One of my favorite foods of all time is noodles. Anything involving noodles or a noodle likeness (like spaghetti) is immensely satisfying to me, so I dedicate this post to a noodle dish that I have recently taken much interest to, even though I grew up eating it. Pictured above is a bowl of bibim naengmyun from Hamhung Myun Oak in Garden Grove. My family and I have been going to this somewhat of a hole-in-the-wall restaurant ever since I was a kid and it never seems to fail, especially in the bibim naengmyun department. To continue, I will define what these words mean.
Bibim – “mixed around.” Some of you will find this word familiar, as it appears in “bibimbap,” the Korean DIY dish that features sticky rice mixed with vegetables, beef, an egg, sesame seed oil and red chili paste.
Naengmyun – “cold noodles.” Mul naengmyun, the most popular naengmyun dish, is buckwheat noodles immersed in an icy cold beef broth and served with sliced cucumbers, a hard-boiled egg and maybe a few slices of pear. Key components of quality naengmyun are ultra chewy, vermicelli-like noodles and a well seasoned, unforgettable broth. Naengmyun is a specialty from the northern regions of Korea of what is now North Korea. If you want truly good naengmyun, you’d have to go to North Korea. Too bad none of us can go there.
Thus, bibim naengmyun is cold noodles mixed in a richly seasoned chili sauce. It’s very, very spicy and full of strong flavors. The deep red color of the dish suggests how damn spicy it is. Doesn’t it look exciting? The sauce has what I like to call the three S’s — spicy, salty and sweet, all at the same time. The one shown above was served with pickled pear and skate, sliced cold beef, the aforementioned buckwheat noodles and of course, the signature hot chili sauce. Both hot and cold, spicy and refreshing, it occurred to me just how deliciously paradoxical this dish is.
Years and years ago, I remember reading an article about a Korean eating custom that explained the logic behind eating impossibly spicy foods on the hottest of days. Upon finishing a bowl of hot noodles or soup (a challenging ordeal in itself), dealing with the sweltering environment suddenly becomes bearable. I confirmed this with my dad, who said the saying goes something like “fight hot with hot, cold with cold.”
And so, some Korean diners eat naengmyun in the wintertime, while in the summertime, hot foods are eaten to combat the heat. Bibim naengmyun incorporates both aspects. You get the refreshing qualities of cool noodles complimented with an invigorating, spicy kick. Though it may not immediately be appealing to those unaccustomed to the dish, it’s a marvelous combination. If you’re ever at a Korean restaurant, look for this dish and if you’re brave enough, go for it.