If you think L.A.'s summers are bad, you’ve probably never experienced summer in Seoul. Temperatures can top 100, but the killer is the humidity. Going into a summer in Korea is like being invited to the devil’s sauna.
Given the brutal weather, Koreans have devised many ways to cope. There are two major theories. On one side are the people who believe that you can fight fire with fire. They think that if you eat hot and spicy food, you get more energy and can combat the listlessness that summer brings. Not only will you sweat more, but in contrast to the hot and spicy food you just ate, the outside temperature will also make you feel cooler.
My dad and his friends belong to this first camp. They take hot baths and eat the most fire-burning, chile-filled hot pots, dabbing beads of sweat from their brows as they do. I’ve seen some of the most fervent ones emerge from steaming saunas on sweltering days.
The other side believes that you should combat the heat with cold. They take cool baths, eat dishes drowned in ice and stay away from the more spicy foods.
I belong to the latter group. On any given summer day in L.A., I can be found with my portable ice shaver in one hand and an ice pop in the other, running to the nearest climate-controlled shelter. Not that I’m afraid of heat, mind you, but I’m no glutton for punishment.
When I’m feeling extra-lazy and irritable (i.e., I don’t feel like getting near a stove), I hop into my car, air-conditioner blasting me in the face, and head down to Koreatown to look for the familiar banners advertising naengmyon and pot bingsu.
There are two major types of naengmyon--mul naengmyon (which means “cold water noodles” in Korean) and bibim naengmyon (which is a spicy mixed noodle dish with pieces of raw skate).
Naengmyon was originally a winter food, eaten by those from the cold northern provinces of Pyongyang and Hamgyong.
People in Pyongyang province ate the predecessor to mul naengmyon. Their buckwheat noodles were served in beef stock with cold pheasant meat.
The bibim naengmyon from Hamgyong province was made with hot spices mixed with hamhung (flounder). The raw fish was salted and seasoned, then eaten bones and all. Today, bibim naengmyon is prepared with skate, which is easier to get.
Because of its refreshing coolness, naengmyon eventually evolved into the national summertime dish.
When Koreans speak of naengmyon, they are generally referring to the soup type. Usually served in large metal bowls with ice cubes clinking inside, mul naengmyon consists of noodles in a beef-based broth. It is garnished with cucumbers, pickled daikon and hard-boiled eggs. The crunchiness of the cucumber and pickled daikon complement the chewy consistency of the noodles. (Because the noodles can be so elastic and difficult to eat, the waitress will come and cut them for you with scissors.)
The cold metal of the dish feels wonderful against your palm as you lift it up to drink that wonderful broth.
Another popular chilled noodle dish is kong guksu--which is made with somen or other noodles in a beautiful white soy-based broth. A subtler flavor than naengmyon, kong guksu is another one of the joys of summer eating.
You can top off a cold meal with an order of pot bingsu if you’d like. Found in most cafes and bakeries throughout Koreatown, it is simply a pile of shaved ice mixed with sweet red beans, fruit cocktail, cooked rice powder and with a variety of brightly colored fruit syrups added for flavor.
Even though it may be a clash of fire and ice when my dad and I sit down for a summer meal--my cold noodles and his spicy soups--the one thing we can agree on is what we’re going to have for dessert: a nice bowl of ice cream shared between us.