Jajangmyeon: Noodle Re-challenged

Fried Black Bean Noodles
By Han Mai

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Questions:

  • What gives you/specific culture a claim to food?
  • What makes a home staple vs. a national food? Is there a difference?
  • Cultural Exchange v. Cultural Invasion?

[ Note: These are questions that I had while exploring this dish, but I can’t say I have answers to them.]

When Eyes Meet Noodle

Strands of wheat noodles wore a heavy coat of shining black. It laid in hills and mounds, dispersed throughout the thick oil-soaked black pool were chunks of potatoes, translucent onions stained with the same shining black, and perched on top of it all were strips of green cucumbers, proud and striking atop of the pooled mass of black coated noodles. Chopsticks at ready, The noodle is slippery, heavy.  You take a bite…

How I came to find Jajangmyeon

I grew up in a Vietnamese province surrounded by mountains and the ocean. My home was literally a five minute walk away from the ocean. The food norm for me were dishes like crab noodle (crab grinded and baked into bologna), Bún chả cá ( rice noodles with fish cake) – which my aunt sold in her specialized restaurant, and lots and lots of sea snails (which is considered snack food). Of course, I ate a variety of meats and rice dishes as well. What most of these dishes had in common was the sharp, bold tastes. Most Vietnamese foods that I recall packs a powerful punch; they are very flavorful and usually not at all subtle. Surprisingly, liquids like the soups and congees that I ate were light and clean. Even the desserts like Chè (dessert soup/pudding) were usually light and sweet. This might be because Vietnam is extraordinary hot and humid, so many of their liquid based foods were designed to be refreshing.

When I moved to California,I took an additional taste dimension to my life. I never fully shed my original taste palate, but it greatly widened with the introduction of school lunches, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and sugar loaded cookies. I suppose, America got me very used to sugar saturated food and, ironically, bland foods as well (macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes?).

I prided myself as the adventurer of my family. When it comes to thrill rides at amusement parks, traveling to new, unknown places, or experimenting with unfamiliar food, I am always the first person to try. I was the person to introduce new food to my family’s eating spectrum. Leaving elementary school, I started taking an interest in East Asian cultures. My mom joked that I was born the wrong ethnicity because all the food I made came from countries other than Vietnam; however, to me, I felt I needed to explore different foods because I already had Vietnamese food as my comfort. I tried mostly Japanese and Korean dishes. Dukbokki, Spam musubi, omurice, and Japanese curry eventually made it’s way into our meals and has become a norm in my family now.

Most of the dishes I introduced to my family had come from my binges of Japanese and Korean dramas during my middle school and high school years. I had seen jajangmyeon being eaten in practically every Korean drama I had seen, and naturally I developed a craving for this “mysterious” dish. When I was in 7th grade, I used to drink all of the soup of my Pho noodles and then cover the noodles in Hoisin sauce and pretend it was Jajangmyeon. Eventually, I began attempting to cook the dishes I saw on television. Naturally, this included Jajangmyeon. I searched up the recipe online, went to the local Korean supermarket to gather the ingredients, and made a whole event out of it with my sister. I bought the actual chunjang sauce and had to fry it to eliminate the bitter taste. We followed all the video tutorial closely and were excited when we plated the dish. It looked perfect! Exactly, as it had looked on the screen, but when we slurped the noodles, our spirits fell. It was nothing like I had expected at all – a complete letdown. It was a failed attempt and from that point I had a resistance against jajangmyeon. That was until, my sister’s Korean friend invited us out to dinner one night and ordered Jajangmyeon. The noodle tasted completely different from my botched efforts – it was sweet and earthy rather than bitter and. It was later that I learned that I had under-fried the sauce so the sweetness did not come out.

