Off the Wall

Do These Noodles Look Kind of Alive in the Bowl?

When I posted this picture with my Tweet of "Cold Korean noodles rock!," I thought people would take a look at the picture and immediately agree about how yummy it looked. But no, that's not quite what happened.

Nicholas Hall tweeted me back with a skeptical "Is it just me, or does that kind of look alive in the bowl?" On second inspection, I can definitely see what he was getting at, and I blame my phone camera for creating that illusion. They do have that sort of squirmy look.

In reality, the noodles weren't even close to alive and squirmy, and except for the hard-boiled egg, everything in it was entirely made of vegetables. And, they were dadgum tasty. Called naeng-myoeon (and pronounced phonetically neng mee-un), they are my most recent obsession when it comes to Korean food. Made of buckwheat noodles, cucumbers, sliced pear or radish, and a special recipe sweet-and-spicy red sauce, these are not just room-temperature cold. They are refreshingly ice-cold, made so by the fact that the recipe calls for them to be bathed in ice water prior to being drained.

The result is an intoxicatingly cold, pleasingly chewy, spicy noodle that immediately assaults your senses with a rush of pleasure-tingling icy coldness, similar to what you feel when you take your first lick of an ice cream cone. The sauce, made of a vegetable blend and Korean red chili paste, is thick and viscous, the flavor a harmonious blend of tangy, sweet, and spicy, but not as spicy as you'd expect from the color of the sauce. Rather, the spice gives off a slow-burning kick that is hot but won't cause that overwhelming explosion of sweat-inducing heat.

It's one of the best and most memorable dishes I've tasted in the last month, a wonderful discovery because I stumbled upon it by myself entirely by accident. On a recent visit to my favorite dumpling house, I saw the shiny silver bowl holding the noodles as I walked in, and asked the two Korean patrons eating it whether it was good. "What is it called?" I asked them. They looked at each other and then at me, and instead of pronouncing the Korean name, naeng-myoeon, they replied "Cold Korean Spicy Noodle."

I'm told you can get this at most Korean restaurants, but if you want this exact one, go to the Dumpling King, three-Chinese-letter dumpling house next to Arirang Korean Restaurant, and that's where you'll find them.

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham