I feel pretty lucky to live in Toronto’s Koreatown (the one around Christie and Bloor – there is also another one around Yonge and Finch). Not only does it have a great Korean grocery store with all the necessities, and then some, for my predominantly Asian pantry (to be clear, it pales in comparison to T&T, especially the newly renovated Promenade branch i.e. my favourite place in Toronto, period – but it’s great for downtown standards) but it also means that I’m surrounded by an abundance of delicious and affordable Korean restaurants. Sometime in June, once the temperatures started reaching into the mid-20s and above, I started noticing many of the restaurants in the neighbourhood putting up signs in their window for ‘cold noodles’ or naengmyun/naengmyeon. Seasonal cold noodles dishes for the hot summer months are common among various Asian cuisines – for example, Thai yum woon sen, Vietnamese bun thit nuong, Japanese zaru soba, and Chinese liang mian. Korean Naengmyun, however, takes the cold factor to the next level.
Having never tried them before, and being constantly taunted by the signs in the window, I was very curious about these noodles. Also, our friend Matt, who used to live in the area and loves noodles perhaps as much as I do, kept telling me how awesome they are. Amid the sweaty, sweltering heat wave of the past couple weeks (and no air conditioning in our apartment!), we finally made plans to go check them out. Matt took us to Sunrise House, a little family-run place that’s made a reputation among its competitors for having some great banchan (various complimentary side dishes such as kimchi and bean sprouts that are served with your meal).Naengmyun, literally cold noodles, refers to a dish of cold buckwheat noodles, commonly prepared in one of two ways. The first is bibim naengmyeon, literally ‘mixed cold noodles’ (similar in name to the infamous Korean dish bibim bap, literally mixed rice). In this dish, the cold buckwheat noodles are smothered in a sauce of chogochujang – a mixture of gochujang (the thick, spicy red chili paste that’s ubiquitous in Korean cuisine), vinegar and sugar – and tossed together in the bowl with some vegetables. Sounds alright, maybe too sweet for my taste. The real showstopper is the second style of preparation: mool naengmyun, literally water cold noodles. The buckwheat noodles are boiled and then chilled, which halts the cooking process and results in a wonderfully chewy, springy noodle texture. They are then placed in a metal bowl, to retain their cool temperature, and covered with a chilled beef broth (in some preparations, it may also be chicken or kimchi broth, or a combination of the three). The real kicker, though, is the handful of crushed iced that’s added to the bowl, creating this kind of slush noodle soup. It’s then topped with slices of boiled beef brisket, halves of hard-boiled egg, ribbons of pickled daikon radish, strips of fresh cucumber, and a generous shake of toasted sesame seeds. Some white vinegar and hot mustard paste is also served on the side, to add some tang and heat to the savoury broth, according to your personal taste. The whole dish is certainly unusual, and unbelievably refreshing. You actually feel a cooling sensation after slurping down the icy cold broth and noodles.
Interestingly, naengmyun originates from the Ibuk region of present-day North Korea and was initially a winter dish, its chilling preparation deriving from climatic circumstances rather than preference. Apparently the broth for naengmyun was originally prepared with dongchimi, a daikon and cabbage kimchi which is particularly watery. Dongchimi was traditionally stored outdoors and so on really cold nights it would freeze, resulting in the noodles’ icy broth. I can’t imagine wanting to eat this body-chilling dish in January, but it’s an awesome antidote to this scorching summer heat. And the buckwheat noodles are really, really good.