On the day of the inter-Korean Summit, many people went out to eat Pyongyang naengmyeon. The “Pyongyang naengmyeon” of 2018 is not just another naengmyeon (cold noodle dish). Kim Jong-un’s “We’ve made efforts to bring naengmyeon all the way from Pyongyang” remark has become a bridge between North and South. And the kinship felt between the people who have tasted the Pyeongyang naengmyeon at Pyongyang’s Okryu restaurant has become a topic as hot as, and perhaps even hotter than, the inter-Korean Summit itself. An MBC documentary tells the story of Pyongyang naengmyeon, the dish that has suddenly become a symbol of the times.
They say Pyongyang naengmyeon was once called deoldeori. According to food critic Hwang Gyo-ik, because the noodles are made of buckwheat, they lack gluten and so disintegrate in hot broth. People would therefore only put them in cold liquids like kimchi juice, and the dish became associated with cold winter nights. Hence the name: deoldeol conveys the motion of shivering. And while rice farming was more difficult in the north than in south, buckwheat was in plentiful supply, and the dish became a northern specialty.
One people, united by naengmyeon
When you go to a naengmyeon restaurant, people divide like the Red Sea when it comes to their preferences: Hamheung or Pyongyang naengmyeon; bibim (mixed in a spicy gochujang-based sauce) or mul (served in an icy broth); how you stir the noodles. But when Okryu’s Pyongyang naengmyeon entered the scene as the symbol-laden meal of the summit, it suddenly became the naengmyeon of this generation. And the Okryu restaurant became the holy land. It’s something for the bucket list. It’s a taste you crave. It’s so good, you wish reunification would happen tomorrow so you could drive up to Pyongyang for a bowl. And thus the rise of Pyongyang naengmyeon in the era of meokbang. Pyongyang naengmyeon for the meokbang generation.
The documentary, of course, starts at Okryu. The vast scale of the premises (the 1st and 2nd floors total 12,800 square meters) mean it hardly looks like a restaurant. Bigger than the Jangchung Arena, Okryu can serve naengmyeon to 2,000 people at a time. The restaurant sells over 10,000 bowls every day. People say the broth is the best part. A bowl of pure buckwheat noodles, kimchi, pickled radish, beef, pork, chicken, egg garnish (shiljidan), half a boiled egg, and three pine nuts floating on top. The restaurant recommends adding a dash of vinegar too. Pyeongyang naengmyun: the best seller at the glitzy Okryu, built along the Daedong River in 1961 by order of Kim Il-sung.
However, it would be a pity to limit naengmyeon to Okryu. The documentary aligns the history of naengymeon with the history of our people. North Korea has Okryu, but South Korea has a lot of naengmyeon restaurants just as renowned that boast their own traditions. One such restaurant is Pyongyang Moranbong Naengmyeon, founded by the parents of Park Geun-seong, who both fled south during the January 4th Retreat in the Korean War. Unable to return to their hometown in what is now North Korea, they started selling naengmyeon in the slums of Daejeon, where a large refugee community settled. Park inherited the business from his parents and it is now one of the most popular restaurants in the city. Even after the business had grown from a rice mat laid out in front of a thatched-roof building to a popular restaurant that consumes tens of thousands of radishes and seven thousand heads of napa cabbage each year, Park faithfully preserved his parents’ recipe of dark buckwheat noodles served in a chilled winter radish kimchi broth. Not long before the documentary aired, Park Geun-seong closed his eyes for the last time, longing for his homeland. But traditional naengmyeon restaurants like his are often seen as inauthentic.
The people united by naengmyeon are not limited to the Korean peninsula. The documentary traveled to Kobe, Japan, with John Park, a Korean-American singer whose name has become synonymous with naengmyeon because of his love for it. In Kobe stands the oldest existing naengmyeon restaurant. Opened in 1939, it predates Okryu by several decades. Husband and wife Lee Ju-han and Jang Mo-ran of Pyongyang started the restaurant after arriving in the city during the Japanese Occupation. Their descendants are neither Northern nor Southern. They are “Joseonites”. And they are in the naengmyeon business. Remembering their father’s ways, they keep the traditional flavors alive by making the water kimchi in the Pyongyang-style and hand pulling the noodles.
And there’s a taste of Okryu’s Pyongyang naengmyeon to be found in Seoul too. Okryu chef Yoon Jong-cheol fled North Korea during a severe famine known as the Arduous March but had to leave his daughter behind. He settled in Seoul and brought with him the Okyru flavors. To him, naengmyeon is a reminder of his safety in an unfamiliar city, but it’s also a reminder of the anguish of leaving his daughter behind.
The documentary helps connect the North and South and restores its people. In 2018, Okryu opened a pop-up store in Seoul with a 250-dish limit. Those who gathered to eat at Okryu’s first location in Seoul are a people united by food.
Is Pyongyang naengmyeon really that delicious?
But is Pyongyang naengmyeon really that delicious? This writer has tried the popular dish. To be honest, the broth is bland and watery, and can be hit or miss—leading to quips online that compare it to mop water. Just as some people prefer bibim and some prefer mul, it all comes down to personal preference. This writer wants to try it again because of the strange lull of the thin broth, but it’s not yet clear if name power alone will be enough to sustain the craze.
People say even Okryu’s naengmyeon in North Korea is changing. They say the naengmyeon tasted different in 2000, 2010, and 2018. Though the restaurant prided itself on using pure buckwheat, it has added starch to make the noodles chewier. The staff even started adding gochujang this year. What we in the South know as “bland” Pyongyang naengmyeon does not exist there anymore. So what does this mean? It could mean that what we in the South think of as Pyongyang naengmyeon, or consider the “ideal”, may end up becoming just that, an idea. While we keep trying to habituate ourselves to its bland broth, the original Pyongyang naengmyeon is following global trends and taking on more flavors.
Food changes with era and location. There is Daejeon-style Pyongyang naengmyeon and Kobe-style Pyongyang naengmyeon. What is the most authentic deoldeori eaten in different households during the long nights? The particular cook, kimchi recipe, and local produce all affect the taste of an individual bowl of naengmyeon. With every new generation, new foods become trendy. At one time there was bibimbap, and at another, k-food. This writer hopes that Pyongyang naengmyeon won’t be looked back on as just one more fad. It is moving to see a people united by naengmyeon, but to say “Pyongyang naengmyeon is the best” is excessive praise.
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