Why It Works
- This recipe incorporates a stir-frying step for the black bean sauce, which some store-bought sauces will require.
- Gently poaching the shrimp helps prevent them from dumping their juices into the wok.
- A potato-starch slurry helps the final sauce achieve its glossy sheen.
Across romance-obsessed South Korea, the unattached gear up for April 14, also known as Black Day, an occasion for soaking up the sorrows of singledom with morbid, dark-hued foods—in particular, jjajangmyeon,* a beloved Chinese-immigrant dish of thick, chewy flour noodles smothered in a hearty, glutamate-rich black bean sauce, often containing pork, potato, zucchini, and onions.
The name is sometimes spelled jajangmyeon, a version that was chosen by the National Institute of Korean Language in 1986, but colloquially overruled by the popularity of jjajangmyeon with the two initial j's, resulting in a sharper pronunciation that some have argued more closely resembles that of the Beijing-based dish, zhajiangmian.
This holiday of commiseration is set exactly two months after Valentine’s Day, when Korean women are encouraged to give the men of their choice chocolates, in the hope of receiving white chocolates or cookies in return on White Day, celebrated on March 14. (Judging by Instagram, some Koreans celebrate Black Day on March 14 instead of April 14, but this isn't the norm.) Valentine’s Day and White Day are part of a whole class of “couples' holidays”—one for each of 11 months of the year—to be celebrated only by the lucky pairs blessed with the benevolent smiles of satisfied parents and the jealous sighs of lonely singletons. Those who find themselves uncoupled are granted Black Day as a consolation prize, albeit a delicious one.
Every Korean rite has its associated foods, from the throwing of jujubes and chestnuts to symbolize future children at the post-wedding pyebaek ceremony, to peeling the tops of the favorite fruits of ancestors so that the spirits may easily eat them at jesa ancestor-worship rituals. Black Day, however, is a modern holiday that perpetuates an unusually ironic, rather than earnest, take on food’s place in Korean cultural rites and holidays.
The menu at restaurants celebrating Black Day varies: jjajangmyeon, of course (though it's a delivery or dine-in favorite all year long, consumption of the black bean noodles goes into overdrive on April 14), or noodles colored black with squid ink; black coffee; and black desserts, often containing chocolate. One café has even gone so far as to create a black muffin, and some restaurants host special events and competitions for the singles’ day.
But Gloria Seoyoung, the host of food tour Seoul Foodie Night Out, says she and many singles choose to camp out at friends’ apartments on the holiday, scarfing down jjajangmyeon and tangsuyuk (sweet-and-sour pork). Not only can you get jjajangmyeon from Korean-Chinese restaurants, dropped off at your door via special fast-food delivery motorbikes, humiliated singletons can deposit their sauce-strewn plastic trays and dishes outside their apartments for pickup, never once having to face anyone except the delivery boy/comfort-food savior.
Over time, the holiday has evolved, taking on a tongue-in-cheek tone that allows singles to mock the traditions of cutesy couples while simultaneously rejoicing in and deriding their own singledom. Black Day has become a pop-cultural joke of sorts, even permeating K-pop consciousness, with girl group Pascol releasing a pro-singles song and accompanying video called “Merry Black Day” (enjoy this translation of the lyrics, which calls Black Day “couples' hell”).
“It’s almost like a self-deprecating joke,” says Summer Jung, a research fellow at Stanford who grew up in Seoul. “[Singles] are commiserating but also celebrating.”
I’d never heard of Black Day until I lived in Seoul, where I dated a sophisticated Korean-Australian-Singaporean man who thoughtlessly crushed my heart like a wingtip extinguishing a Dunhill on the neon-lit Shinchon pavement. This playboy “kicked me” (a literal translation of the Korean phrase for “dumped me”) with this careless but pointed text message: “It’s been nice knowing you and I’m glad we met...by the way, could you introduce me to a blonde American girl before you leave for New York?” Trudging home from my version of psychotherapy, a solo, "Aggretsuko"-style karaoke in my striped track pants and pink hair extensions, I felt oddly broken by a relationship that had never even reached official status.
