Classic cold spicy noodles from Korea

This is my interpretation of bibim-naengmyeon, a cold noodle recipe from Korea. The noodles I used are vermicelli-style and made of sweet potato starch, the key ingredient that gives them a chewy, springy texture. You serve them soaked in an icy beef broth, topped with crunchy vegetables and a moreish sauce alongside bonus added extras (including my personal favourite, a halved boiled egg). Try not to be put off by the fact that these noodles are served cold.  They are every bit as satisfying as noodles served the hot way.  YOLO. I toned down the amount of chilli in the dish from the original recipe to get a flavour that is closer to my own personal preference.

Embracing Korean favourites

The hot summers in Korea lend themselves well to cold noodles. The more I explore Korean food, the more I love it and have been lucky to have a friend who has introduced me to the proper stuff. The best noodles I ever had… ever, were a black sesame cold noodle dish made by my most fabulous friend Becky’s mum. I still dream about these noodles, knowing I will never be able to recreate them as well as her! To satisfy cold noodle cravings, the next best thing was to find a more ‘manageable’ Korean cold noodle dish I could make at home. Cue extensive google searching and the discovery of an amazing recipe on the Maangchi website. Apparently this is one of the most popular dishes in Korea, and I can well believe it. While my version has not been tested on anyone of Korean origin, it was delicious and I think @Becky, you would have been proud. To be honest, I have only tested this version on myself.. but as possibly the greediest person around, if it gets the tick from me it is normally ok with other people.

Not exactly a recipe for the faint-hearted, it requires significant chopping and a good chunk of your time. But if you love an hour or so of pottering in the kitchen, you will be richly rewarded. It’s a step by step recipe that I had a lot of fun making.  Why not turn on the early 2000’s hip hop bangers and practice your moves too? It’s that kind of kitchen session. This being a cold noodle dish, each step is quite satisfying in the sense that you can tick a task off the list, put it to the side in a tidy bowl and finally assemble everything once it’s all ready. No stresses of multiple pans or trying to time everything to be hot at the same time.

 

Shopping for Ingredients 

Of course it helps to have all the ingredients on hand, but not everyone has Korean chilli flakes and gochujang paste in the cupboard. It is worth going and buying some because you will use them over and over again once you get the hang of their flavour. For example, in my Kimchi fried rice! I love gochujang because it adds such a complex taste in relatively small quantities – the more you add, the hotter it is so you can adjust to your own preferences. I only had to go to the shop to buy the noodles and the fresh vegetables to prepare this dish, everything else I use regularly.  And some sesame seeds, I had none left.

Allow me to bore you with the story of how I found the noodles for this dish, it was a labour of love. The UK is not blessed with the same variety of Asian stores that we have in New Zealand, so you need to know where to go. Thank you, the Chinese supermarket at the world’s shittiest shopping centre across the road from Tesco Slough, on that gorgeous 18 degree day last week. Dear work, I promise I used my lunch break to do this and in no way was it an act of desperation to get out of the office during a 3pm slump …  (it was and I saw the sun and also got a cheap tank of petrol at Tesco… small victories do it for me). But, the moral of the tale is that I found some Korean vermicelli noodles there. They may not be the exact ones traditionally used in this recipe, but they are still ideal.  After cooking with them a couple of times now, they are so robust and versatile that I’m looking forward to trying more recipes, including a classic Korean dish called Japchae (where the noodles are served hot, not cold like in this imitation bibim-naengmyeon). I suspect, although I haven’t checked, that they are probably lighter and less calorific than regular egg noodles, which can only be a good thing.

Recipe

Serves 2

Korean vermicelli noodles, made with sweet potato starch and wheat
Beef gravy pot (I like Knorr, I think it’s Maggi if you are in Australia or NZ)
Ice cubes
Spring onions, 2 finely chopped
Ginger, approx 1 inch
Garlic, 1 large clove
Onion, 1/4 of a regular sized onion
Gochujang paste, 1.5 tablespoons
Korean chilli flakes, 1 tablespoon
Soy sauce, 1 tablespoon
Sesame oil, 1 teaspoon
Sugar, 1/2 teaspoon
Salt, good sized pinch of sea salt flakes
White wine vinegar, 1 teaspoon
Mirin, 1/2 teaspoon if you have it, otherwise leave it out
Sesame seeds
1/3 Cucumber
1 Pear
A hard boiled egg

Method

Helpful Information

This dish is made up of a number of steps, all layered together at the end to create the finished product. You will be making a beef broth, chopping the vegetables, making the sauce, toasting and crushing the sesame seeds, boiling an egg and cooking then cooling the noodles.  Get excited.

