Naengmyeon (which translates to “cold noodle”) is a noodle dish that originated in North Korea. Those noodles themselves can be made of various ingredients like sweet potatoes, arrowroot, and more, but the kind I’m most fond of are the buckwheat variety. They’re chewy, hearty, and substantial, which makes any bowl of naengmyeon feel like a nourishing meal.
The noodles come in two varieties: mul naengmyeon and bibim naengmyeon. While there’s nuances and topping variations depending on region across Korea, I’ll introduce you all to the most common ones you’ll find at a Korean restaurant here in the States.
If I had to pick one Korean dish that represents summer for me, it’d be mul naengmyeon. When translated literally, the term means “water cold noodles,” though thankfully, they are way more flavorful than just cold buckwheat noodles in water. The chilled liquid surrounding them is a clear beef broth (icy, even, in some cases), that’s cold, sometimes a little tart and sweet, but always lands with a clean, genuinely refreshing, finish.
As a bonus, you can stir in some sharp mustard or mustard oil, to get a sinus-clearing aftereffect that I find absolutely irresistible and a must when housing these noodles. (The mustard is also cool because it’s not an ingredient you see often in Korean food.) Typical toppings include any variation of julienned cucumber, thinly sliced flank steak, half a hardboiled egg, Asian pears, and radish kimchi.
If you want to try to recreate this dish in your home kitchen, you’re in luck. Korean grocery stores often carry mul naengmyeon kits in their refrigerated aisles, and they really are pretty good. All you have to do is boil the noodles, which only takes under five minutes (plus a vigorous cold water rinse), and mix the soup base with some water. The garnishes I mentioned above involve, oh, maybe a little chopping, but otherwise, this is a meal that can come together pretty quickly.
The noodles aren’t just refreshing because they’re cold, either. It’s sort of the full effect of the dish, combining chilled broth with noodles that take a while to chew carefully, forcing you to take your time (though you should see some people destroy a bowl in minutes), along with the fresh crisp vegetable additions that perk up each bite. Ugh, so good.
Bibim naengmyeon is another variety of these buckwheat noodles. These translate into “mixed cold noodles,” which then, as you can imagine, means you mix them yourself after they’re served to you. Unlike mul naengmyeon, bibim naengmyeon is not broth-heavy; instead, it relies on a fiery blend of toppings that cool you off with sweat versus cold liquid.
For the most part the garnishes are similar to mul naengmyeon, with julienned cucumbers, pears, a hard boiled egg, and sesame seeds being the main players. When totally combined, a bite with all the components will reward you with a cold chewy mouthful with bursts of freshness from the veggies. But be warned, this stuff is no joke and can kick your ass in a deliciously spicy way if you’re not prepared. I have a feeling that after your first few bites, you’ll crush that bowl like the champ I know you are.
Is one better than the other? Hard to say, because they’re so different. Mul naengmyeon relies more on its delicate balanced nature, whereas bibim naengmyeon just clobbers you over the head with flavor and spice. It’s really up to your mood that day. But either way, I highly recommend you step into your local Korean restaurant when it’s hot outside, ask for one of these noodle dishes if you see them on the menu, and prepare to chill out over a bowl full of cold bliss.