Summer in Koreatown has long been marked by the sounds of slurping. The season for naeng myun -- cold noodles -- is now in full swing, and at restaurants across the neighborhood, huge bowlfuls of chewy buckwheat noodles quickly disappear. Occasionally there are pauses for a spoonful of icy-cold tangy broth, a bite of crunchy pickled daikon or cucumber, a sliver of crisp-sweet Asian pear, or a slice of tender beef brisket.
Naeng myun is a light, refreshing dish from North Korea especially popular during the humid summers of the Korean peninsula’s monsoon season. At the restaurant chain Yu Chun in Los Angeles, the broth is icy cold -- with snowy, shaved ice piled on top. It’s not unheard of at restaurants here to find ice cubes floating in one’s broth, although the practice of adding ice isn’t de rigueur in the Koreas.
The soup is traditionally made with a combination of beef broth and dongchimi brine (the clear liquid used for pickling a particular type of daikon kimchi), and its cold temperature doesn’t stun or overwhelm so much as heighten the interplay between sweet noodles and sour soup.
In mul naeng myun (cold noodles in soup), the most popular preparation of naeng myun, noodles are piled high in the cool, beefy-tangy broth. Other traditional styles include hoe naeng myun (cold noodles with raw fish), in which the noodles are topped with slices of raw fish and mixed with a chile-pepper dressing, and yeolmu naeng myun (cold noodles with young radish), served with fermented baby radish in the soup.
Mul naeng myun always comes with that neat stack of thinly sliced beef, typically brisket or shank, lightly pickled cucumber and daikon, sliced pear and half a hard-boiled egg -- a small mountain of chewy and crunchy textures.
The slurping may not commence, however, without a dollop of Asian hot mustard, a splash of vinegar and a sprinkling of sugar administered table side.
Tangy mul naeng myun is so popular a refresher that it also doubles as a palate cleanser after a main course of kalbi, Korean barbecue beef short ribs. Large bowls of it are dropped off at the table like entree-size desserts, complete with new sets of chopsticks and soup spoons. The sweet noodles and cold broth feel just right after the parade of sticky, sauced beef.
Making the dish from scratch requires only enough time to make a quick beef stock and enough patience to allow the soup to cool to an icy temperature.
Most important, according to several Korean restaurants with a signature naeng myun, is striking the right balance between homemade beef broth and the dongchimi (watery radish kimchi) brine, sold in large tubs at most Korean grocers. The brine typically is made with water, garlic, ginger, green onions, chiles and pear.
Selecting the right noodle is also key. Korean buckwheat noodles, available here in packages with generic English labeling such as “Oriental style noodles,” are the common and most popular noodles used in cold preparations. They’re made with a mix of buckwheat and sweet-potato flours and have a slightly sweeter and chewier texture than soba, the Japanese counterpart made of buckwheat and wheat flours.
One popular alternative is arrowroot noodles, which are slightly gelatinous and more elastic. Restaurant servers often cut the noodles with scissors right at the table to make them easier to eat.
At Korean markets, there are long rows of noodles of all kinds: rice noodles, buckwheat noodles, unrefined buckwheat noodles, etc. But ingredients are listed in English on the back of the package; look for buckwheat flour and sweet-potato starch (or for arrowroot, if you choose).
In addition to traditional mul naeng myun, another great version of Korean cold noodles to make at home is a seafood variation with a shrimp- and fish-based broth. Like hoe naeng myun, it has skate wing -- but cooked, just until slightly firm but tender. And the broth takes even less time to make than the traditional beef naeng myun.
The only other requisite is a set of really big bowls. Punch bowls would not be out of order.
In a large stock pot, bring 10 cups of water, the beef brisket, garlic, ginger, green onions, serrano chile, 3 tablespoons of the distilled vinegar and the soy sauce to a boil. Once it comes to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 35 minutes uncovered.
Remove the meat using tongs and set it aside on a cutting board to dry, wrapped in paper towels. Place something heavy, such as a cast-iron skillet, on top of the meat to keep it flat. When it’s cool enough to handle, quarter the brisket. Slice a quarter of the brisket into one-eighth-inch-thick slices and reserve the rest for another use.
Skim any scum off the top of the broth. Remove the broth from the heat and strain into a large bowl. To the broth, add the dongchimi liquid, the remaining 2 tablespoons distilled vinegar, 2 teaspoons salt and 2 1/2 teaspoons sugar. Stir to thoroughly combine and chill in an ice water bath, or refrigerated for about 2 hours, until very cold.
Prepare a large pot of boiling water and cook the noodles according to the package directions (about 2 minutes) until the noodles are just al dente, flexible but springy in texture and chewy. Drain immediately and rinse with cold water to stop cooking.
Divide the noodles into four large soup bowls. Pour the chilled broth over each pile of noodles. Top each bowl evenly to taste with the beef, pear, daikon, cucumber and half a hard-boiled egg. Serve accompanied by bowls of vinegar, hot Asian mustard and sugar to garnish.
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