Making the broth

I won’t lie, my broth is a Knorr Beef gravy pot. It comes in a jelly-like format in small containers, you buy it next to the stock cubes in the supermarket. If we were going authentic here, many recipes online refer to a beef broth sachet that comes in the same pack as the noodles, but I couldn’t find this. So I improvised, with good results. Of course you could also take some beef bones, simmer them for an hour or so to extract flavour to create an unctuous broth, then commend yourself for making it rich and shimmering with bone marrow, but this is a step too far even for me.

Spoon 2 teaspoons of the gravy jelly mix into a small bowl of ice cubes, about 12 cubes should suffice. Set the bowl aside. As the ice melts, it blends with the beef gravy to create an icy broth.

Preparing the vegetables

Cut the cucumber and 2/3 of the pear into very thin matchsticks (the remaining third of the pear goes into the sauce). Put the pear into a bowl of water to stop it going brown.

Making the sauce

You could easily use a food processor here, most recipes call for this. If so, just put all the ingredients in at once and blitz. I prefer to finely chop everything by hand because I cannot be bothered to wash the food processor afterwards.

In a small bowl, stir together the gochujang paste, chilli flakes, soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, salt, white wine vinegar and mirin (if you are using). Finely chop 2 spring onions and 1/3 of the pear and add them to the bowl, then take a fine grater, the one you would use for parmesan cheese, not a large box grater.  Finely grate 1/4 white onion, the small piece of ginger and a large garlic clove directly into the bowl.

Toast some sesame seeds in a small pan, taking care not to burn them and grind in a mortar and pestle. Add about a tablespoon of this into the sauce.  (Keep the rest for sprinkling over the dish at the end.)

Stir everything together and set the sauce aside until you need it.

Boil an egg.

It seems silly to write the instructions down, but I always put the egg in the pot first then cover it in cold water and bring to the boil together to stop the shell cracking. Once it’s cooked (about 6 minutes after the water starts boiling), run the egg under cold water to cool. Peel it by gently cracking the egg a couple of times on the bench to crack the shell, then carefully roll the egg to loosen the cracked shell. It should peel away easily now, leaving a smooth surface, before slicing in half. I learned this tip when working at a catering company one summer university break where I made more egg sandwiches than you could shake a stick at.

Preparing the noodles

Boil a pot of water and add the noodles. They take about 5 minutes to cook through. Tip them into a colander and rinse them in cold water to cool them down. Seeing as you have ice cubes at hand, add a few to help them cool right down, they should be very cold when you serve them.  They can now be set aside cold. I didn’t notice that they stuck together like other noodles can.

Assembling the finished dish

  • Strain the broth from the ice cubes and put about a small ladleful of this at the bottom of each serving bowl.
  • Lift some noodles onto the broth and stir it together, if possible arranging it so you end up with somewhat of a pile of noodles. Height is key when it comes to presenting this dish!
  • On top of the noodles, spoon about 3 dessertspoons of the sauce.
  • Pile the cucumber and pear strips on the sauce. You get extra points if it stands up nice and tidy on the sauce, rather than falling down the sides.
  • Sprinkle over a spoonful of the crushed sesame seeds. Feel free to add more if you like.
  • Crown everything with half a boiled egg, nestled into the vegetables.

Before you eat it, take some chopsticks and mix everything together, somewhat destroying the tidy pile you have just worked hard to achieve.  But it is all worth it. Take it from me, these chewy, spicy noodles will make your meal the happiest of experiences. Alongside Fat Joe featuring Ashanti, Wat’s Luv? in the background, the most fabulous of choices from a quality musical line up that is Louis Theroux’s Desert Island Disks. I concur, Louis, I concur.

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