Naengmyeon – A Classic Winter Dish with its Roots in North Korea

The unbearable Korean summer has suddenly dissolved away within a matter of few days. The wind is getting more chilly at night. Autumn, the best season in Korea, may just go away so quickly as well. When the winter comes, refugees from the north crave, ironically, cold buckwheat noodle soup.

Gangseo Myeonog’s Pyeongyang naengmyeon

You can find naengmyeon, literally meaning cold noodles, virtually everywhere in South Korea. At a Korean BBQ place, at fast-food styled bunsikjib, and at random eateries selling classic Korean food. Yes, naengmyeon is one of the most ubiquitous dishes found in South Korea. But do we know how it became so popular in the first place?

Pyeongyang vs. Hamheung

The two most common types of naengmyeon found on our tables today are Pyeongyang Naengmyeon and Hamheung Naengmyeon. Both names derived from geographical regions that are now part of North Korea. South Koreans generally associate Pyeongyang-style naengmyeon with buckwheat noodles in cold, meaty broth and Hamheung-style naengmyeon as starchy noodles drenched in sweet-and-spicy sauce.

Naengmyeon can now be found all over South Korea, but its origin is up north. Nowadays, naengmyeon is popular summer dish but it was initially a winter delicacy. In winter, when dongchimi, radish kimchi in broth, freezes in its pot, the cold broth is poured over buckwheat noodles to make naengmyeon. After refrigerator was invented, the seasonal dish became year-round favourite.

Spicy noodles at Hamheung Gombo Naengmyeon

The names Pyeongyang and Hamheung do not necessarily mean that these are the type of noodle dish enjoyed in corresponding regions. In fact, a defector from Hamgyeongdo had testified that you cannot find so-called Hamheung-style naengmyeon in Hamheung. Commentators on popular food show “Suyomisikhoe (Wednesday Food Talk)” suggested that the names are given by South Korean restaurateurs to promote their menu.

Personal Preference

So which is better? Noodles in broth or noodles covered in red sauce? Of course, it all comes down to your preference. Many South Koreans have either love-it-or-hate-it relationship with Pyeongyang naengmyeon. Like many other North Korean classics, the noodle soup is bland. Some enjoy the blandness and appreciate the subtle flavour combination of buckwheat and beef broth. Some adds vinegar and mustard beat the blandness and enhance the flavour.

Same goes with Hamheung naengmyeon. With the younger generations now craving more spice and pungent flavours, many bibim noodle places create sauce with more kick. A few old restaurants, like Hamheung Gombo Naengmyeon in Seoul, attempt to keep their original recipe despite the criticism that the sauce is bland and flavourless.