Korean Food Story: Noodles, Noodles (and Mandu)
Koreans love noodles. Actually, I think all cultures love noodles. But in Korea noodles are more than just a meal, it is a reason to celebrate. When I was a little boy in Korea, my mother would to a Chinese restaurant to eat a delicious meal noodles topped with black bean sauce(jajangmyeon) on my birthday. To this day, I still remember the loud smacking sound of the dough slamming on the table as the chef made the chewy noodles by hand. I still think black noodles are better than cake.
I also remember the winter days when my mother would take flour, water and some oil to make noodles that she would cut by hand and boil in a clam broth. I would often beg my mother to make this simple noodle soup dish. She told me if I was good, she would make it for me. I would be good so I could watch my mother roll out the dough and cut the noodles with a sharp knife.
Even today, noodles are an important part of the culture. I can’t count how many times, I have seen Korean dramas have the stars cook or eat instant noodles on tv. The little copper ramen pot has become a popular Korean souvenir because of all of the Korean movies and dramas. Many foreigners now know the Korean kitchen hack of using the lid part to cool the noodles off before eating.
**The Symbolism of Noodles**
Noodles are symbolic of long life and it is thought of as a luxury food. On birthdays, one of the meals during the days should be noodles for it means that person will live a long, prosperous life. This is especially important on the 60th birthday to have noodles.
Another occasion where you must have noodles is at a wedding. The specialty noodle dish is called Chanchi Guksu which translates to Banquet noodles. In the past, having wheat was a luxury, so these noodles was usually only eaten at weddings. Again, they symbolized a long and prosperous life for newly married couples. The light noodles in a light and crisp anchovy broth are often topped with green onions, bright orange carrots, black seaweed, and strips of yellow and white egg. It is as delicious to eat as it is to look at.
Now, if you are at a wedding and someone asks you, "When are we going to get to eat your noodles?" the person might be asking you when you plan on getting married. But, it could also mean that person would like to know if you might be single and would be available for a date.
**Geographic Importance of Noodles**
Noodles in Korea are closely related to the history as well. The buckwheat noodles in Korea, or naengmyeon, were originally from north. The dish of chilled buckwheat noodles in light radish kimchi broth was originally a wintertime dish. It was common to eat this in winter while sitting on the hot, floor-heated rooms. They say that buckwheat were introduced to Korea by the Mongol Empire during the Goryeo Dynasty.
Now, the most famous area for naengmyeon came from Pyeongyang city and the most noodles are from Okryugwan restaurant. In the past, all the important dignitaries and, sometimes, lucky South Korean guests would visit this famous restaurant. They said that, Kim Il-Sung, the former great leader of North Korea before the Kim Jung-il and Kim Jung-eun, ordered the flavor of Okryugwan noodles to be preserved forever. And as we know, whatever the Korean dictator ordered had to be done.
Now if soup noodles aren't really your thing, another Korean favorite dish is bibimguksu which means mixed noodles. The noodles are now usually mixed with vegetable such as cucumbers, onions, slivered pears, and a spicy sauce. However, long ago, this noodle dish was made from strained buckwheat noodles mixed with vegetables, pear, chestnut, beef, pork and a sesame soy sauce. This dish was called Golddon-gmyeon which means, "different things mixed together." The current version of spicy bibimguksu was invented after the Korean war in 1945. After the war, wheat was more available and Koreans developed a strong flavor for spice. Hence the chilled wheat noodles mixed with vegetables, kimchi, and spicy sauce was invented.
Finally, a noodle dish that we cannot forget about is calguksu or knife cut noodles. I had mentioned in the introduction about how my mother would make this knife-cut noodles for me. These days, these types of restaurants range from the rustic to the very luxurious. In the Jongno-3ga area there is a street that has about 5 different types of these restaurants. The oldest one boasts it has been around for 40 years serving noodles in clam soup.
The most famous calguksu restaurant in Korea has to be Myeongdong Gyoza.This place serves silky noodles in a pork and beef broth with little homemade dumplings. The noodles are the star here and many people have tried to imitate it without success. The kimchi is also the spiciest and garlicky I have had in Korea and it goes perfectly with the savory broth.
So, I think there is time for one more story. Now what goes well with noodles?
Mandu or Korean-style dumplings. Often the dough used to make noodles were used to make round wrappers and filled with meat, veggies and tofu. These dumplings can be steamed, fried, or boiled.
The dumplings, they say, were invented by the Chinese general Zhuge Liang. While he was returning to his homeland he consulted a Shaman who said that in order to cross a treacherous river, he would have to offer the river 49 heads. He refused to sacrifice people. Instead, he tricked the gods by stuffing dough with meat and soon the water calmed enough for him to cross. He named these “meat heads” or mandu which means "deceptive heads." In Korea they are called mandu to this day.
Well, I hope you learned something about noodles, noodles and dumplings today. Now he is a list of places you can go get them.
My Favorite Jjajangmeyon Place
Junggu Dwegyero 200 (Pildong 2ga 7-3)
My Favorite Chanchi Guksu Place
Insid Kwangjang Market
Jongno-gu Yeji-dong 6-1
My Favorite Bibimguksu Place
Jung-gu Seosomun-ro 139-1
My Favorite Naengmyeon Place
Jung-gu Jangchungdong 2ga 26-14
My Favorite Place for Mandu
Jongno-gu Insadong 153-1
My Favorite Calguksu Place
Jung-gu Myeong-dong 2-ga 25-2