After I mourned my situation with a native Korean friend, she demanded that I come over for some jjajangmyeon for Black Day. This unni (slang for “older female friend”), who was 32 to my 20, had been single for a decade, and her plan was to circumnavigate the globe solo after graduate school. Sitting in her cramped, cluttered apartment, stacked high with papers and snail creams, we ordered jjajangmyeon delivery with extra damugi, a tangy, yellow, pickled mu radish that perfectly lightened the heavy black bean sauce. Was I crying from my friend’s spicy kimchi side dish, or over my pathetic twenty-something existence?
In that airless apartment, in between wounded slurps of noodles, the sauce sticking to my lips, I listed my grievances about dating in Korea, from the ridiculous group dates to the exorbitantly expensive matchmakers to the nerve-wracking practice of sogaeting, where you blindly meet a friend of a friend. When my friend laughed at me after I lamented that I’d never introduce the perfect Korean boyfriend to my parents, I reproached her. This was serious business—I was getting old! I angrily stole several chopsticks-ful of her noodles.
At the end of the night, though, having consumed enough melodramatic K-drama arcs to cathartically purge my misery, I began to believe that I would someday find my happy ending (although, according to K-drama lore, this would happen only after I was bedridden with an incurable case of leukemia, which would woo my handsome lover back to me).
Black Day taught me that friends and food are a curative fount, and that fount flows with an endless supply of umami-explosive black bean sauce, best experienced with other singles. I ate to bursting, hailed a cab, and lay down directly upon arriving home. Call it triaging Maslow’s hierarchy, but a food coma always helps a broken heart sleep a little easier.
“The ritual of sharing jjajangmyeon and tangsuyuk helps rid me and my friends of depression,” Gloria says. “We eat and talk about boys over our food.” Celebrants sometimes gather wearing all black, as if in mourning for their love lives, with the added benefit that black clothing won’t bear the scars of splashes of black bean sauce.
Summer Jung says that even in elementary school, she and her friends would joke that if they were alone in their twenties, at least they could share jjajangmyeon with one another. She blames South Korea’s couple-centric culture, including the highlighting of Black Day on news channels, radio, and websites, for the ostracization of singles.
“In Korean society, if you're older than 25 and haven't dated anyone, they call you a magician, because it’s like you can perform magic because you're so rare and unique,” Jung says. “So I think that tells you how much pressure and social stigma there is against single people.” That pressure tends to peak in the spring, the season of matchmaking, in anticipation of Silver Day (July 14), when couples exchange silver promise rings and potential spouses are introduced to families.
Alex Paik, a director at a marketing and communications agency in Seoul, sees a lot of pressure in the several months of couples-oriented holidays, but also the potential for a romantic silver lining to Black Day’s miseries: “Black Day perpetuates the atmosphere of courtship among those without a partner, thereby making it not awkward to bring up [courtship] in discussion with someone you're interested in.”
Though it's unclear exactly when and how South Korea's mid-month relationship-focused holidays, like Silver Day and White Day, got started, they're usually chalked up to the work of eager corporate marketers looking to profit off of youthful romantic longings. (One of the more absurd examples of this phenomenon, Pepero Day, calls for friends and lovers to exchange Pepero treats, a line of Pocky-like chocolate-dipped sticks, every November 11.) But Black Day is the dark finale, the Return of the Jedi of the trio of major love-centric holidays, in a nation where couples flaunt their unity on Instagram by donning matching coats, shirts, and even underwear.
Still, there’s light at the end of the tunnel: June 14 is Kiss Day, when you can start the cycle again by confessing your affections for a crush, perhaps even sealing your new romance with a kiss freshened by the last of your Lotte Black gum. If not, Black Day will still be waiting for you next year, the friendship-solidifying holiday of a jjajangmyeon lover’s dreams.
This recipe's headnote was written by Sonja Swanson and the recipe is by Seoyoung Jung. It was cross-tested in the Serious Eats test kitchen before publication.
