There's plenty of starch to be found on and off the streets of Seoul, from tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes) to pajeon (a "pancake" typically made with green onions) and gimbap (a type of sushi roll) to bibimbap (a rice bowl with various toppings to mix in). During my recent trip to South Korea, though, I was on a constant quest to satisfy my noodle urgings, looking beyond chap chae (stir-fried sweet potato noodles, perhaps the best-known Korean noodle dish) to explore other options.
Naengmyeon (long, thin buckwheat noodles served in a large steel bowl) is one of my favorite Korean noodle dishes, and it's what drew me to Ojang-dong Hamheung Naengmyeon. As I sat on the floor at one of the long communal tables, I noticed many people getting bibim naengmyeon, with its tell-tale dressing of red chili paste (gochujang) and a small bowl of beef broth to the side. Upon closer inspection and better understanding of the restaurant name, I realized most were eating hoe naengmyeon, a bibim variety with raw skate that originates in the city of Hamheung. But after a long walk on a warm day, I wanted to cool off with mul naengmyeon: buckwheat noodles swimming in icy cold beef broth. Piled on top of the noodles were slices of zucchini and pear, along with beef slices and a hard-cooked egg (see top photo).
The server asked if I wanted her to cut the noodles—yes, please, though I enjoy handling scissors at the table, too—and then I added vinegar, mustard, sugar, and eventually even a little kimchi (I couldn't help it) to continually change the flavor profile. The noodles were slightly chewy, but apparently not nearly as chewy as the noodles in the hoe naengmyeon, which are made with potato or sweet potato starch.
After learning that I like mul naengmyeon, Seoul-based food blogger and tour guide Joe McPherson of ZenKimchi insisted on introducing me to mul makguksu at Bongpyeong Memil Makguksu. When we met up, I asked why, and he said, "The broth here is rich and deep, like a beef consommé, and the noodles are slightly thicker and rougher, which gives them their name, 'rough noodles.'" This noodle dish is a specialty of Gangwon province, which is known for its buckwheat.
The bowl made fine use of the crop, featuring earthy buckwheat noodles in a clear, beefy broth. The balance of flavors in the mul makguksu was a thing of beauty, with hints of the ocean from strips of seaweed and spice from the red chili paste. You can wash it all down with makgeolli (a milky alcoholic beverage made from fermented grains, typically rice or wheat), including a floral Gangwon variety made with buckwheat flowers.
Nearly every guide book steered me to Myeondong Gyoja, where there's typically a line to try the featured dish: kalguksu. For kalguksu noodles, dough is made with wheat flour and eggs, and then cut into thin slices with a knife. I enjoyed the long, chewy noodles as well as the pyramid-shaped byeonsi mandu dumplings, though I found the broth to be a bit bland, like a weak chicken soup, despite the ground beef and chives floating in it.
That broth doesn't stay bland long, though, if you add the intense kimchi you get with your order. This was one of the most garlicky servings of kimchi I ate in Seoul, and probably explains why you also get mint gum with the meal. I first put kimchi on the rice to eat it plain, but then dumped both in the bowl. Later, after looking at Myeondong Gyoja's website, I saw that you can add whatever you want to make your soup bowl a happy meal—and that the restaurant will apparently bring you more of anything you like at no extra charge.
Along with ZenKimchi, the other popular company offering English-language food tours in Seoul is O'ngo Food Communications. Take their Korean Night Dining Tour and you'll likely stop at Matborae Tteokbokki, where you can sample royal toppoki. Matborae serves a number of interesting tteokbokki dishes, including seafood, fried rice, and cheese (seemingly popular with young women) versions. They come to the table hot pot-style, enabling you to control the cooking.
The royal toppoki is a busy affair with beef, dumplings, peppers, chives, fish cakes, noodles, and, of course, the tubular rice cakes known as tteokbokki, sometimes spelled toppoki. Soy sauce and sesame sauce help flavor the dish, though there's apparently natural fruit juice added to sweeten it. I enjoyed tteokbokki in red chili sauce throughout Seoul (especially a stir-fried version I found)—it's perhaps South Korea's most popular street food—but I was glad to get it with noodles as well.
Ojang-dong Hamheung Naengmyeon
108 Mareunnae-ro, Jung-gu, Seoul (map)
Bongpyeong Memil Makguksu
345-1 Dohwa-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul (map)
141-1 Insa-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul (map)
About the author: Jay Friedman is a Seattle-based freelance food writer who happens to travel extensively as a sex educator. An avid fan of noodles (some call him "The Mein Man"), he sees sensuality in all foods, and blogs about it at his Gastrolust website. You can follow him on Twitter @jayfriedman.