Since my miserable first attempt, I avoided any further attempts at making Jajangmyeon until I decided to take Global noodles. I was inspired and encourage to re-challenge Jajangmyeon noodles after seeing and hearing of so many of my peers bravely approaching complicated and completely foreign dishes. More background work was done this time as I researched the dish. I even tried different versions of Jajangmyeon, even the original Chinese version – Zha Jian Mian. I was very surprised at the stark difference in taste. It had more umami flavor from the various sauces – soy sauce, hoisin, and fermented bean. The ground beef also had a salty taste that battled with the cold julienned cucumbers. I was quite amazed at how different Jajangmyeon tasted from its “origins”.

Snapchat-819249825591072567                            Zha jian mian

(My first Zha Jian Mian)

When it came time to actually prepare the dish, the extra pressure of presenting this dish at a dinner party made me extremely conscious of the sauce and I had to keep tasting it and adding water to make sure the consistency was right. I felt a lot more comfortable with Jajangmyeon this time around and was quite relieved when my dish did not draw the same confused look that I made when I first attempted cooking it. Of course, it is a far cry from what I would consider a good bowl of Jajangmyeon but there has  definitely been progress and I hope to someday make a bowl of Jajangmyeon that I can be proud of.

Experiencing the dish…

 

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 J3

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A dish for man, woman, and child.
(Side note: I love these pictures because everyone is looking up like they’ve been caught indulging.)

What can I say? It was different. Perhaps that was the appeal it held.  Jajangmyeon did not hold by any means a familiar flavor. While exploring this dish, I was quickly met with contrasts to other noodle dishes that I considered familiar to my taste profile.

[The Alter-Ego] Noodles: My profile consisted mainly of soft, rice noodles in flavorful broth. Jajangmyeon had a bouncy and chewy texture; it was much denser than rice noodles perhap due to  wheat being richer and denser  in nutrients than rice which was largely composed of glucose (sugar).

                                     

   rice noodle                       wheat noodle

                   Rice Noodle                                                                           Wheat Noodle

[The Hero] sauce/broth: Jajang – derived from chunjang (Korean black bean paste) – is the star player in this dish. It is a fermented paste composed of soybeans, flour, and caramel. Originally it has a salty, bitter, and slightly sweet flavor – but it is fried to bring out the dormant sweetness and eliminate its bitterness. A sauce rather than broth, it brought out  an earthy, heavy taste. The sauce covered the noodle and its lack of wateriness contrasted with its Chinese origins – Zha Jiang Mian. A shine emanates from the sauce, taken on by the oil it is fried in. To give some contrasts in texture, onions, potatoes, zucchini, cubed meat (usually pork or beef), and other diced vegetables are added into the sauce.

Chunjang    Black Bean Sauce

            

[The Sidekicks] colors & palate cleanser: Often, Jajangmyeon is paired with pickled radish and cucumbers. The cucumbers come standard with the original Zha Jian Mian dish, but the pickled radish adds a more Korean flair.  Not only are they palate cleansers, bringing a refreshing crunch to the dish, the bright yellow and deep green gives noodle-eaters refuge from the black mass. The pickled radish, called danmuji, gives a sweet-sour tang and contrasting crunch to the slurpy, earthy noodles while the cucumber’s freshness keeps the noodle from being too monotonous in in flavor.

         Danmuji and cucumbers     Danmuji

[The Supersuit] presentation – garnish and plating: Sometimes, the container and plating of the food has become synonymous with actual dish itself. In Korea, Jajangmyeon is one of the main delivery dishes and the large metal container that it is delivered in has become synonymous for many locals to the noodles themselves.  Usually brought in a plastic bowl and shabby steel container the message is clear – the noodle’s purpose is to fill you up. It is by no means a beautiful dish, but it is a hearty one. A meal to fill as it does on Black day, when singles of Korea convene to eat black foods, mainly jajangmyeon, in attempts to fill their loneliness. Or at least, that was the intent.  It was a failed marketing ploy,  because as Seoul-raised, brand strategist and creative director, Phil Chang said “who really needs an excuse to eat jajangmyeon, ever?”

