Seoul Searching for Pyeongyang-Style Perfection

Mul Naeng Myeon (물냉면) (MNM) is a Korean dish.  Noodles, made of buckwheat flour or potato starch.  Chilled broth, made of beef stock or white radish kimchi broth.  Toppings usually include slices of beef and/or pork, pickled radish, cucumbers, Asian pear, and half of a boiled egg.  Some diners add dashes of vinegar and/or mustard (similar to wasabi but yellow).  The name of the dish literally means “noodles (myeon) in cold (naeng) water (mul).”  The best MNMs in Korea are found in specialty restaurants, but cheaper versions abound, especially at barbecue restaurants that serve the noodles as a final course to wrap the meal.

MNM falls into 2 distinct styles, each of which has its loyalists, usually exclusive of the other.  Although both are essentially the same in that they consist of noodles in chilled broth, with more or less the same toppings, they differ remarkably in the texture of the noodles and the flavor of the broth.

One is Pyeongyang-style (PYS).  The noodles, made from buckwheat, are doughy in texture, and thicker, not quite spaghetti but close.  The broth is devoid of sweetness, seemingly insipid at first sip, but rich while subtle in beef flavor at a deeper level.

(The other is Hamheung-style (HHS).  This is the style of MNM – chewy noodles, tangy broth – that has come to dominate both the domestic and international markets in recent years.)

SSPYSP was a project to determine Seoul’s best representative of PYS MNM.  The idea was inspired by a 2011 newspaper article from Chosun Ilbo featuring customer surveys on the most popular MNM joints in the city, including 8 that claim to do the dish à la Pyeongyang.

The tasting process: (i) two sips of broth; (ii) two bites of noodles; (iii) two bites of noodles with various toppings; (iv) another sip of broth; (v) another bite of noodles; and, if necessary, (vi) another sip of broth following additions of vinegar and/or mustard (although the necessity of any such adjustment probably means that the game is already lost).

1.  Bong Piyang (봉피양) (4.179 Pyeongyang Mul Naeng Myeon)

2.  Pyeongyang Myeonok (평양면옥) (4.170 Mul Naeng Myeon)

3.  Pil-Dong Myeonok (필동면옥) (4.148 Naeng Myeon)

4.  Eulmildae (을밀대) (4.184 Mul Naeng Myeon)

5.  Woo Lae Oak (우래옥) (4.173 Jeontong Pyongyang Naeng Myeon)

6.  Pyeonglaeok (평래옥) (4.165 Naeng Myeon)

7.  Eulji Myeonok (을지면옥) (4.163 Naeng Myeon)

8.  Nampo Myeonok (남포면옥) (4.154 Naeng Myeon)

Here’s a chart summarizing the key points.  The comments are paraphrased from the actual posts.  The parenthetical ratings for broth/noodles/toppings indicate how well each component reflected PYS, not necessarily whether it was good per se.  I went back to Pyongyang Myeonok, Pil-Dong Myeonok, and Pyeonglaeok on various occasions to confirm my initial impressions.

The winner was Bong Piyang, where the MNM tasted great and demonstrated high quality in every aspect – a proud champion of PYS.  Pyongyang Myeonok came in a close second, a classic PYS MNM, but its sheer austerity makes it difficult to embrace (as yet).  Pil-Dong Myeonok and Eulmildae were both okay in some ways and majorly flawed in others.  Woo Lae Oak was good all-around but not really PYS.  Pyeonglaeok was iffy but worth going back for other dishes.  The remaining two aren’t even worth mentioning.  Bong Piyang was the only MNM that I’m eager to try again; I’ve made a reservation there for my father’s birthday dinner on July 19.

Not by coincidence, I suspect, the initial 6 restaurants that I covered, the 6 that were on the PYS list, are all located in Jung-Gu and include “ok (house)” in the name.  Jung-Gu is a district comprising downtown Seoul – “jung (중) = central” – where most of the city’s business and politics were once conducted back in the day.   Both the location and appellation likely confer a certain sense of authenticity/authority to these restaurants, regardless of present merit.

Ultimately, I’ve come to realize that “Pyongyang-style mul naeng myeon,” like the proverbial holy grail, represents an unattainable ideal.

First, nobody can agree on what constitutes the standard, as is the case with any regional specialty anywhere – what is true “Texas barbecue?” or “Provençal bouillabaisse?”  The broth, for one thing, has been described in various sources as being originally made with dongchimi (radish kimchi in broth) (which would’ve been the most common/available back in the day), beef stock (which is what it is today), or even pheasant stock (which is what some MNM enthusiasts like to claim, probably because it sounds like a fun factoid, despite a lack of credible evidence in support thereof), all completely different in character.  Among the 8 broths here, they were so distinct from one another that I could do a blind taste test and attribute every one to the source restaurant, no problem.

Even more tenuously, I am skeptical about the opinions of the old-timers, like the respondents in the Chosun Ilbo newspaper article, who claim to remember what MNM, and MNM PYS specifically, was like back in the day, in Pyeongyang before the Korean War in 1950.  Really?  I can barely recall my early impressions of the Eulmildae MNM less than 20 years ago, which continue to undergo revisions in just the past few months.  And yet I’m supposed to believe the memory of a man who’s 80+ years old, about a dish that he last experienced 60+ years ago?

Curiously, while such old-timers who frequent these PYS MNM restaurants are often cited/quoted to verify authenticity, recent defectors from North Korea who’d have a more immediate perspective never seem to be asked.  Where do they go when they want real deal MNM?

In fact, the MNM that I had in Phnom Penh last year at Pyongyang Laeng Myeon Gwan, quite literally an official PYS MNM restaurant run by the actual DPRK out of Pyeongyang, bore absolutely no resemblance to any of the MNM described during this project (see supplemental photos at 3.269 Fried Beef with Red Ants).  Resemblance aside, it sucked.

I’ve come to believe that “Pyeongyang-style mul naeng myeon,” as it’s considered in the south today (whatever it may be), is a product of divergent evolution following half a century of constant cultural/culinary change, distinct from its original form six decades ago (whatever that was), distinct from its contemporary counterpart up north (whatever that is).

Now an MNM existentialist, my personal standards for PYS MNM are as follows.  The broth is beefy, but subtly so.  Dry, neither sweet nor sour.  No overt seasonings, like soy sauce.  Adding a drop of mustard, which naturally pairs well with beef, is permissible but unnecessary and generally discouraged.  Vinegar never, unless required to balance out an oversweet broth (in which case it doesn’t even count as PYS).   The noodles look dark and speckled.  Easily coming apart with a shake of the chopsticks, never ever ever cut with scissors.  Mouthfeel is firm/dense and slightly grainy/gritty, like whole wheat al dente spaghetti, but not rubbery/chewy or smooth/slippery.  Nutty in taste, a tad bitter from the buckwheat.  The toppings are kept to a minimum: top quality sliced beef or don’t even bother, boiled egg, lightly pickled radish and/or salted cucumber, all providing harmonious yet understated texture/taste counterpoints/accents to the broth and noodles, which remain the main focus.  No bullshit garniture like scallion, sesame seeds, red chili powder.   And no pear – man, do I detest fruit in my food.  That’s all I ask.

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