Sunday, December 30, 2007

What about naengmyon?

“What about naengmyon? Such a wonderful commingling of parts -- chewy gray noodles! Cold savory broth! Sweet grainy pear! Salty pickled radish! Vinegar, mustard! Pretty boiled egg!”

This is how my sister feels about mul naengmyon, the Korean dish of chewy buckwheat noodles in a very clear, very fine cold beef broth. She feels pretty strongly about bibim naengmyon, too, which are the same noodles also served cold, but in a sweet, spicy red pepper sauce, rather than the beef broth.

I’ve never shared Mona’s passion for naengmyon. There’s nothing like a cool bowl of naengmyon on a hot summer day, but there is also so much mediocre naengmyon out there, I had forgotten how good it could it be. But yesterday, having lunch at Hanwoori, I had a naengmyon epiphany. It is one of “The Top Five Noodle Dishes of Asia”.

It was easy to forget because unlike some of the other contenders, naengmyon is a difficult food. Nine times out of ten, a bowl of pho or ramen will be perfectly tasty, if not sublime. Naengmyon, on the other hand, will be utterly forgettable nine times out of ten. The tenth time, it will be sublime.

The biggest challenge with mul naengmyon is the broth. If the idea of a cold meat broth turns you off, there’s a reason. It has to be carefully clarified, skimmed of all fat, rich in flavor and yet still clear and light, without the heavy gelatinous mouth-feel of most meaty stocks. The broth and the noodles are the main players, so they must not be overwhelmed with garnishes, but a few thin slices of pickled cucumber and radish, sweet Asian pear, cold sliced beef, and half a “pretty boiled egg” add just the right amount of contrast in texture, crunch, and flavor. Even if a perfect bowl comes out of the kitchen, you the eater have to be careful with the last-minute condiments of a spicy mustard and vinegar. The perfect proportion will make the broth sing; too much of either will muddy the broth and no amount of adding the other will ever restore the balance.

Bibim naengmyon is not much easier. There’s no cold beef broth to deal with, but the sweet, spicy sauce is surprisingly hard to get right. I’ve had so many bowls of bibim naengmyon that were too spicy, too sweet, or too much of both, as if the cook hoped to simply overwhelm my tastebuds to hide his lack of skill. At Hanwoori, only a small amount to just coat the noodles was sufficient to make the noodles perfect. It was just spicy, sweet, and tart enough to tease you into wanting more.

Naengmyon is a culinary lodestar. It reminds me that the best food is made with balance, restraint, and care. The best food can’t be eaten everyday or wherever you want—there is no good naengmyon in Manhattan. Most of the time, I will still choose what is more easily satisfying—like ramen during a layover at the Tokyo airport—because warm satisfaction is good for the soul. But it’s equally good for the soul to occasionally eat and know there are foods like Hanwoori naengmyon out there.

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