The Origin of Naengmyeon (cold noodles)

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During a hot summer, many Koreans crave the noodle dish ‘naengmyeon,’ with its deep buckwheat scent and chilled soup. Naengmyeon was actually originally eaten during cold winters, however there are few things better than a cold bowl of naengmyeon to fight the summer heat. This ‘Korean Naengmyeon Family tree’ shows how Naengmyeon from Pyongan-do, Hwanghae-do, and Hamgyong-do in North Korea travelled down to South Korea.


Pyongan-do, Hamgyong-do, Hwanghae-do – the Hometowns of Naengmyeon

Naengmyeon has been a popular dine-out dish among the people of Pyongyang for a long time. The Pyeonyang Joseon People Noodle Association was established in 1911, the whole of the Pyongan-province is known as the ‘Naengmyeon nation,’ due to the intense popularity there of the noodle dish. In Pyongyang, people traditionally ate Naengmyeon during the colder months, with one reason being that buckwheat is harvested during the autumn, and thus tastes best during winter. The main reason for its winter consumption, however, is the strong, refreshing flavor of the soup’s ‘dongchimi’ (water-based radish kimchi) during wintertime. Meat soup made of beef, pork, chicken and pheasant with buckwheat noodle Naengmyeon also existed at this time.

In the 1920’s in Hamgyong-do, starch noodles made of potato or sweet potato were a popular dine-out dish. Food historians estimate that ‘Hoeguksu’ (raw fish noodles) - potato starch noodles with sliced flatfish and a spicy sauce made of chili powder and garlic – were made here for the first time during the 1930’s. The people of the Heungnam area ate Hoeguksu regularly, however these days in North Korea, soupy ‘Gamja nongma guksu’ (farmer’s potato noodles), are more popular.

The history of Naengmyeon in Hwanghae-do is similar to that of Pyonyang. On April 21st 1928, the Naengmyeon restaurants of Hwanghae-do, Sariwon, launched the ‘Myeonok Nodong Johab’ (Noodle Labor Association)’ with a total of 70 members. Sariwon and Haeju are still at the center of Hwanghae-do Naengmyeon. Hwanghae-do Naengmyeon contains thick noodles with a pork soup bas, for a stronger meat flavor, with added soy sauce and sugar for sweetness and saltiness. The ‘mul naengmyeong’ (cold noodle soup) remains the same. The noodles in this must be thick, so as to not be overwhelmed by the soup’s strong taste.


Naengmyeon leaves North Korea and Settles in the South

Naengmyeon was introduced as a dine-out food in Seoul in the late 19th century, and hundreds of Naengmyeon restaurants emerged in the 1920s. For the people of Seoul, Naengmyeon was already a summer delicacy. After the Korean war, Seoul-style Naengmyeon restaurants gradually disappeared, and was replaced by Pyongan-do style Naengmyeon restaurants.

After the Korean war, many displaced citizens from the Pyongan-do region settled down in the area surrounding Namsan mountain, Namdaemoon, and Youngnak Presbyterian Church. Problems with ingredients and weather means that dongchimi soup was replaced by the tastier beef soup, for use in Naengmyeon restaurants run by the people of Pyongan-do. Popular Pyongyang Naengmyeon restaurants in Seoul are ‘Uraeok,’ ‘Pyongyang Myeonok,’ ‘Nampo Myeonok,’ ‘Eulji Myeonok,’ ‘Pildong Myeono,k’ ‘Seobuk Myeonok,’ and Uelmildae’. Newer, popular restaurants in Pangyo, Gyeonggi-do, are ‘Bongpiyang’ run by ‘Byeokje galbi,’ and ‘Neungra’.

The people of Hamgyong-do, on the other hand, settled down around the Jungbu market and Ojang-dong’s Cheonggyecheon Stream. In 1953, ‘Ojang-dong Hamheung Naengmyeon’ started business, and thus began Hamheung Naengmyeon’s strong history. During this golden age, there were around twenty Hamheung Naengmyeon stores in Ojang-dong. Lately, however, Hamheung Naengmyeon is has seen a decline in popularity, against the increased popularity of Pyongyang Naengmyeon. ‘Hamheung Gombo naengmyeon’ and ‘Ojang-dong Hamheung Naengmyeon’ still remain to this day.

