Chances are you’ve eaten some Chinese food in your lifetime, and likely some Korean food as well, but have you ever had Korean-Chinese food? Originally developed in the port city of Incheon where the majority of Korea’s ethnic Chinese population historically immigrated, it’s basically Korean adaptations of popular Chinese dishes, using local ingredients and flavours. This hybridization through immigration is what Peter Meehan refers to in the current Chinatown issue of Lucky Peach as “Chinese-hyphen cuisine” – “dishes that evince a Chinese influence without completely surrendering to the soup dumpling and roast pork canon”.
Unsurprisingly, Chinese-hyphen cuisine often manifests itself in the form of noodles. You can see it in the char kuey teow of Malaysian-Chinese cuisine, Caribbean-Chinese jerk chow mein and the Indo-Chinese Hakka noodles. Even ramen, a now iconic trademark of Japanese cuisine, is a product of Chinese influence and is often still referred to in Japan as chūka soba – literally Chinese soba. And when it comes to Korean-Chinese food, there’s none other than jajangmyeon – boiled wheat noodles smothered in a thick gooey black bean sauce studded with nearly-melting morsels of braised pork and onions.
It’s a derivation of the popular northern Chinese dish zhajiangmian, literally fried sauce noodles (jajangmyeon is the Korean pronunciation of the same name). The Korean version however, is quite distinct; it’s sauce is made of a local black bean paste that tastes very different from the Chinese variety and it’s also much sweeter and saucier (the Chinese version gets its flavour from a savoury ground meat sauce that’s more meat than sauce). A heaping bowl of jajangmyeon is typically topped with some fresh cucumber shreds and served with a side of raw white onion chunks doused in vinegar and slices of yellow pickled radish, all of which cut nicely through the the thick sweet sauce.
Jajangmyeon is immensely popular across Korea, and even recognized as one of the country’s national dishes. Beloved by young and old alike, apparently it’s common for parents to take their kids out for jajangmyeon on special occasions such as birthdays and graduations, thus making it a dish that’s embedded in most Koreans’ childhood memories. It’s also the most popular fare for home delivery, akin to pizza delivery in North America. For these reasons, many regard it as the ultimate Korean comfort food. In the ever-popular melodramatic Kdramas, for example, rather than turning to a tub of Ben & Jerry’s, broken-hearted young girls will drown their sorrows in a bowl of black bean- sauced noodles. It’s also the informal dish consumed by lonely singles on Black Day – in Korea, (hetero-normative) tradition holds that Valentine’s Day (February 14) is for women to buy their men a gift, White Day (March 14) is for men to buy their women a gift and Black Day (April 14) is when all those lonely hearts who didn’t receive gifts in the preceding months get together and commiserate their singledom by wearing black clothes and slurping down bowls of black-sauced (tear-stained) noodles. In other words, this is some downright comforting stuff.
Want to try some jajangmyeon? Here are a few places in Toronto to get your hands on some, regardless of whether you’re single, coupled, poly-amored or otherwise.
(1) Song Cook’s (Yonge and Steeles)
A bit out of the way for downtown dwellers, and practically hidden at the back of a non-descript plaza on Steeles, this place is definitely worth seeking out (and many do – though quite a large space, it’s often teeming with groups of young people and families). They serve up some of the best jajangmyeon in the city, which is in large part due to the fact that their noodles are handmade. The best part, especially for indecisive eaters like myself, is the jajang combos: half order of noodles + half order of another Korean-Chinese style dish like seafood noodle soup, sweet n sour pork or sweet n spicy chicken.
(2) Ding-Ho (Bloor and Christie)
This place specializes in Korean-Chinese food, as indicated by the red paper lanterns strung outside. They also do combo platters to share. Their jajangmyeon is immense, with soft rather than springy noodles (which some people are really into when it comes to jajangmyeon) and heaps and loads of sauce. Also, their kan pung gi (sweet n spicy chicken) is seriously to die for.
(3) Seoul Restaurant (Bloor and Palmerston)
A little secret: amongst the bazillion seemingly indistinguishable restaurants in Koreatown, this one is my all-time favourite. Not only does it remind me of super fun outings with my sister (who now lives in Tel Aviv and yearns for their bulgogi stew) but their service is aces and their food consistently tasty. Though they don’t specialize in Korean-Chinese dishes in particular, they still have the beloved jajangmyeon on their menu (as do most places) and it’s delicious.