“All of North Korea is a jail.”
- Kim Y. Sam, Korean Martial Artist
My Dad, for a man that comes from a semi-tropical Pacific island, is pathetic when it comes to heat and humidity. Anti-perspirants are useless against his pores. I think he may have his own microclimate. It’s that bad. And for some reason, he didn’t read the fine print when he decided to practice medicine in Chicago. Chicago summers are hot and sticky. And I know what all you DC’ers and Philly residents are going to say…it’s not as bad as… But it is. We’re talking muggy and HOT. Consistently 90°F hot. And with the humidity, it’s feeling more like 100°+.
What do you want to eat? Normally, nothing that doesn’t involve the word ice. Iced coffee. Iced tea. Ice cream. Ice cubes. But soup? Yep, that’s we ate at our house. Cold noodle soup. And it was probably on the menu 3 times a week at our house (the other 4 days either were filled with sushi or lots of whining).
Cold soup is a tradition in many food cultures. Borscht, for example, can be served either hot or cold. Gazpacho, vichyssoise, cold cucumber soup. All fantastic, but there is a big problem with them: I’m still hungry. Really hungry. Even though it’s hot outside, after a long day of running at the beach, I want food. And lots of it. No wimpy frenchie soup is going to do it for me. I want some starch and some protein in chewable form.
This is why naengmyeon (in Korean, 냉면,) is so awesome. It’s deliciously cold and filling, but not heavy. Perfect for a summer meal. It is consistently on menus at most Korean restaurants, but I have yet to see any foodie hipster order it. Or I should rephrase: I have yet to see any white foodie hipster order it.
This is probably due to the nature of ethnic restaurants in general. Certain foods are lauded as “representative” of a particular culture. Brazilians get feijoada. Japanese get sushi. Mexicans get tacos. Vietnamese get pho. French get foie gras. For Koreans, it’s galbi (or kalbi), grilled beef short-rib.
Here’s the funny thing about all of those “representative” food items: none of them are everyday food for the respective ethnic cultures they supposedly represent. Mexico is more than tacos (just ask Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill in Chicago). French food can be as simple as a baguette and brie (By the way, the French have the highest consumption of McDonalds in Europe.). And most Japanese eat sushi no more than 1 time a month – not 5 days a week like some New Yorkers. And galbi is no exception. Unless one is beggin’ for clogged arteries and Lipitor, nobody in Korea eats galbi on a regular basis. Maybe once a month. More like one every couple of months.
I have a couple of theories regarding why certain ethnic foods are highlighted more than others, but that is for another post. The world of food is not just confined what you can get at your Thai restaurant in Poughkeepsie (sorry if I offended anyone living there). This is certainly the case for Korean food. There is a whole range of regional specialties that are either never served or reserved for the “Korean” menu of Korean restaurants.
Naengmyeon is one of those foods. Traditionally served for the Royal Court of Korea, naengmyeon is a specialty of northern regions of Korea – as in Pyongyang, in the heart of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) or North Korea. Korea, until the Japanese takeover of the peninsula in 1910, was a monarchy with an entire tradition of court food. Much of this food never makes it out of Korea. And that’s a pity because some of the great traditions of Korean cooking lie within this particular set of dishes. For example, there is a whole tradition of rice porridges that include ginseng, jujubes, red dates, chestnuts and apricot kernels. Trust me, if you are going for authenticity, it sure beats the ubiquitous potato salad seen at every banchan platter in the US.
But there is another reason to revive this and other regional specialties in Korea. They are dying. Much of the knowledge I have of traditional Korean cooking is from my grandmother. Her generation was the last to see the end of the Korean Dynasty – and the culinary traditions that accompanied them. Furthermore, as one of the calumnies of history, those that had the most knowledge about these court customs were those living in or had relatives in North Korea. And as with the rest of the developing world, the influx of Western food, such as pasta and hamburgers, have changed the cooking styles and preferences for much of the Korean population. And in a country which owes its rapid development after the WWII and the Korean War to new hyperboles of the Protestant work ethic (Pilgrims have nuthin’ on East Asia) has also been dependent upon a whole host of convenience foods such as frozen mandoo (dumplings), frozen noodles, ramen, pre-made gim (nori sheets) to feed the 12 hour office lady and man. Nobody cooks anymore and the secrets of entire generations of culinary knowledge dies an ignominious death.
Sadly, this is happening all over the world, and not just in developing countries. In the US, the last of the great southern cooks, Edna Lewis, died in 2006. If it weren’t for the dedicated efforts Scott Peacock to take care of her and her culinary knowledge, her recipes would have disappeared into the grave. But most cultures don’t have a Scott Peacock to save them from obscurity. Can we save those cooking traditions?
Many anthropologists and historians have done oral histories as a means of preserving cultural heritages before they die. I think the same should be done for these regional and local cuisines. The only way to insure their longevity is to commit them to some preserved form – paper. As much as people would like to see sculpture, artwork and other material forms as the manifestation of cultural preservation, so much of culture, especially, food, is in lived form. Cooking is just like any other form of embodied practices. Like medicine or art, culinary traditions are dependent upon persons for their survival. Food is a vital part of our selves: our society, our history, and our nature. We lose food cultures, we lose ourselves.
Next time you have time, go grill your grandparents about their food traditions. You may be surprised with what you find – not just a yummy recipe, but also connection through time and space that no McDonald’s hamburger will ever replace – memories and love.
|Mul Naengmyeon (Vegetarian)|
Mul Naengmyeon is made from buckwheat noodles. And contrary to it’s name, buckwheat is not a cereal or grass; it’s a psuedocereal (like quinoa). While most people associate Korean food with rice, there is a large tradition of noodle eating in Korea. Noodles are not indigenous to Korea; like many other pasta/noodle traditions, noodles were imported from China (Mongol invasions) and archaeological evidence points to noodle molds as early as the 10th century.
