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Secrets of North Korean-style Cold Noodles: Why Pyongyang’s Dish is a Subtle Addiction

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With the season of cold noodles upon us, Pyongyang Cold Noodles, known as Pyongyang Naengmyeon, featured on TVN’s Let’s Have a Meal (literal title), garners attention online.

Let’s Have a Meal is a show where hosts visit a neighborhood and spontaneously invite local friends and celebrities to chat over a meal at a local hotspot. They then play games with the locals and treat them to a meal. The show airs every Thursday at 8:40 PM KST.

During the premiere on May 16th, comedian Song Eun Yi, a fan of Pyongyang Naengmyeon, explained the taste to singer Lee Moo Jin, a fan of Hamhung Naengmyeon.

Lee Moo Jin asked why Pyongyang Naengmyeon is delicious. Lee Soo Geun responded, “You become addicted to its blandness as you eat.” Lee Moo Jin asked, “Why should I strive to become addicted to it?”

Song Eun Yi explained, “When making a song, you might want to add a beat, make the sound booming, but there are times when it feels so good to listen to a song with just a guitar accompaniment. That’s what the taste of Pyongyang Naengmyeon is like.” She emphasized the deep flavor hidden within its bland taste.

Pyongyang Naengmyeon is a chilled buckwheat noodle dish flavored with a beef broth mixed with white pickled radish known as “dongchimi.” The bland taste of Pyongyang Naengmyeon is not stimulating. One must succumb to the charm of its plainness to truly taste it. Chef Park Chan Il once said, “Becoming an adult means understanding the taste of Pyongyang Naengmyeon.”

The rivalry between fans of Hamhung Naengmyeon and Pyongyang Naengmyeon goes deep. Team Hamhung Naengmyeon criticizes those who prefer the milder taste of Pyongyang Naengmyeon, even likening its broth to “mop-squeezed water.”

Why is the broth of Pyongyang Naengmyeon considered bland? Naengmyeon is a cold noodle dish. Chilling meat broth causes the gelatin and fat to solidify. The broth for Pyongyang Naengmyeon is prepared by removing this gelatin and fat, which are crucial for flavor, resulting in a lighter taste. To enhance the flavor, it’s common to add dongchimi broth and MSG to make up for the missing sweet, salty, and umami notes.

So, how do they eat Pyongyang Naengmyeon in North Korea? Singer Baek Ji Young was able to perform in Pyongyang in 2019. She visited the famous Okryugwan and asked the staff how to enjoy Pyongyang Naengmyeon. The staff told her it tastes good when you add a lot of vinegar, seasoning sauce, and mustard. Baek Ji Young enjoyed it, saying it was different from the taste of Pyongyang Naengmyeon in Seoul.

The difference in taste between North Korean and South Korean Pyongyang Naengmyeon signifies that food tastes continuously evolve to fit the times and regions. In this regard, it’s not fair to say one is the correct way to eat it than the other.

The recipe for Pyongyang Naengmyeon is as follows:

■ Ingredients:

  • Noodles: Cold noodles made of 70% buckwheat flour and 30% starch
  • Broth: Dongchimi broth, beef broth
  • Toppings: Beef slices, cucumber strips, pear strips, boiled egg, seaweed powder
  • Seasoning sauce: Red pepper powder, soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, minced garlic, sesame oil

■ Instructions:

1) Prepare the broth

· Dongchimi broth: Use the fermented broth from pre-soaked dongchimi (white pickled radish).

· Beef broth: Boil beef brisket in water to make the broth. Once the broth is ready, skim off the oil and add a pinch of salt to season.

· Mixed broth: Mix the dongchimi and beef broth in a 1:1 ratio and chill in the refrigerator.

2) Boil the noodles

· Boil the buckwheat noodles in boiling water for 2-3 minutes.

· Rinse the boiled noodles in cold water to remove the starch and drain them in a colander.

3) Prepare the toppings

· Prepare thinly sliced beef.

· Prepare cucumber and pear strips and cut the boiled egg in half.

4) Assemble the cold noodles

· Place the boiled noodles in a bowl and pour the chilled broth over them.

· Top the noodles with beef slices, cucumber strips, pear strips, boiled egg, and seaweed powder.

· Serve with seasoning sauce on the side, according to preference.

■ Tips

· Enhancing the broth flavor: Adding garlic and onions to the beef broth while boiling can result in a deeper flavor.

· Buckwheat noodle care: Buckwheat noodles can quickly become mushy, so it’s important to thoroughly rinse them in cold water to remove the starch, maintaining a chewy texture.

· Toppings: Traditionally, beef slices and egg are used, but you can adjust or add toppings according to preference.

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