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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Ultimate Noodle Experience: Making Soba From Scratch

Despite my many years of noodle obsession, I had never – until a couple weeks ago – tried my hand at actually making my own noodles from scratch. I don’t mean just frying up some noodles in a wok; I mean actually mixing a dough, rolling it out and cutting it into strands of noodles. I’ve seen it done many times in markets, restaurants and on television, have always been interested in the process, and briefly entertained the idea of making David Chang’s ramen recipe from the first issue of Lucky Peach. Alas, without any guidance or instruction, the task always proved too daunting to try on my own. So when my hobby-forward friend Laura (also my companion for last year’s woodworking class) proposed checking out a soba noodle making class (after being inspired by the soba noodles in sesame sauce that I brought to her bbq!) with our friends Ananda and Julia, I was all in.

Soba is a traditional Japanese noodle made from buckwheat flour that’s lauded not only for its delicate flavour but also its health benefits. It’s extremely popular across Japan and can be found in a wide range of eateries, from tiny train station noodle stands, to mid-level tourist spots to expensive restaurants specializing exclusively in soba. Soba quality can vary greatly though, and the base factor in that is whether the soba is fresh and handmade or dried and machine-made. It’s kind of like the difference between fresh and dried pasta – the fresh stuff tastes way better. Interestingly, however, only a tiny fraction of soba purveyors in Japan actually make fresh soba by hand. This is because the fresh stuff is quite labour intensive and requires a significant amount of skill and expertise – during the Edo period, aspiring soba masters apprenticed for a total of 5 years and 3 months!

Fresh soba contains approximately 80% buckwheat flour – this high buckwheat content is what gives the fresh noodles their prized flavour but it’s also what makes them tricky to produce. Buckwheat flour lacks gluten, the protein that’s responsible for giving dough its elasticity (that’s why those gluten-free cookies and cakes are always kinda crumbly). So when buckwheat flour is mixed with water, the resulting dough is quite delicate and prone to breaking. Machines just can’t make noodles from that kind of inelastic dough, so they cheat by using only about 40% buckwheat flour mixed with regular wheat flour. The noodles are then typically dried and packaged, to be consumed later. The large majority of soba in Japan and abroad is of this dried variety. And while it obviously has the appeal of convenience and efficiency, it comes at the cost of that delicate buckwheat taste. For the soba connoisseurs then, real soba is only the fresh stuff.

Enter Ted, our noodle-making host for the afternoon and the only person to his knowledge IN CANADA making fresh soba by hand. Ted hails from the Asakusa district of Tokyo, one of the city’s few neighbourhoods where you can see and feel traditional elements of the foregone Edo period. After spending many years as the boss of a company in Japan, which included a brief stint in Toronto, Ted gave up the corporate world in favour of the noodle world (my hero!). Having always been a big soba fan, he went to school in Japan to learn the craft of soba making. Then, lucky for us, he brought his skills back to Toronto and through his company, Soba Canada, has been spreading the soba love here for over 15 years. He hosts a weekly event called Soba Tuesdays where he takes over Ichiriki Japanese restaurant at Yonge and Bloor for a night and, instead of the restaurant’s regular sushi menu, he offers a special soba menu consisting exclusively of fresh noodles that he’s personally made from scratch. In addition, he occasionally hosts soba-making classes in his basement workshop.

The zaru soba (i.e. chilled soba on bamboo sieve with dipping sauce) that I enjoyed at Soba Tuesday about a year ago, served with sides of fresh tofu, crab legs and salmon roe

Ted is the definition of an artisanal food maker, without any of the pretension, puffed-up marketing or overpricing ($10 for an artisanal chocolate bar anyone?) that usually goes along with the Brooklyn-inspired food trend that’s taken over North America these days. You want farm-to-table? He’ll literally give you seed-to-table. For Ted, the single most important factor in making delicious soba is the quality of the flour – even a soba master’s noodles wouldn’t taste good if using low quality stuff. Unsatisfied with the quality of buckwheat flour that’s available in Canada, Ted makes his own, and is involved in every single step of its production. He uses parent seeds from Japan which are then planted on a farm in Manitoba, the “buckwheat capital of Canada” (interestingly, Canada doesn’t consume much buckwheat itself and most of Manitoba’s production is exported to Japan; Japan on the other hand is a top buckwheat consumer but doesn’t produce much of the crop itself due to space). When the crop is harvested, he takes the buckwheat seeds back to his home in Mississauga and grinds them into a flour himself, using a flour mill that he has in his basement workshop. He packages and sells some of the flour for retail. But when preparing a fresh batch of noodles to serve, he’ll actually grind the flour fresh that morning.

The buckwheat

The mill

In addition to the level of care that’s put into producing the buckwheat flour, the process of actually making the noodles is a whole craft in itself. As I mentioned before, aspiring soba masters would spend 5 years and 3 months learning the art of soba making – 3 years for mixing the dough by hand, 2 years for rolling the dough and 3 months for cutting the dough into strands. While those days of intense apprenticeship are long gone, it still takes a significant amount of time and practice. For example, Ted offers a 20-day intensive course for aspiring soba professionals. Setting our sights a little lower, we opted for Ted’s one-day experience class – you watch Ted’s demonstration of noodle-making, and then he helps out as you make a batch of noodles on your own to take home. With just a couple hours of instruction, you’re not able to actually acquire and retain the skills to make soba independently. But just taking part in the process for a day is so much fun. Also, it’s pretty inspiring to watch and learn from someone who is so passionate and expertly skilled at their craft. Watching Ted’s demonstration, I was completely in awe. Total control and fluidity in his movements, as the buckwheat flour gradually transformed through each step of the noodle-making process, from small balls of dough to their ultimate incarnation as fine buckwheat strands. Kind of hard to describe in words, you can see the entire process below (click on an image, and a carousel of photos will pop up):

It’s so much harder than it looks! Thanks to Ted’s guidance, I think we did pretty well for total novices. My soba turned out pretty ugly though – I couldn’t roll the dough out thin enough, so my noodles turned out pretty short and I also couldn’t manage that giant knife too well, so they were thick as well. But they still tasted really good! In line with his focus on freshness, Ted told us that to experience the best taste, the noodles must be prepared and eaten within 3 days maximum, although first or second day soba is best – even Ted’s dog Cookie, evidently a trained soba connoisseur, won’t eat third day soba. I made my noodles the next morning, preparing them in the traditional zarusoba method- quickly boiled and then chilled, garnished with some roasted seaweed and fresh green onions and served cold with a tsuyu dipping sauce on the side (the sauce is flavoured with dried bonito flakes, soy and mirin;  I just bought a bottle at the Korean grocery store on Bloor). You’re supposed to just pick up some noodles with your chopsticks, dip them in the sauce and slurp away. You could really taste the difference from using fresh handmade noodles. Mmm soba – so good.