1 cup (225ml) vegetable oil (only if you're stir-frying the black bean sauce; see notes), plus more for stir-frying the meat and aromatics
One 8-ounce (225g) jar black bean sauce (see notes)
6 large shell-on shrimp (3 1/2 ounces; 100g)
6 ounces (170g) boneless, skinless pork belly, cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 scallions, white and light-green parts only, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1/2 teaspoon minced peeled fresh ginger (or more, if you want a stronger ginger flavor)
1 small (6-ounce; 170g) yellow onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice, divided
1 teaspoon (5ml) Korean soy sauce, plus more to taste
1 small (5-ounce; 150g) white potato, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 cleaned squid body (about 2 1/2 ounces; 70g), cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 tablespoon (15ml) oyster sauce, plus more to taste
1 1/2 teaspoons (8g) sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon potato starch mixed with 2 teaspoons (10ml) water
Enough jjajangmyeon noodles for 4 servings
Julienned cucumber, cooked green peas, or thinly sliced scallions, for garnish
If Stir-Frying the Black Bean Sauce (see notes): Add oil to a wok and heat over high heat until oil reaches 350°F (180°C) on an instant-read thermometer. Set the wok's spatula in the oil as it heats so that the spatula is heated as well; this will help prevent the black bean sauce from sticking to the spatula when it's added.
Add black bean sauce and fry, stirring constantly, until black bean sauce begins to look just slightly curdled. Immediately transfer to a heatproof container, along with all the frying oil. It's better to err on the side of less frying if you're unsure, as over-fried black bean sauce will clump up and be difficult to work with later.
To Make the Jjajangmyeon: In a small saucepan of simmering water, poach shrimp until just pink on the outside and still undercooked in the center, about 30 seconds. Drain. Shell shrimp and cut into 1/4-inch dice.
In a clean wok, heat about 3 tablespoons (45ml) vegetable oil over high heat until smoking. (You can use some of the vegetable oil from the bean-frying step, if you stir-fried the beans.) Add pork belly and spread in an even layer. Allow to sear for 30 seconds, then begin stirring and tossing constantly until pork is browned all over, about 30 seconds longer. (If you're working over gas, you may get some flare-ups; they'll die down quickly and enhance the flavor of the stir-fry.)
Add scallion, ginger, and about 3 tablespoons diced onion, then cook, stirring and tossing, until fragrant, about 20 seconds. Add soy sauce, pouring it down the side of the wok to make it sizzle. Cook, stirring, for 10 seconds longer.
Add potato and squid and cook, stirring and tossing constantly, until potato is about half-cooked, about 3 minutes. Add remaining onion and cook, stirring and tossing, until onion has softened, about 1 minute. Working in 1-tablespoon (15ml) additions, add black bean sauce (without too much of the oil it was fried with), tossing to coat all the ingredients; exactly how much you add will depend on your taste, but your goal is a rich black bean character and very dark brown color throughout. (We ended up adding about 5 heaping tablespoons of the black bean sauce we used.)
Add shrimp and toss to combine. Add oyster sauce and sugar and stir well to incorporate. Season with black pepper. Add water, 1 tablespoon (15ml) at a time, until the mixture has thinned enough to create a thick but flowing sauce. Continue cooking until potato is just cooked through; stir often and lower heat as needed to prevent scorching.
Add more water as needed, roughly 1 tablespoon (15ml) at a time, to reach a saucy consistency; if sauce becomes too thin, add 1 teaspoon (5ml) potato-starch slurry and bring to a simmer to help thicken the liquid. Repeat this process, adjusting with small amounts of water and slurry as needed, until the sauce is glossy and thick but slowly pourable. Adjust seasoning with more oyster sauce or soy sauce as desired.
Meanwhile, boil jjajangmyeon noodles following the manufacturer's instructions. Drain and portion into serving bowls. Spoon the jjajangmyeon sauce on top, garnish with cucumbers, peas, or scallions, and serve.
Some black bean sauce comes pre-stir-fried. If your black bean sauce's ingredient list includes oil and flavorings, you can skip the stir-frying instructions in steps 1 and 2. If it doesn't, proceed with the whole recipe as written.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The stir-fried black bean sauce can be refrigerated for up to 1 month.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 29g||37%|
|Saturated Fat 5g||25%|
|Total Carbohydrate 77g||28%|
|Dietary Fiber 6g||21%|
|Total Sugars 6g|
|Vitamin C 11mg||55%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|