Naeng Myun

Savory Recipes, Summer • 2 Jul 2008

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I have been consistently craving naeng myun ever since I first sampled the beautiful soup in San Diego. That was two years ago. I have since developed a mental obsession with the dish, an enlightening combination of flavors and textures that is burned in my mind like a visceral tattoo.

The day of my soup revelation, the Southern California sun was on fire and the humidity level at rare SoCal heights. It was a scorcher, the kind of day where you stave off the fiery air by seeking shelter inside overly air conditioned malls or cool, azure swimming pools.

My friend had been talking up one of her favorite local Korean BBQ joints and I was in town just for the day. I needed to try this place. Despite the heat, we braved the fierce smoke and glittering flames of the indoor grills. I was content with our selection of bulgogi and samgyeopsal, but my friend’s husband insisted we try naeng myun, one of his favorite childhood dishes, and major refreshment after the charred, spiced meats. He swore it would be just the thing to refresh our still-hungry, overheated bodies before we once again braved the torrid, dense air.

Sipping and slurping the tangy, icy soup was a revelation. The broth is so subtle, the tangy soupcon of radish brine whirled into the slightly sweet beef stock danced a gustatory pas de deux on my tongue, the elegant interplay of sweet and sour. It was that taste-moment I realized I could live the rest of my life eating nothing but naeng myun. This was my new death row meal, that meal in which I would wholeheartedly indulge on my last night on earth. Everything about the dish struck a harmonious chord and the icy, refreshing broth couldn’t have been more soul-satisfying, the liquid lovingly licking our throats, a cool tingling spreading like the flames of the grill through our bodies.

Naeng myun, which means “cold noodles” is a Korean repast made with slightly chewy buckwheat or yam noodles nested in a cold beef broth. The noodles and soup are seasoned tableside by adding tangy vinegar or spicy mustard before eating and most typically topped with an array of bite sized texture variants: tender slices of beef brisket, sliced cucumber, half a hard-boiled egg, sweet Asian pear, and a mild pickled daikon radish (and often with shaved or cubed iced). Use of Korean buckwheat noodles or arrowroot noodles yields a wonderfully chewy, springy texture and slightly sweet taste.

I started my broth in an atypical fashion. Many traditional naeng myun beef broths are conceived of brisket boiled in water with scallions and garlic. Due to my local market’s lack of brisket and a fussy looking flank steak, I went with a healthy cut of London broil and oxtails for their unctuously rich fat. I also beefed things up my using scallions, thinly sliced garlic, and a whole onion. My broth was evocative, breathtakingly flavorful, especially after adding a few tablespoons of vinegar to finish (which I utilized in place of dongchimi brine, the tangy liquid used for pickling daikon kimchi).

My version of naeng myun wasn’t entirely authentic, but it was the taste I remembered and for that, I was proud of my efforts.

Naeng Myun

Beef broth:
1 pound beef brisket, flank steak, or London broil
1 1/2 pounds oxtail
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 scallions, green and white parts, whole
1 medium onion, peeled, cut in quarters
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus additional to taste
1/2 teaspoon pepper
4 tablespoons vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar

Garnish:
1/4 large daikon radish (about 7 ounces)
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
2 teaspoons white vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 small pickling cucumber
1 Asian pear
2 hardboiled eggs
1 22-ounce package Korean buckwheat noodles (made from buckwheat flour and sweet-potato starch) or arrowroot noodles

1. To make the broth, rinse meat and place in large stock pot with onion, scallions, garlic, salt and pepper. Cover with 8 to 9 cups of cold water, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about an hour, or until meat is cooked through, skimming foam and fat occasionally.

2. Remove beef and oxtails. Discard onions and oxtails (or reserve oxtails for other use). Strain the broth until a clean pot and continue to boil broth for an additional 15 minutes. Cool broth slightly. Add sugar, vinegar and salt to taste. Chill broth in refrigerator for about 2 hours, or until broth is very cold.

3. To prepare garnishes, sice beef across the grain into very thin slices, about 1/8-inch thick, yielding about 5 slices per bowl. Reserve remaining meat for another use.

4. Wash, peel and slice radish into long, flat pieces (like a ribbon), about 3-inches long. Add 1 teaspoon vinegar, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1/2 teaspoon of salt to radish. Mix well and let sit while you prepare the rest of the garnishes. Prepare cucumber in the same manner, although do not peel. Wash and slice 1/8-inch pieces of Asian pear.

5. Prepare a large pot of boiling water and cook the noodles about 2-3 minutes, until the noodles are al dente and chewy. Drain and rinse with cold water.

6. Drain liquid from radish and cucumber and add 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil to each.

7. To serve, place about a handful of noodles at the bottom of 4 large bowls. Top noodles with radish, cucumbers, meat, pears, and egg. Ladle broth around noodles. Serve accompanied by small bowls of vinegar and hot Asian mustard to garnish.

Yield: Serves 4.

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