Spicy Cold Noodles (냉국수 비빔장)
Updated: Aug 21, 2020
On my first trip to Korea, I went with my wife and her family and toured the whole country. Her parents, her two siblings, and the two of us were all packed in a car for weeks, traveling to every little town, temple, and culturally significant sight. Korea is an amazingly beautiful country with many mountains, beaches, and islands to explore. But its summer is hot. I don't think I ever stopped sweating, and that year there was an energy crisis, so most places didn't use the AC, and if they did it was set to 78 or something crazy.
We would pray to encounter someplace cool, even for a moment.
An air conditioner like this one was glorious. We were definitely spoiled Americans.
Many traditional style Korean restaurants only serve a few menu items. For example, a restaurant might only serve seolleongtang and one or two other items. These restaurants specialize in one dish, and it's going to be awesome, but you don't get many other options on the menu (if you get ANY other options).
One of our stops was a very off-the-beaten-path town with a restaurant similarly famous for their cold noodles and a boiling hot stew. It was a terribly hot day (as most are in Korean summers) and the restaurant didn't have AC, so we were sitting on an outside patio. It was cooler than being in direct sun, but still hot. When they came to get our order, everyone in our party got the cold noodles... except me. I stubbornly insisted on getting the boiling hot, spicy stew because I wanted to try something different. Because it was stew meant to be eaten by two people, my wife was forced to eat it with me. She was not happy with this. I ate it, sweating the whole time and trying to tame the spice by guzzling as much water as was humanly possible. I had to pretend like I was totally happy with my choice because I was the dummy that had demanded hot stew on a brutal Korean summer day. Even the waiter had tried to talk me out of it. I learned my lesson.
Everyone else had cold noodles and left lunch happy and ready to continue our journey. I left soaking wet and suffering death glares from my wife. Cold noodles are life savers.
There are several versions of cold noodles. The most popular is probably mul naengmyeon, which is cold chewy buckwheat noodles served in a type of iced vinegar soup. It's by far the ultimate dish on a hot day.
It might seem counter intuitive, but eating spicy food on a hot day is actually really refreshing (unless it's a boiling hot stew). There are several cold noodle dishes that incorporate, kimchi, or red pepper paste, or another spicy sauce. Bibim naengmyeon is a version of this. Literally it means mixed cold noodles.
This version, served with chewy buckwheat noodles, hard boiled eggs, pickled radish, and red pepper, is pretty standard. Cucumbers are a common addition, too.
Normally I use my quick and easy dadaegi sauce, but this time I decided to use my aunt's recipe for the sauce. It's more traditional, and a little more complex and has a bit deeper flavor than the dadaegi sauce.
To assemble the dish, you need to make this sauce at least a day in advance to let the flavors meld together.
The recipe here is for the sauce - It makes a lot, more than you would need for a few servings of noodles. The great thing is that it goes on everything. You can add it to vegetables as a dipping sauce, or mix it with tuna or other items to combine with rice. It will last in the fridge for awhile, so you can keep it on hand for a quick lunch where all you have to do is boil some noodles.
To make the noodles, boil some buckwheat / soba noodles or naengmyeon noodles (thinner, longer and chewier than soba). Immediately cool them down in the strainer by giving them an ice bath as you rinse.
The pickled radish is another recipe that I have yet to put up. But if you are ambitious it's like this: Thinly slice Korean radish into 3" long strips and salt. Let sit for 30 minutes and then drain. Lightly rinse excess salt off the radish and place in a tub with some sugar, vinegar, and rice wine (or Sprite). It should sit for another hour or so before it's ready to eat. If you use Sprite, omit adding sugar.
Note: I used soba noodles available pretty much anywhere. But if you use the Korean naengmyeon noodles, they are sold in the freezer section (냉면 - is the Korean).
For the sauce:
2.5 cups of fine red pepper flakes (this is different than normal - if you don't have them on hand, grind regular red pepper flakes in a blender and measure out)
2 cups of onion, grated
3 tablespoons of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon of ginger, minced
2 tablespoons of salt
1 cup of grain syrup
2 cups of vinegar
1 1/3 cups fermented juice (or grated Asian pear)
2/3 cups of sugar
2/3 cup of soy sauce
1/2 cup of sesame seeds
1) Using a large bowl, combine chili flakes, onion, garlic, ginger, salt, syrup, and vinegar. Mix and let marinate for 5 - 6 hours.
2) Add the rest of the ingredients to the mix and combine well. Place in a container and refrigerate for at least a week (you can eat it immediately, but the flavor deepens as it ages!)