There are two types of naengmyeon: mul naengmyeon and bibim naengmyeon. Mul naengmyeon refers to a cold noodles served with broth and condiments. Bibim naengmyeon, on the other hand, is a cold noodle dish that is dressed with gochujang (spicy red chili paste, that is staff of life at our house). Both are delicious, however, as bibim naenmyeon is really spicy (sweaty, nose-clearing spicy), it’s not exactly the most refreshing food in the summer.
The recipe below is for mul naengmyeon, or water cold noodles. The biggest pain is making the broth. However, if you have any frozen stock on hand, you can easily use it in a pinch. And if you make excess broth, you can easily freeze it and use it for another day. The noodles are easily found in Korean grocery stores (see picture above). As they are made out of buckwheat, they are suitable for gluten-free types. Making a vegetable broth and omitting the beef can also suit vegetarians. And the most important thing: serve cold. Add ice cubes to the broth. Otherwise it’s just lukewarm noodles and soup.
1 pd. buckwheat (naenmyeon) noodles
1 pd. beef brisket
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 in. piece of ginger, peeled and sliced (coarse slicing is fine)
2 tbs. soy sauce (use Korean if you can find it)
1/2 chili pepper or more to taste (Jalapeno, Serrano or Bird’s Eye are all fine)
5 tbs. rice vinegar
10 c. water
2 tsp. sugar
1 Asian pear, thinly sliced
1 cucumber (Kirby or English cucumber. If waxy, peel first.), thinly sliced on bias
2 hard boiled eggs, cooled
Hot mustard oil or Dijon mustard
1. Take brisket, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, chili pepper, 2 tbs. rice vinegar, and water and bring to a boil in a stock pot over medium high heat. Turn down the heat so the broth simmers gently and skim off any scum that accumulates in the pot. Simmer for 35-40 minutes, until meat is cooked through.
2. Take beef out of stock and cool until easily handled. Take half of the meat and slice thinly (about 1/8) on the bias and reserve (can be made a day ahead at this point-just don’t slice meat until ready to serve) in fridge.
3. Strain broth and add sugar, large pinch of salt and 3 tbs. of rice vinegar. Stir to dissolve, and refrigerate broth for at least 2 hours, or until cold.
4. When ready to serve, boil a large pot of water. Add noodles and cook for 5 minutes. Drain and rinse thoroughly with cold water.
5. Taste cold broth for seasoning. Add more salt if necessary. Divide the broth amongst 4 large size soup bowls. Add noodles in the middle of the bowl. Distribute pear, beef and cucumber slices on top of the noodle. Top with boiled egg. Have each guest place as much mustard (or mustard oil) and rice vinegar to one’s taste. Kimchee can be added as well for extra oomph.
 In Korea, beef commands a high price. It is about US $20 dollars a pound. Almost all the beef consumed in South Korea is exported from US, Argentina and Australia, etc. The reason for lack of domestic beef is simple: no land. Cattle take up enormous resources and the densely populated Korean peninsula doesn’t have the excess land needed for grazing or ranching. Beef has always been considered a luxury and even today, most Koreans will mainly eat beef on special occasions, such as birthdays, anniversaries and holidays.
 This is where I go on my rant about Euro-centric biases in restaurant foods. While many chefs and restaurateurs will spend months researching the regional foods of Italy, France, or Spain, nobody seems to be interested in researching the regional specialties of other cuisines. Restaurants and foodies go all gaga over some shaved Italian fish eggs, but ask them to promote geoducks? Not happening. There are several TV shows that explore food cultures, such as PBS’ series, “KimChee Chronicles,” and Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations,” but I can’t help but feel there is a certain amount of cultural voyeurism going on in these shows. While I appreciate the shout-out for food cultures across the world, why can’t these recipes be printed and shared instead of “ooohed” and “ahhed” over with the proper politically correct PBS voice-over. Nothing says appreciation than a steaming bowl of goat curry and homemade baby radish kim-chee.
 And if you ask any Korean-American about North Korea, the first response is likely to be a tirade against the North Korean regime and the next will have to do with naengmyoen. The first large wave of South Koreans came right after the 1965 Immigration Act, which was the first reform of Asian immigration standards since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Most Koreans immigrants of that period were of the generation that survived WWII and the Korean War. Needless to say, North Korea is not a topic that brings out the love.
 I’m not really sure why this is, but it seems every single Korean restaurant in the US serves mayonnaise laden potato salad with their banchan, or Korean side dishes. I suspect the reason has to do with either catering to white people or it’s a legacy of the black markets during the Korean War, in which products such as mayonnaise were first introduced into Korea.
 Just in case this isn’t obvious, but the preservation of Korean culture in North Korea is politically laden. While certain aspects of Korean culture, such as watercolor art, calligraphy and embroidery, have been preserved, much of the work has been used for political ends. While the techniques still survive, their meaning has been lost to ideology. By the way, no North Korean can even afford to eat their famed dish - it is simply far too expensive for North Koreans who regularly need foreign food aid due to poor planning and famines.
 There is a school of thinking that suggests that you should eat really spicy food in hot weather as it triggers sweating, which in turn helps your body cool down. In theory, this should work, but considering Chicago is full of humidity, you are likely to be drowning in your own sweat after eating bibim naenmyeon.