                                                  Delivery Box

History

The story of Jajangmyeon’s journey is really interesting to me because it plays through my mind like the dramas I had so often watched. Originally from China, Zha Jian Mian was brought to Incheon, Korea around 1905 through merchants who had followed the Qing military. It was during the Qing Dynasty when Korea was a tributary state of China. Around this time, there was a war between China and Japan over who gets control over Korea – they called this the Qing-Japan war, but we know it as the Sino-japanese war.  This was partly due to Japan’s growing dependence on Korea’s food exports such as soybeans.

Between 1894 to 1895, China sent troops to Korea to occupy it and stake claim on its vassal. With these troops were also merchant and laborers from the Shandong province to handle war supplies. When they lost the war, the army retreated from Korea but left the Shandong laborers in Incheon.

The story goes: For survival, these men took various jobs in the port and pining for their homeland but unable to afford passage. A Chinese expat took pity on these laborers  and served them a familiar dish from home – Zha Jian Mian, a lower-class household food from the Shandong province. These laborers overcome with nostalgia ate these noodles weeping with emotion. The dish’s popularity spread amongst the  Korean laborers that worked with them. Over time, the dish was adapted to suit Korean tastes – the sauce became caramelized and used less fermented paste to cultivate more sweetness and grounded the flavor with larger chunks of meat, onions.

The reason that I say the history reminded me of the dramas I so often watched was because of the political drama and tragedy that was occurring when this noodle dish was being introduced to Korea. The last queen of Korea, Empress Myeongseong, was seen as an obstacle for the Japanese and became a  victim of assassination. Even more shocking, it was said to be orchestrated or aided (this was not clear) by her father-in-law who was sympathetic to Japanese efforts and resistant to her advocation of strengthening Korea’s relationship with Russia to block Japanese influence.

Bringing History to the Present

In current day Korea, it would be hard to find a person who hasn’t eaten Jajangmyeon. It has firmly rooted itself into the food culture as “the people’s food”.  Approximately 1,500,000 dishes are consumed every single day which Korean-Canadian blogger, TJ Park emphasized as half the entire population of Toronto.  Despite originating from China, Jajangmyeon has established itself as a Korean dish – even though it is uncommon to be made in the home. Perhaps the fact that it is so accessible outside the home is what makes it a unifying factor to the Korean people. It is easier to get a bowl of cheap, convenient, and delicious noodles from outside restaurants than to trouble with going to the market to buy the ingredients and manually cook the meal at home. It creates its own place in the daily lives of the common people as perhaps a welcome break from Mom’s cooking or an affordable alternative for broke college students.

In an interesting turn of events, Jajangmyeon – a Koreanized Chinese dish – has been brought back to China.  “ I love jajangmyeon” , a small restaurant  that exists inconspicuously in Wudaokou (Beijing’s college district), has received very positive responses from their customers. In fact, the owner, Kim Jeong-nam, proudly stated that around 70 percent of their customers were Chinese. Despite going through a cultural makeover, it seems this noodle dish still holds appeal to its original eaters.

Jajangmyeon Now and my interactions

Examining my feelings regarding Jajangmyeon, I suppose there was an underlying fear of being labeled as a “Koreaboo” – a slang term for a non-Korean who is obsessed with Korean culture.  I felt a resistance to this term because there was a stigma about it that suggested I was desperate to be part of a culture that did not accept me – which is false. I felt anger and backlash at being judged for celebrating different cultures. Admittedly, I did enjoy Korean media and fashion, but I did not like the idea that my own identity and ethnicity were any less valuable merely because I was interested in other cultures.  My desire to learn and indulge in different culture seem to be detrimental to my pride as a Vietnamese. It also did not help that I held the idea – a widely shared viewpoint – that Vietnam was a relatively invisible Asian country especially in the shadows of Korea and Japan’s global popularity. These fears were of course unfounded and most likely a result of over-thinking and the spotlight effect. I have grown a bit since then and my confidence in my national and ethnic identity are more robust and flexible. Now I shamelessly gorge on any and all cultural food that I fancy and there is a pack of chunjang in my kitchen cabinet, at ready for my next jajangmyeon craving.


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