At Omi Korean Grill in Carrollton, Learning to Eat, and Love, Cold Noodles in the Heat
Naeng myun, like revenge, is a dish best served cold. While there are many permutations of this Koreanchilled-noodle staple, the two main types are mul naeng myun and bibim naeng myun.
Mul naeng myun is made with soft, buckwheat noodles and surrounded by icy pheasant or beef broth. This preparation is colloquially known as Pyeongyang-style, which presumably means it is also used to torture generations of political dissidents. When combined with a bit of kimchee brine, the broth takes on a delicate, balanced flavor. As delicate as gamy poultry and fermented vegetables can be, anyway.
This compares to the Hamheung rendition known as bibim naeng myun, which is characterized by a flavor-forward red chili sauce that gives the tongue a one-two punch of sweet and spice. Broth, if present, will be kept to a minimum. Hamheung-style noodles feature a higher percentage of potato starch to buckwheat flour than their Pyeongyang counterparts, resulting in a noodle that commands the mandible to attention.
There is common ground to be found when it comes to both the manner in which the two styles are served -- in large, stainless steel bowls -- and how they are bedecked. Typical noodle-accoutrement includes half a boiled egg, thinly sliced cucumber, pickled radish and pear. The combined effect of these toppings is a circa-2005 krump off for your tastebuds.
While naeng myun is now thought of as the perfect antidote to a hot summer's day, it was historically eaten during winter. According to the Korean Food Foundation, "in the old days, the naeng myun experience was a combination of a warm Ondol (underfloor heating system) floor, freezing winter temperature and icy cold naeng myun." I tried replicating this full-body, gastronomic experience by strapping a hot water bottle to each of my feet and eating ramen while sitting in my refrigerator, with mixed results.
For $10, you can easily capture the modern-day naeng myun experience at any good Korean restaurant. I did during a recent trip to Omi Korean Grill & Bar in Carrollton. Having never eaten naeng myun and with only a loose understanding of its components (this was pre-oh-please-help-me-David-Chang-spirit-monster-I'm-writing-an-Observer-article-on-Korean-cold-noodle-dishes-and-know-nothing-about-Korean-cold-noodle-dishes-research), I ordered the hwe naeng myun.
Hwe naeng myun is described innocuously on Omi's menu as cold noodles mixed with sliced raw fish and vegetables. When I ordered it, the waitress got this frozen look on her face. "Cold noodle?" she asked. After convincing her that I was not simply mangling the dish called "bulgogi" -- the safe-word of Korean cuisine -- she reluctantly took my order and started placing things on our table. First, a container each of vinegar and mustard -- standard condiments for naeng myun -- followed ominously by a large pair of scissors.
The scissors' purpose, it turns out, is to facilitate the noodle-eating process. After the Hamheung-style hwe naeng myun was brought to the table, the waitress made two quick cuts, turning the gelatinous mound of buckwheat noodles into four manageable segments. At Omi, they "prepare the noodles by boiling them for a minute or two in salted water before washing them in very cold water," says Connie Lee, one of the restaurant's managers. The chef then shapes the noodles into a cohesive form before adding broth, ice shavings, chili sauce and toppings galore.
The chef in question is Kim Gook Lyun, a kindly older man who, with Lee translating, seemed to take being drilled by the Hwe Nang Myun Inquisitor in good stride. His rendition of hwe naeng myun makes for a delicious, palate-awakening introduction for noodle novices such as myself.
Hwe is the Korean equivalent of sashimi. Lee suggested that while tradition calls for skate, hwe naeng myun can be made with tuna, salmon or any of your favorite finned friends. At Omi they use stingray, which is similar to skate in it that it is a cartilaginous fish with a springy texture and mild taste. Unlike skate, eating stingray makes you feel like a badass.
If you grew up in a house like mine, where cartilage was a thing in your nose, not a thing on your plate, the experience of seeing what appears to be a tiny spinal column in each thin strip of fish is disconcerting, as there is no real way of "eating around it." If you can get past the thought of chomping down on Nemo's vertebrae, however, you may find that the crunch of cartilage is a welcomed addition to the fish's toothsome flesh, which is coated in yet more tangy red chili paste.
I found my chopsticks lapping the stainless steel bowl, picking up a bit of crunchy stingray from one side before pulling up a few earthy noodles from the other. I weaved in a bite of egg or sweet Asian pair from time to time, both of which provided a nice reprieve from the pungent nature of the dish's other components. By the end I was drawing the spicy, sweet red sauce down into the icy broth, helping blend the flavors together while also loosening the surrounding noodles, not quite a pro but not far off, either.
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