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Icy & spicy: Korean noodle dish is savory and refreshing

Ari LeVaux
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Naengmyeon is exceptional served cold. Don't heat it up!

On the sidewalk outside of a Korean restaurant in a suburban Vancouver strip mall last summer, a signboard announced “Summer Menu.” I had no idea what that meant, but Korean food rarely lets me down. In that steaming humidity, with my shirt sticking to my body, I walked through the restaurant door. By the time I emerged, everything was different.

On the menu, I had noticed a dish called naengmyeon (knee-yang-my-in), billed as a cold noodle soup. I didn’t know much more, but it seemed like a great choice for that sweltering day, so I ordered it. The server brought a platter filled with little bowls of pickled vegetables, and a big bowl of ice, topped with noodles and vegetables. I’ve had plenty of meals served on hot plates to keep them warm, but never had a meal served on ice. He then poured a pitcher of clear, cold broth into the bowl, and set me loose on it.

It took a minute to get used to, like some alien life form. I am used to the idea that food must be hot in order to taste right, but this dish was the opposite. If it were warm, it would surely be tasty, but it wouldn’t be exceptional like it is cold. The soba noodles were particularly adept at clinging to the cold broth and crunchy vegetables. I was grateful for the ice, because I did not want that quenching daikon broth to warm up.

Naengmyeon originated in 15th century North Korea, where it was made with ice from the mountains. It’s the only North Korean dish I know. It makes you wonder what else the North Koreans would have to offer if they weren’t so oppressed, and is a sobering way to feel solidarity with them.

Part of the genius of this dish is how simultaneously savory and refreshing it is. When I think refreshing I usually think sweet, so it’s exhilarating to feel that from a salty food.

When I got home, I began making naengmyeon for hot afternoons on the patio, where it hit the spot deliciously. I learned my recipe from an online video by a Korean foodie named Kwon. He is really into naengmyeon — and food in general — and his glee is contagious.

I’ve transcribed Kwon’s performance into the recipe below. The most important part of this recipe is the radish broth itself, which is very simple and has a fascinating flavor. You can dress those brothy noodles however you wish. I add the cucumber, pickled daikon and hard boiled egg, which are popular, as well as tomatoes — an unusual addition but I think it works. Sometimes I blanch vegetables like broccoli, bok choy or radish greens, and add them to the pile.

Many cooks, Kwon included, add cold slices of lean beef from a piece that had simmered in the radish broth. Daikon broth is a great medium in which to prepare meat, but I prefer my meat warm. Temperature aside, naengmyeon is an otherwise light dish, and meat takes it in a heavy direction I don’t care to follow. So instead of adding a slab of brisket, I prefer to make the stock with a bit of beef bouillon.

Kwon’s Daikon Broth

This will make about four quarts of broth, which I keep frozen. Then, when it’s going to be a hot day and I want some cold noodles, I’ll take some out to thaw.

• 1 pound daikon radish, peeled and cut into inch-thick disks

• 3 ounces ginger, peeled with a spoon and cut into 4 pieces

• 1 large onion, cut into quarters

• 1 tablespoon Better than Bouillon (or other brand) beef flavored paste

Cut each piece of daikon into quarters and place them in a pot with five quarts of water. Add the ginger, onion and bouillon. Simmer for two hours. Allow it to cool to room temperature. Strain, and store in the freezer. Remember not to fill your containers all the way up, or they’ll burst when they freeze.

Daikon Pickles

• 4 ounces peeled daikon

• 3 tablespoons cider vinegar

• 1 teaspoon sugar

• 1 pinch red pepper flakes

Use the peeler to thin-slice the daikon into ribbons. Mix with the other ingredients and let sit for 20 minutes.

Assembling and Serving the Naengmyeon

Serves 4

• 1 pound soba noodles

• 1 large cucumber, sliced into 3-inch-long strips

• Veggies like baby bok choy, broccoli or radish sprouts, boiled briefly and plunged into ice water

• Sliced jalapenos, optional, to taste

• 2 quarts daikon broth, thawed and cold

• 2 hard boiled eggs, peeled and sliced in half

• Soy sauce to taste

• Korean hot red chili paste or chile flakes, to taste

• Rice vinegar to taste

Boil the soba noodles until slightly al dente, and rinse them by hand in a strainer under the faucet. Strain and refrigerate until use.

During the heat of the day, put six ice cubes into each bowl, and place the noodles on top. “Twist the noodles to make them more beautiful,” Kwon recommends. He adds cucumbers, pickled daikon, hard-boiled egg, brisket, Korean pear and mustard.

Eventually you figure out how you like it, and you make your own pile of custom goodies atop the iced noodles. When the pile is complete, fill the bowl with cold radish broth. Season with soy sauce, vinegar and red chili paste.