You wouldn’t be able to tell it these days, but Korean noodle dishes were once expensive, served sparingly at special-occasion feasts. While they’re still not necessarily a dominant part of Korean cuisine—which generally goes far deeper on rice- and rice-cake dishes—they’re also not only for special occasions anymore.
Now, in a place like Koreatown in Los Angeles, a bowl of knife-cut noodles in soup is as cheap as lunch at McDonald’s. Trying to catalog all the different Korean noodle dishes would be an impossible endeavor—there are countless regional variations, not to mention endless versions of a single dish based on the ingredients or the type of noodle. Did you want mul naengmyeon, bibim naengmyeon, milmyeon, or bibim milmyeon? That would depend on whether you’re in the mood for buckwheat or wheat noodles, in broth or sweet-spicy sauce. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg poking out of your bowl of cold noodles. So here’s a starter kit for the noodle novice, with many thanks to noodle experts David Chang, Michael Stokes of Insa in Brooklyn, and Esther Choi of Mokbar, a Korean noodle bar in Manhattan.
This classic home-style noodle soup literally means knife (kal)-cut noodles (guksu), cut about the width of linguini. Chang says: “I like this because it’s real lazy-man cooking: instead of cooking the pasta in a separate pot, you cook it right in the stock.” Traditionally, the dish was eaten only in summer, when barley and wheat are harvested. But now you can find kalguksu any time of year, served in broth made from anchovies and shellfish, clams, or chicken. Flavored versions can incorporate kimchi, bean powders, mugwort, or perilla into the noodle dough. Replace the noodles with dough flakes (often lightened with potato starch, per Stokes), and you’ve got sujebi.
Back in the day, all noodle dishes were reserved for special occasions; these days, it’s specifically janchi guksu that pops up at most weddings and other celebrations (the word janchi means “banquet” or “feast”). This soup features thin wheat-flour somyeon noodles in a light anchovy broth. It will often come topped with shredded egg, beef, and zucchini, plus yangnyeom, a sauce made from sesame oil, Korean soy sauce, chili powder, garlic, and scallions.
Thanks to the Chinese diaspora, every country in the world seems to have its own popular semi-Chinese dish (see: General Tso’s chicken), and Korea is no exception. The defining dish of Korean Chinese food is jjajangmyeon: thick, hand-pulled wheat noodles in black-bean sauce, which Chang compares to black ragù: “beef or pork used sparingly, with chopped vegetables that get sautéed—it’s basically Italian.” Jjajangmyeon arrived in Korea via the Port of Incheon in the late 1800s—the entry point for most Chinese people into Korea, and the home of Korea’s largest and oldest Chinatown—as zha jian mein and were adapted for the Korean palate by immigrants from Shandong. The dish didn’t become super popular until after the Korean War, however, when onions were added into the mix.
After jjajangmyeon, this spicy noodle soup—made of vegetables and shellfish in a seafood broth—is the second most popular Korean-Chinese noodle dish. (Stokes notes that this dish is also a popular Japanese-Chinese noodle dish in Nagasaki, where it is called champon.) Mostly restaurants will use the same hand-pulled wheat noodles you’ll find in their jjajangmyeon, but occasionally you’ll see those replaced with Korean-style udon noodles.
When it comes to doctoring instant ramen, your college roommate has got nothing on the country of Korea, which eats eighty bags per person of the stuff annually (more per capita than any other country in the world). Introduced in the 1960s, the instant noodles are sold and eaten immediately in not only convenience stores and cafés, but restaurants too, where toppings like meat and raw egg are added to the bubbling soup. You’ll also find the noodles used in rabokki, a variation of the sweet-and-spicy rice-cake dish known as dukbokki. Chang notes: “There are so many new dishes—those Korean mutant dishes—that almost always have instant ramen in them; you’re starting to see the option of adding instant ramen more and more. At this point, if I get budae jjigae, army stew with hot dogs and Spam, it almost doesn’t feel right if it doesn’t have instant ramen in it.”