Perhaps due to its close proximity to Hwanghae-do, Naengmyeon in Incheon also became very popular after the Korean war. An article about the ‘Naengmyeon Delivery Association’ was even featured in a newspaper in Incheon in 1936. After the Korean war, many people of Hwanghae-do fled to Baengnyeongdo Island, and Naengmyeon cuisine blossomed here after they settled. The people of Baengnyeongdo thus began selling Baengnyeongdo Island Naengmyeon in Incheon. This style of Naengmyeon contains sand eel fish sauce in the soup as a specialty. ‘Bupyeong Mak guksu’ in Incheon, ‘Byeongane Ongjin Naengmyeon’, and Baengnyeongdo ‘Sagot Naengmyeon’ are popular Baengnyeongdo style Naengmyeon restaurants.

Okcheon-myeon, Yangpyeong-gun, Gyeonggi-do also boasts a ‘Hwanghae-do style’ or ‘Haeju style’ Naengmyeon culture, similar to that of Baengnyeongdo, Incheon. In 1952, Lee Geon-hyeop from Hwanghae-do opened a ‘Hwanghae Naengmyeon’ restaurant in Okcheon, and now six or seven Naengmyeon restaurants thrive there. While the Hwanghae Naengmyeon restaurant has since changed its name to ‘Okcheon Naengmyon,’ other restaurants such as ‘Okcheon Goeub Naengmyeon’ are also of high-quality.

Daejeon’s Naengmyeon history began with the restaurant ‘Sutgolwon Naengmyeon,’ opened after the Korean war by Park Geun-sung, a member of a popular Naengmyeon restaurant-owning family in Pyongyang. Sutgol, Daejeon, is home to many people displaced after the Korean war. Naengmyeon here is made from chicken and dongchimi soup broth.

Since 1952, many displaced citizens settled around the US Army bases in Uijeongbu and Dongducheon. ‘Pyongnam Myeonok’ was opened by one such citizen from Pyongyang, selling Naengmyeon similar to that of Pyongyang market. The soup with thin sheets of ice is similar to that served by ‘Eulmildae’ in Mapo, Seoul. ‘Uijeongbu Pyongyang Myeonok’ was opened in 1970s by Hong Jin-gwan, who fled from Pyongyang after the 1.4 retreat in Gyeonggi-do, and moved to Uijeongbu in 1987. The restaurant is still popular to this day.

It’s impossible not to mention Uijeongbu Pyongyang Myeonok when discussing the history of Korean Naengmyeon. ‘Pildong Myeonok’ and ‘Eulji Myeonok’ are run by the daughters of the Hong family – a pivotal family in the history of Korean Naengmyeon. One common recipe of Uijeongbu Pyongyang Myeonok style naengmyeon restaurants is to chill the beef brisket soup after removing the oil, add some dongchimi soup, and then some chili powder.

Pyongyang became home to U.S army bases and refugee camps in 1951, during the Korean war. After the war, many people from Hwanghae-do and Pyongan-do settled down to open Naengmyeon restaurants as well. As such, the Naengmyeon restaurant ‘Gangseo Myeonok’ was opened in Gangseo, Pyongan-do, in 1953. Gangseo Myeonok then moved to Seoul in 1958. The son of Go Hak-seong, owner of popular Naengmyeon restaurant ‘Jungang Myeonok’ in Ganggye, Pyongan-do in 1930s, later opened ‘Gobaksa Naengmyeon’ (which later changed its name to ‘Gobokrye Naengmyeon’) in 1974. Gangseo Myeonok and Gobaksa Naengmyeon use clear chilled beef brisket soup after removing the oil, pouring on the dongchimi soup, and adding soy sauce for a browner color.

The first Pyongyang style Naengmyeon restaurant in Daegu was ‘Gangsan myeonok,’ opened in 1951 by a Korean war refugee from Pyongyang. Later, in the mid-late 1960s, the son of the CEO of ‘Anmyeonok’ in Busan opened ‘Daedong Myeonok’ in Daedong. In 1969, Anmyeonok moved to the city of Busan, and re-opened as ‘Busan Anmyeonok,’ before settling as a Naengmyeon restaurant in Daegu. Daegu style Pyongyang Naengmyeon is made of clear soup with beef brisket, soy sauce and vinegar for taste, like dongchimi soup.

