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Korean people are soup people.
I know Korean barbecue has hooved its way into popular food culture, but I would like everyone else to know that I did not grow up grilling pounds of marinated beef or pork in the middle of our family’s kitchen table every night. (Occasionally, yes, but mostly no.)
Korean people are such soup people that many special occasions come with a corresponding soup. New Year’s Day? Have a bowl of tteokguk, a brothy soup featuring bias-sliced tteok, or chewy Korean rice cakes. Is it your birthday? Then someone in your Korean house is probably preparing a steaming pot of miyeok guk, a seaweed soup with a beef or seafood broth, served with rice.
No worries if you don’t live in a Korean house. You can still sate all your soup-related special occasions at Korean House, the Del City restaurant that serves all that barbecue stuff we were talking about, in addition to a bunch of other Korean specialties, including those of the noodle-y varieties I am here to talk about right now.
Behold 짬뽕, often Romanized as jjamppong and offered on the Korean House menu as jamphong. It’s a noodle soup with a rich, VERY seafood-forward broth, a little spicy, shrimp, mussels, squid, bok choy, and aromatic veggies. All these things come perched atop a tangle of springy wheat noodles. The noodles offer a welcome bulk to what is otherwise, despite appearances, a pretty light bowl of soup.
This variety of noodle is often sold frozen in twisted bundles of varying widths at Korean grocery stores or larger Asian grocery stores, and they are a pretty distinctly Korean product meant to replicate a commonly homemade noodle (some store-bought variations even appear to be hand-cut). If you still need a comparison here, they’re udon-inspired in their chewiness and recipe applications, but a bit thinner. They’re a good texture for chopsticking—even in soup!—but peep the color of that broth: you’re gonna want to tuck a napkin into your shirt before you go slurping all over the place.
“But Becky,” you’re saying to a screen of text, “I came here to learn about noodles and not about soup, for I am not a Korean soup person, or even a soup person at all!”
Take heart, weirdo, because those same delicious noodles are comin’ atcha in another of my favorite Korean dishes, jjajangmyun, or what Korean House calls “Black Noodles.”
If you’re an instant noodle aficionado, which is a less time-consuming and higher-in-sodium subset of the kind of aficionado I am, you may recognize the gold-wrapped “Chapagetti” brand of instant noodles as a loose approximation of this dish. As a kid, I called them “brown noodles.” I was close, I guess.
Korean House’s version of the dish is fairly traditional, with thinly sliced pork and slivers of potato, zucchini, and onion served ragout-style in a thick sauce made from fermented black bean paste. Unlike some Italian purists who say you want just enough sauce to coat the noodles, on this dish, you get roughly equal parts sauce and noodles. It’s a hearty comfort dish, popular with kids, with a subtle flavor that belies its stark appearance. Kind of a spaghetti-with-red-sauce vibe, except it’s not spaghetti, and there is no red sauce. Goes great with the sourest kimchi among the banchan, aka complimentary sides often served at Korean restaurants.
Fun fact for noodle-eating lonely hearts: this dish has its own unofficial holiday connection. April 14 in South Korea is Black Day, a day of commiserating meant for women who didn’t receive gifts on Valentine’s Day or White Day. Celebrants, if you can call them that, wear black and eat black foods in honor of their own loveless voids. The cool thing about Black Day is if you’re wearing black, you don’t have to worry about splashing black bean sauce all over your clothes while you slurp. We call that a silver lining.
If you’re still reading this for some reason even though none of the things I’ve talked about sound good to you, allow me to put forth a couple noodle honorable mentions:
- Japchae is a Korean stir-fried noodle dish made with springy sweet potato starch noodles, slivered beef, and vegetables. Some versions of this dish qualify for paleo dieters, I’ve heard, though that is obviously not an area in which I am well-versed.
- The naengmyun and Red Noodles at Korean House are both served cold!
- Remember those New Year’s rice cakes I talked about earlier? Their thicker, unsliced cousins are a popular Korean street food in the form of tteokbokki, or dukbocki—chewy rice cake cylinders (if you use your imagination, you might be able to even call them noodles) awash in a crazy spicy red sauce with fish cakes, cabbage, and carrots. This is a fun appetizer for the table; it’s also plenty of food for an entree.
Visit Noodling sponsor Super Cao Nguyen from 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. every day in the heart of OKC's Asian District, 2668 N. Military Ave.