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[ICONIC FOOD] Summer classic is really a winter treat

Naengmyeon is made up of ingredients that can only be harvested in the cold months
June 10,2019
Mul naengmyeon, Bibim naengmyeon
Temperatures are rising and long lines of people are snaking out the doors of any restaurant offering cool treats to diners looking to beat the heat. Besides sweets such as ice cream or bingsu, shaved ice, naengmyeon - cold noodles - instantly come to mind for foodies in Korea looking to fill up their stomachs and cool themselves off.

However, many are surprised to hear some say that cold noodles actually taste better in the winter.

That was an idea decades ago, when Korea didn’t have ways to store food at the right temperature and moisture level. Buckwheat, the main ingredient for the noodles, is harvested from mid-October to early November in North Korea, where the most popular style of naengmyeon originates from. The freshly harvested buckwheat has a strong scent, making the dish even more appealing before digging in with a pair of chopsticks, and the grains helps give the noodles an elastic texture. If not stored properly in the hot and humid environment, the scent goes away and the dough gets less tight, according to Hwang Gyo-ik, a local food critic.

Another key factor that makes the noodle dish more popular in the winter is that people used to add a broth made of dongchimi, a type of watery kimchi made with white radish, to the bowl. The white radish has an even sweeter taste as the weather gets colder thanks to the root vegetable’s attempt to concentrate its energy to keep itself alive in the colder months. The broth is naturally cold because the jars that store the kimchi will have been kept outside in the cold.

The dish is made up of ingredients that could only be found during the cold winter months in the northern regions of the Korean Peninsula. However, as technology improved, it became possible to refrigerate ingredients and even make ice to keep things cold. And after Japanese colonial rule in the early 1900s, it became possible to eat naengmyeon any time of year. Many restaurants were imitating a style of the dish handed down from people who came south from the northern regions, and many started to see the cold noodles as a way to lower their body temperature in the summer.

Park Chung-bae, another food critic, argues that naengmyeon must have been enjoyed in the northern regions during the winter to fight the heat as well. Though it sounds ironic, Korean homes use the ondol (heated flooring) system in their homes which heats the floor up, and often times it gets too hot in certain areas in the house and even makes people sweat. To find a balance between getting too hot in the winter, he claims, people ate the cold dish to cool off inside their homes.

Naengmyeon can be enjoyed any time of year thanks to advanced technology that keep ingredients as fresh as possible throughout the year, regardless of when they are harvested. And unless one has a photographic memory that helps one remember the exact difference in taste between naengmyeon eaten in the winter and one you eat in the summer, it is nearly impossible to tell which version is better. But, doesn’t the image of eating the dish at a snow-covered restaurant as snowflakes hit your face make you forget about the summer heat a little bit more? Thinking about this scene may even give you a chill... or that may be the air conditioning. However it happens, winter has made its way to you right on your table.

BY LEE SUN-MIN [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]