Poonggi was home to the highest number of displaced citizens in Gyeongsangbuk-do. After the war, refugees who had gathered in Poonggi made significant wealth through silk businesses, known as ‘Poonggi Ingyeon’ (Poonggi artificial silk). With this development, Pyongyang style Naengmyeon restaurants also thrived. After the 1970s, the Poonggi artificial silk business declined, and many of the Naengmyeon restaurants closed. The most well-known Naengmyeon restaurant is ‘Seobu Naengmyeon,’ opened in 1973 by a CEO from Unsan, Pyongbuk. People in Gyeongsang-tended to dislike pheasant and pork soup bases, which led to the beef soup base still used today.

After the Korean war, many Hamgyeon-do refugees gathered nearby Cheongho-dong, a coastal sand beach, and Jungang-dong, just opposite Geumho-dong, in Sokcho. The oldest Naengmyeon restaurant in South Korea, ‘Hamheung Naengmyeonok,’ opened in Jungang-dong, in 1951. Hamheung Naengmyeonok created ‘Sokcho style’ Hamheung Naengmyeon. This dish involved switching traditionally potato starch noodles to sweet potato starch noodles, and swapping sliced flat fish for a topping of sliced pollack. Other famous Hamheung Naengmyeon restaurants are ‘Hamheung Naengmyeonok’ ‘Yangbandaek’ ‘Dancheon sikdang’ and ‘Daepo Hamheung Naengmyeonok’.


Hamheung Naengmyeon Localized as Busan ‘Milmyeon’ (wheat noodles), and the creation of ‘Jinju Naengmyeon’

Hamheung Naengmyeon travelled down to Busan with Hamheung refugees, and was reborn as Milmyeon (wheat noodles) upon meeting the thriving noodle cuisine in Busan. After the Heungnam evacuation in 1954, a huge refugee village was built in Uam-dong, Nam-gu, Busan. One refugee who had owned a Naengmyeon restaurant in Naeho, Hamgyong-do, re-opened ‘Naeho Naengmyeon,‘ named after his hometown, in 1954. Weather and ingredients different to those available in his hometown meant that, in 1959, the owner began to create noodles made of 70% wheat flour and 30% sweet potato starch. This ‘Milmyeon’ was known as ‘mil naengmyeon,’ ‘Busan Naengmyeon,’ and ‘Gyungsang-do naengmyeon’ in its early days. In this way, you can see how the birth of Milmyeon was affected by Naengmyeon. Original milmyeon restaurants are ‘Naeho naengmyeon,’ ‘Simin naengmyeon,’ and ’Gaegeum naengmyeon’ .

Gyeongnam Jinju has its own, long-standing Naengmyeon cuisine culture, independent of those in Pyongan-do, Hwanghae-do, and Hamgyong-do. Jinju bay’s Naengmyeon is known simply as ‘Jinju Naengmyeon’ and is believed to have emerged in the late 19th century. Until the mid-1960s, there were 6~7 naengmyeon restaurants in Okbong-dong, including ‘Eunha sikdang’ and ‘Pyeonghwa sikdang’, however most had closed by the end of this period. Recently, however, Jinju Naengmyeon has seen a revival. This new Jinju Naengmyeon is has a seafood soup broth base, uses buckwheat and sweet potato starch noodles, and beef yukjeon (beef pancake) as a topping. The restaurant ‘Hayeonok,’ although not perfect, is considered to be the expert of Jinju Naengmyeon. ‘Jaegeon Naengmyeon’, the biggest naengmyeon restaurant in Korea, is located in Sacheon, just below Jinju. The restaurants owner moved back to Korea from Japan to start the business in 1948, and is known for using pork yukjeon as a topping on his dishes.

Although Pyongyang Naengmyeon was traditionally considered a dish for North Korean elderly, it has recently seen a boom in popularity among younger generations. Following this trend, many Pyongyang Naengmyeon restaurants have opened in recent years, including ‘Neungra’ in Pangyo, and Nonhyeon-dong’s ‘Jinmi Pyongyang Naengmyeon’ in Seoul. This is good news for us Naengmyeon lovers, who looked forward to the comeback of Hamheung Naengmyeon and Hwanghae-do style Naengmyeon.

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