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[Weekender] Pyongyang vs. Hamhung: Naengmyeons of Korea

April 20, 2018 - 16:42 By Sohn Ji-young
Naengmeyon -- icy cold noodles typically served in a broth made of beef, or marinated in a sweet-spicy sauce -- is a popular traditional dish in Korea, with demand particularly peaking in the summer.

The cold noodles are sometimes eaten as a standalone dish at restaurants specializing in naengmyeon, or consumed as a refreshing food to finish off a meal of grilled meat.

Typically, naengmyeon is divided into two types: mul-naengmyeon, cold noodles served in a clear broth that typically combines beef broth with radish water kimchi, and bibim-naengmyeon, or cold noodles mixed in a sweet, spicy hot pepper paste topped with vegetables and sesame oil.

Though it is typical to categorize naengmyeon under the broth vs. sauce divide, there is another important differentiation point: region. Depending on its origins, a naengmyeon’s ingredients, texture and overall taste and appearance changes.

Though debatable, traditional Korean naengmyeon mainly traces its history back to two cities -- Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, and Hamhung, a city located on North Korea’s east coast. 

Pyongyang Naengmyeon (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

Pyongyang naengmyeon, known for its mild broth, is considered the forefather of modern mul-naengmeyon. Its history dates back to the Goryeo Dynasty, when people began eating buckwheat noodles with icy-cold dongchimi, radish water kimchi, poured over it.

Over time, people began using beef or chicken broth to make Pyongyang Naengmyeon, creating the bland broth that defines the modern version of the buckwheat noodle dish.

On the other hand, spicy bibim-naengmyeon dates its history to the northern city of Hamhung. Born as a food to fight the freezing cold, Hamhung naengmyeon is defined by extremely skinny noodles mixed in a spicy red hot pepper sauce. 

Hamhung Naengmyeon from Okryukwan, a naengmyeon restaurant in Anyang, Gyeonggi Province (Courtesy of Okryukwan)

Unlike Pyongyang naengmyeon, Hamhung naengmyeon’s noodles are white, as they are made by mixing buckwheat with potato or sweet potato starch, creating a chewy texture.

Though thin, the noodles in a Hamhung-style naengmyeon do not break easily. Given this, it’s best to cut up the noodles with the scissors provided by the restaurant before diving in.

Though “bibim” is the traditional way to enjoy Hamhung Naengmyeon, it is also eaten as a mul version. In this case, the noodles are served in a cold beef broth accompanied by beef brisket, radish kimchi and cucumbers.

Sometimes, the bibim version of Hamhung naengmyeon is topped with raw fish, instead of beef. This slight variation is called hoe-naengmyeon, which translates to “raw fish cold noodles.”

Though they are the most widely known, Pyongyang and Hamhung aren’t the only regions that have their own naengmyeon dishes in Korea. Other towns famous for naengmyeon include Jinju, in South Gyeongsang Province.

Jinju naengmyeon is a mul-naengmyeon featuring buckwheat noodles. The main difference is that Jinju naengmyeon uses a seafood broth made with ingredients including dried pollock, kelp, shrimp and mussels. The noodles are accompanied by a chopped egg garnish and fried beef pancakes, giving it a colorful appearance.

In addition, Busan is also famous for its own naengmyeon variety -- the Busan milmyeon, in which the noodles are made with a mixture of wheat and potato starch.

The Busan milmyeon was reportedly born during the Korean War when many Koreans from the North fled to Busan. The refugees from the North wanted to make Pyongyang-style naengmyeon, but weren’t able to procure buckwheat. So instead, they substituted the ingredient with a mixture of wheat and starch. And from there, milmyeon was born.

Since the war, Busan-style milmyeon, served in a cold, spicy broth, has grown in popularity to become one of the port city’s representative dishes, beloved by both locals and visitors.

By Sohn Ji-young (