For the love of jajangmyeon: Korean-Chinese noodles to comfort lonely hearts

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”.


Jajangmyeon at Seoul Restaurant

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.


Stir it all together with your chopsticks

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.

Side dishes + scissors for cutting up unweildingly long noodles

Side dishes + scissors for cutting up unweildingly long noodles

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.


Jajangmyeon at Ding-Ho on Bloor

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.



In the words of Guy Fieri, “winner winner chicken dinner”

(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.


So I Finally Momofukued…

A few weeks ago, after months and months of delays and anticipation, New York’s acclaimed Momofuku restaurant (which means lucky peach in Japanese, but as I wrote in my first post ever, might refer to Momofuku Ando, the father of instant noodles) finally opened its doors in Toronto – and it’s all anybody’s been talking about since. How long did you have to wait in line? Did you try the pork buns? Along with every food-blogger, every local and national publication has also covered some aspect of it, like here, here, here and here. I think Toronto is feeling rather chuffed that of all the cities in all the world, the empire has chosen us to include in its realm. Ok, Sydney might have been first, but we didn’t get just one Momofuku restaurant – we got three (plus a bar).

Adjacent to the new Shangri-La Hotel at Univeristy and Adelaide, the glass cube structure houses all four Momofuku establishments: the infamous Noodle Bar on its ground floor; Nikai, a second-storey lounge/bar where you can have a drink while waiting for a table (although its birds-eye view of others’ tables as they happily slurp away at their noodles seems kind of torturous ); the third floor Daisho, which serves large family-style meals like whole fried chicken; and Shoto, also on the third floor, which serves a fancy-pants $150 ten-course tasting menu. I’d eventually, someday, like to try all of them but Noodle Bar was first on my list – not only because it was the first of the three to open but quite obviously because it serves NOODLES. Also, I’ve never been to the original Noodle Bar in New York and have heard so much about it. Also, I was totally enthralled with the first issue of Momofuku-founder/chef David Chang‘s Lucky Peach magazine (it’s the ramen issue, and is entirely, obsessively devoted to all things ramen) and while reading it, I thought (a) this guy totally gets me and (b) someone who’s so obsessed with noodles must turn out some pretty good ones – and I must try them.

The restaurants’ entrance on University, with a smidge of the gorgeous Zhang Huan sculpture that dominates the building’s exterior

Bird’s eye view of Noodle Bar from the second floor bar – hi guys!

For all the praise and cult-like worship this place gets though, there’s also the inevitable, and often disproportionate, hater backlash – and Toronto has been no exception. Within the first week, I heard/read a whole range of reviews – some people were in love, bowing at the altar, others said it was a total disappointment/doesn’t compare to the New York location/is totally not worth waiting in line for an hour +. And then most people were somewhere in the middle – thought it was good but didn’t get what all the hype was about. Despite some lowered expectations, I was still extremely excited to check it out for myself.

A group of five of us went there on a Friday afternoon at 1:00. We were told the wait would be 1.5 hours and they took our name and number down on an iPad and said they’d text us when our table was ready. Somehow we got lucky and before we even made it to the closest coffee shop to distract our stomachs, we got the text and were seated within 20 minutes – woot! Despite its name, only about half the dishes on the restaurant’s menu are actually noodles, while the rest is other delicious sounding things, like smoked chicken wings, kimchi stew with rice and the infamous pork-belly steam buns,. With five pairs of big eyes, we actually tried to order one of everything on the menu. (Un)fortunately, the waitress told us it would be way too much food (party-pooper) so we scaled down a bit. Here’s what we tried:

Kimchi jar

Shiitake and chicken buns – nope, we didn’t get the pork belly

Ramen with pork belly + shoulder, poached egg, fishcake and cabbage

Chilled spicy noodles with sichuan sausage, fresh spinach, fermented black bean, and candied cashews

Smoked chicken wings (with some background carnage)

Ginger scallion noodles, dressed with a light vinaigrette

Roasted rice cakes in a sticky/sweet/spicy red chili sauce

The ramen was a good bowl of noodles – springy noodles, comforting, meaty and well-salted broth, and a beautifully yolky egg. Purists beware, this is not a traditional Japanese ramen and doesn’t claim to be (there are other places in the city doing that, and quite a few more on the way – stay tuned for my ramen low-down). It’s instead an interesting variation on the theme. The ginger scallion noodles were also really tasty – a more light and refreshing take on a noodle bowl. The chilled spicy noodles were decent, although not something I’d crave or go back for. The best things we had were actually the non-noodle goods. For me, total sleeper hit was the shiitake buns – did not expect to like these at all but as soon as I took a bite, I was taken. Same reaction for the roasted rice cakes. Rice cakes in chili sauce is otherwise known as dukbokki, a common and extremely popular Korean dish that can be found for about $5 at any of the Koreatown restaurants near Christie and Bloor. This is an elevated version of it though – by untraditionally roasting the rice cakes, they get a crispy crunchy coating and an ooey gooey centre which goes so well with the sweet sticky sauce and green onion and sesame garnish. Overall, I’d say the food was good and tasty but not omg-amazing-best-ever. Certainly not the absolute best bowl of noodles I’ve ever had (which I was kind of hoping for) but I’d go back for a couple of the dishes, and to try the pork belly buns, and maybe also cause it’s a cool atmosphere. Worth waiting in line for? At least once. And depending on your outlook, the line-up can be half the fun.

Cold Korean Noodles in the Hot Hot Heat

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).

Sunrise House – 661 Bloor Street West, at Manning

Yummy banchan – bean sprouts, seaweed, kimchi, potatoes, sweet potato noodles and spicy cucumbers

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.

Mool naengmyun

Ice ice baby

Matt cutting the super-long noodles with the provided noodle shears, for ease of noodle slurping

Accompanying white vinegar and hot mustard paste – rock on

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.