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.
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.