegetables, my favourite being the slightly bitter mugwort and pungent perilla. Potatoes are hidden at the bottom, to soften and absorb the spicy, rich stock while it slowly bubbles away, table-side. The servings here are generous, the small size has at least 6 bone sections heavy with pork, not to mention what has fallen off and floats in the soup. As it simmers the soup is enriched, so spicy and savoury it’d be a shame to waste.

But try to save room for bokkeumbap (볶음밥, fried rice). At Daerim Gamjaguk it’s prepared on a dining room hotplate. Fragrant with sesame oil and soup seasonings, loaded with seasoned seaweed and fat soy bean sprouts it’s an essential end to a fabulous meal, no matter how full you already are.

Daerim Market Gamjaguk Street
대림시장 감자국거리

I visit the first place on the right, 대림감자국 (Daerim Gamjaguk).

Small Gamjatang (enough for two very hungry people, better suited to three moderately hungry people) 22,000won
Bokkeumbap (fried rice) 2,000won per serve.

Location: Saejeol Station (line #6). Take exit 2, go straight then turn left over the bridge. Turn right into the alley that runs alongside the stream, and take the first alley on the left. Daerim Market gamjaguk street is across the first major crossroad, you’ll see the sign.

Check out the google map

Posted in Korean, Seoult and Pepper | 3 Comments

Interesting ice cream in Hongdae: Fell + Cole and Molly’s Pops.


The range at Molly’s Pops.

It’s hot, blahblahblahblah, ice cream. You’ve all heard it before. Freezer cabinets in supermarkets and convenience stores across Korea are being filled and re-filled at a rate of knots, with flavours beyond imagining. There are ‘waffle’ wrapped red bean and tteok ice cream sandwiches, corn, chestnut, milk and coffee. Among the spread of fruit based confections you’ll find replica ice watermelon slices, and strawberry tornadoes. I’m a sucker for ice cream in most forms, I used to make it for a living and I especially miss the novel flavour combinations at Gelato Messina. Ice cream parlours in Korea are mostly of the Cold Stone or Baskin Robbins variety, but Hongdae is home to some small batch ice creameries serving up innovative flavours, worthy of a visit.


Blueberry cream cheese at Fell + Cole.

Fell + Cole Gastronomic Ice Creams, the first artisanal ice cream producer in Korea serves scoops, billed ‘dips’, of interesting flavour combinations. Red wine strawberry and sichuan pepper, honey lavender, apple pie or orange blossom cardamom could all be in the display. Korean flavours make an appearance with perilla, a herb more commonly seen in gamjatang or used to wrap samgyeopsal, and the traditional fermented rice alcohol makgeolli. The ice cream here is seasonal, holiday-themed, uses organic ingredients where possible and is free from preservatives and stabilisers. Though perhaps stabilisers might help provide a consistent creamy texture that is often lacking. Sometimes the flavours and texture are both close to the mark, as with eggnog, a sweet and boozy christmas time special. Burnt caramel with smoked sea salt tastes just as it should, balanced and edgy. Or blueberry cream cheese, cheesecake-like and lightened with lemon zest.

Unfortunately, this joint is not without controversy. An homage or a rip off? Who knows. All I’m certain of is that Fell + Cole, with its occasional flops balanced by endless experimentation and improvement, is a breath of fresh air among the endless Baskin Robbins.


Red wine, strawberry and szechuan pepper, and Mexican ‘hot’ chocolate at Fell + Cole.

Fell + Cole is the definitely the darling of the indie ice cream scene, but for a cheaper, and more straightforward alternative, head for Molly’s Pops (몰리스팝스). These popsicles are less complex than the ice cream at Fell + Cole, but no less delicious. The range here changes regularly, with standout favourites being citron (made with yuja), wine and strawberry, and beer. Wasabi is reported to be spicy without a hint of sweetness, while beer is hoppy, sweet and bubbly. The popsicles are mostly one taste, like lemon, grapefruit, espresso or blueberry, fittingly simplistic in form and flavour. Every one I’ve tried has been consistently creamy, soft and luscious.


Blueberry and wine and strawberry popsicles form Molly’s Pops.

Innovative handmade ice cream is a trend I’d like to see grow in Seoul. I’ve got my fingers crossed that the lemonade stand trend of this summer is replaced by artisanal popsicles in 2013.

Molly’s Pops
Popsicles 2,800won each.
Google Maps

Fell + Cole
408-1 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul, Korea
1 dip 4,200won.
Google Maps

Posted in Hongdae, Seoul | 3 Comments

Golbaengi

The first time I ate golbaengi (골뱅이, sea snails) was in fried chicken joint called, unsurprisingly, Chicken Baengi. It’s a chain that reeks of old cooking oil, but it’s also the closest purveyor of fried chicken to my house. This particular branch is done up with fake flowers and trinkets hidden in niches in the brick walls, like a housewife decorated then decided to spice it up with different coloured neon lights. Our table was all ice cold beers, complimentary cardboard snacks and a decidedly strange platter with chicken, fruit salad (tomatoes included) and golbaengi somyeon muchim (골뱅이 소면 무침), a spicy salad of snails and noodles.

Golbaengi muchim, often with noodles (somyeon 소면),  is a common anju dish, intended to be nibbled while drinking. And I’ll order it at any opportunity. The sauce is variations of heat, garlic and sesame, which softens when the accompanying noodles are mixed in. There’s usually cucumber, carrot, onions, chewy dried squid and a smattering of small, dense snails. Texturally interesting, punchy flavours, what’s not to like? I suggested eating it so much that even the most fervent fans may consider it overload. Golbaengi and kimchi jiggae are my current favourite Korean foods (can’t stop, won’t stop).

So it was time to take it to the next level. Golbaengi street. In the centre of the city, surrounded by printing presses and high rises, there’s a short street famous for golbaengi. Pictures of the snails adorn almost every window and decals profess celebrity and longevity. We just pick the one with the most people. There’s no menu. 25,000 won (~$21AU) buys you a serving of snails, fish cake soup and rolled omelette (gyeran mari, 계란말이), for extra they’ll dump a pile of noodles in your nearly empty snail bowl.

There’s cold draft beer, crunchy snacks and a spicy snail salad, but this meal is the same as Chicken Baengi in these generic components only. Here the snails are a meaty mouthful, tender with a pleasant chew and mild flavour. The bowl is generously filled with snails, a far cry from miserly portions of other places, where the flavour of the tiny snails is drowned out with sauce and other additions. Here, strips of spring onion are softened with a sesame oil heavy, garlicky red sauce, chewy flakes of dried fish and the gigantic snails are the only other ingredients. It’s paired back, simplified and divine. The focus is on the main component of the dish: astonishingly good snails. My only complaint, and it’s minor, is the substitution of dried fish instead of chewy tendrils of dried squid.

If you’re a golbaengi fan, this place is worthy of your time, but I’ll still be ordering golbaengi somyeon muchim (골뱅이 소면 무침) as my drinking snack of choice.

Golbaengi Street
It’s the street that runs between exit 11 and exit 12 of Euljiro-3 ga station. If you see pictures on snails on the windows you’re in the right place.
We visited Pungnam Golbaengi but pick any place.

Golbaengi and unlimited sides 25,000won.

For more information about this street (and maps and stuff) check out Visit Seoul’s Haechi Food tour.

Google Map

Posted in Seoul, South Korea | 2 Comments
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