story by Dennis Lee
When I think of Korean comfort food, I always have one dish in mind—and it isn’t even technically Korean. It’s not spicy. It’s not a bubbling cauldron of soup or eaten with rice. It’s a plate of hot, chewy wheat noodles, drowning in a thick black sauce of fermented black soybeans, chunjang, and cubed vegetables, both salty and slightly sweet at the same time. What I’m describing, is a glorious bowl of jjajangmyeon.
Jjajangmyeon is something Koreans absorbed from Chinese cuisine and transformed into its now iconic form. It’s based on an original Chinese dish, zhájiàngmiàn, comprised of ground pork simmered in fermented black bean paste. Chances are more than likely that if you see it on any restaurant menu, you’ll be enjoying the Korean version. If you see it accompanied with jjampong, a fiery seafood noodle soup, then that’s a dead giveaway that you’re eating at a Korean-run Chinese restaurant. Korean-Chinese food is a translation of Chinese food run through the filter of Korean tastes; it really is a subset of Korean cooking, though not widely advertised as such. Don’t skip the Korean-Chinese version of sweet and sour pork, tangsuyuk, which is a far cry from the candy-apple red version you see here in America (which I admit, I love too, especially late at night).
Jjajangmyeon is a dish that basically uses noodles as the vehicle for eating absurd amounts of sauce, just like a friend of mine once admitted to eating bagels just to ingest an otherwise wildly inappropriate amount of cream cheese. When it comes to other types of comfort food, I usually lean toward carnivorous options, but jjajangmyeon is an exception for me, as it’s based on a vegetable-heavy sauce. Diced pork is an option that’s exercised more often than not, but it really plays a small supporting role. Otherwise, you’ll see some variations that paint from a palette of onions, radishes, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, zucchini, peas, and even corn. Sometimes I daydream about eating the sauce on French fries, which on paper sounds deliciously profane, but I bet in practice is amazing. I’ll report back on this someday.
In Korea, jjajangmyeon is ubiquitous and is considered fast food, often ordered via rapid delivery service. It’s a treat, but it’s also inexpensive, filling, and reliably delicious even when it’s not perfect. And there’s even an unofficial holiday linked heavily to the inky black noodles called Black Day, where sullen singles get together to eat dark-colored food and commiserate over the fact that they are lonely. Knowing people celebrate the good times along with the bad over a giant bowl of drenched black bean noodles should tell you something about how popular this dish is.
On a cheerful and less lonely note, my family celebrates milestones such as birthdays and retirements at a small strip mall restaurant called Twin Dragon in Niles, a suburb of Chicago. We’re fairly demure eaters at home, but these celebratory dinners are the kind that require elastic waistbands. The lazy Susan spins endlessly, acting as a carousel for tangsuyuk, Mongolian beef (a favorite for us), sautéed vegetables and shrimp in a corn starch thickened sauce, spicy octopus, and a dizzying number of other dishes that start to blend together once the food sweats begin.
Then, after the absurd parade of previous courses, the final dish comes out. Inexplicably, it’s the heaviest one in the roster, which is like finding out after you run a marathon that you have to run another one. And yes, it’s jjajangmyeon. I always shake my head, then devour it with glee. But I barely make it to the finish line.
A proper bowl of jjajangmyeon is topped with, aside from the savory black bean sauce, ice-cold julienned cucumber strips and served with danmuji, which is a neon yellow pickled daikon radish that is unabashedly sweet and vinegary. It’s a perfect foil to break through the dense comfort dish. Here’s a fair warning, however. Don’t wear your favorite shirt, as slurping the noodles the wrong way might cause your clothing to look like an amateur version of a Jackson Pollock painting. To be doubly safe, I even take my glasses off as a precautionary measure before digging right in.
Even instant jjajangmyeon is just as dearly beloved. Mention the brand name Chapagetti to fans of Korean food and watch as their eyes light up. It’s like a secret handshake. Chapagetti is comprised of your typical instant ramen noodles, fried and dehydrated, but rather than broth seasoning, it comes with a packet of dried vegetables (my favorite part is the textured soy protein—think of it as mock pork bits), a tan black bean powder, and a tiny packet of vegetable oil to give the noodles a healthy gloss.
There’s a tricky balance to getting the sauce just right. Once you’re done boiling the noodles, you need to reserve a little bit of the starchy boiling water for the vegetables and the black bean powder. If you don’t reserve enough water, the noodles become irreparably dry and sticky, and adding water doesn’t rescue them. If you reserve too much, then, rather than a silky sauce, you have what amounts to a small pool of soup that doesn’t cling to your noodles.
A confession: I have never been able to do it quite right. The only professional move I’ve discovered is that, despite the directions, I boil the vegetable packet with the noodles. If your vegetable packet isn’t boiled properly, those precious soy protein bits turn into strange crunchy rocks, which is pretty unappealing, especially since they get stuck in your teeth. But the gamble on making the noodles just right yields a great prize.
There’s something else about Chapagetti—it’s decidedly not anything like its namesake jjajangmyeon. It’s a ramen-esque translation of the savory black bean noodle, but the fact that it’s so different works just as well, like a frozen pizza versus a fresh one. With a small side of bright red cubed radish kimchi, you have a perfect little meal in under 10 minutes. No additions or modifications necessary.
Now, on the other hand, if you’re looking for a version closer to that you find in a restaurant, there are convenience packages that you can find in the refrigerated section of your local Asian grocery store, complete with wet sauce packets that are fully assembled. The only thing they don’t replicate is the enormous portion size you get from a typical order in a quick-service restaurant, so if nobody is looking, just make yourself the entire package. Just spare yourself the guilt.
When I was growing up, my mother never once made us a bowl of jjajangmyeon from scratch. It was something we would eat for a meal out, which is how most people experience it. Despite the fact that it amounts to a stir-fry sauce mixed with noodles that doesn’t take an exceptional amount of effort, jjajangmyeon doesn’t have the spirit of a dish you make at home.
In my mind, culturally, it’s akin to a fast food hamburger. A burger is not a complicated dish to make in your own kitchen, but why bother when you can get one down any given street for a few dollars? It’s the kind of dish where you look at a friend, shrug, and casually say, “Want to go get a bowl of jjajangmyeon?” The response is always yes, with an involuntary little smile, knowing it’ll be good.
Thankfully, it’s not a difficult dish to make. Dave Park, chef and owner of the restaurant Jeong in Chicago, has written a recipe for a version you can find in the kitchen of a Korean-Chinese restaurant. When you’re eating this at home, you don’t have to worry about being seen covered in flecks of black bean sauce, though you may still want to take off your glasses.
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