Nothing says summertime like a big icy bowl of mul naengmyeon, noodles in cold beef broth with shredded cucumbers, sliced Asian pear, mild kimchi, boiled egg, and slices of beef. Naengmyeon almost always means buckwheat noodles, but the color and chewiness—based on the other flours the buckwheat is cut with and the amount of buckwheat in the flour mix—will vary from region to region. Like the inverse of kalguksu, naengmyeon originally started off as a winter dish to coincide with the buckwheat-harvesting season; when noodles became less of a special occasion, it morphed into the hot-weather dish it is today. Classic naengmyeon, according to Chang, needs to be super cold and refreshing: “It’s almost better if it’s like a slushie.”
Take away the broth, and you have bibim naengmyeon, in which the noodles are tossed in a sweet-and-spicy gochujang dressing and often topped with beef or marinated raw fish. Classic naengmyeon but with wheat noodles is milmyeon. Wheat noodles and no broth? That’s bibim milmyeon.
A warning from Chang: “My dad does not respect anyone who has his noodles cut. They always ask you if you want to cut it with scissors. And that’s a big no-no in my dad’s world—it’s basically like you’re a pussy, like Really? It’s like using a fork and knife for a hot dog. That’s how he looks at it, like What is your fucking problem? And you don’t use a spoon to drink the broth. You always bring the bowl to your mouth. Spoons are an amateur move.”
This dish is made of thin Japanese-style somyeon noodles twisted into a bun-like twirl, then topped with shredded vegetables, meat, boiled egg, and a sweet-spicy sauce sometimes thinned out with naengmyeon broth. Bibim means “mixed,” which is exactly what you are supposed to do with the noodles and toppings. Think bibimbap, but with noodles instead of rice. Make it with soba and serve it on a platter with toppings like shredded carrots, red cabbage, sprouts, bell peppers, and boiled egg, and you have jaengban guksu.
Sometimes accidents can make for the best food creations, as evidenced by this cold noodle dish invented in the seventies, when a noodle factory in Incheon made a batch of wheat noodles that were both too big and too chewy, like a thick spaghetti. They are usually tossed in a spicy sauce and topped with shredded cucumbers and bean sprouts. According to Stokes, “The sauce is similar to what’s used for bibimguksu; both jjolmyeon and bibimguksu generally have more vegetables than naengmyeon.”
There’s nothing out there quite like kongguksu, a dish of knife-cut noodles made from a combination of wheat flour and soybean powder in a thick, milky-looking broth made from fresh soybeans and sesame. Occasionally, you’ll find versions made from darker arrowroot or kudzu noodles (chik guksu). There’s also a variation called jatguksu, where the broth is made from pine-nut milk instead of soy milk.
Many versions of naengmyeon feature beef broth brightened with a bit of dongchimi water, the leftover liquid from fresh white-radish kimchi. If you’re a fan of that, you might want to try seeking out dongchimi guksu, a simple soup of noodles (sometimes wheat, sometimes buckwheat—Stokes uses somyeon noodles) in a broth made entirely from that mildly sweet, tangy liquid.
NOODLES THAT TRANSCEND TEMPERATURE
Jap chae, a dish of dangmyeon (glass noodles made from sweet-potato starch) tossed with vegetables, soy sauce, sesame oil, and sugar, might be the most widely known Korean noodle dish in the United States. According to Choi, it’s one of the few noodle dishes that does well at all temperatures: she grew up eating it at room temperature, which is how you’ll find it most often, served in small portions as banchan. It’s also commonly served cold, or made fresh to order and served hot as part of a celebratory feast. A precursor to the dish—the name of which translates to “mixed vegetables”—is said to have been invented in the seventeenth century for King Gwanghaegun. Noodles were added to the mix in 1912, when Pyongyang got its first dangmyeon factory. A variation called tangpyeongchae substitutes noodles made of mung-bean jelly.