New Jersey

When I first started this blog, I must have been tremendously naive, or at least under the impression that Asian-y events in New York were manageable, at least from a writer’s perspective. Of course, now I know better.

New York is positively Asiafied. It’s actually a challenge to curate great places and people, and reduce a month’s worth of events to one page. It’s also bewildering that some really terrific stuff gets totally ignored by mainstream media outlets! As usual, I’ve taken an avalanche of information for October and reduced it to reasonable a number, all in the vague hope it’s of some service to my readers.


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It’s chilly, spicy, and North Korean

by Liz on August 6, 2011

in Food

Hwe Naengmyeon, cold and spicy noodles with fermented, raw fish on top

Some of you may remember ‘My Favorite Things,’ a song from the hit movie musical Sound of Music. Trying to coax the children back to bed, Maria von Trapp sings a laundry list of her favorite things, the small but precious glimpses of life that make her happy. Slowly the children are no longer afraid of the thunderstorm, and Maria’s singing works like a charm.

It’s sobering to think there’s not much going on in the world these days that would make it on Maria’s list of favorite things. A debt downgrade, the worst Congress ever, Murdoch madness. I could go on, but I won’t. Today, I’d rather focus on one of my favorite things: spicy, cold sweet potato noodles, or naengmyeon, a Korean specialty I’ve been eating for as long as I can remember. Financial crises come, and financial crises go, but for me, it’s important to remember that this, too, shall pass. No matter what the Dow Jones, I can always go for a bowl of naengmyeon, refrigerator cold and spicy goodness that’s best with fermented, raw fish on top.

It’s been bit of a challenge finding a decent restaurant that serves authentic naengmyeon in New York. In Manhattan, I’ve encountered expensive varieties that tasted suspiciously like the packaged kind sold in the Korean supermarket two doors down. I’ve searched high and low for the real deal, the kind you’ll encounter in the Ojang-dong neighborhood of Seoul, a Hamheung naengmyeon enclave. Hamheung is a city in present-day North Korea where the idea of placing raw, fermented fish was born. Pyongyang, the North Korean city you hear a great deal about, has a naengmyeon tradition too, but theirs is more about a cold, umami-flavored broth and the rich, grainy texture of their buckwheat noodles. My mother’s side of the family hails from Hamheung, so that’s the naengmyeon I know.

My on-again, off-again search for the Holy Grail of good naengmyeon was finally rewarded this year, when a handy guide by the Korean Cultural Service NY pointed to a restaurant in northern New Jersey that specialized in Hamheung naengmyeon. Specialization is a good sign. You don’t want to try naengmyeon at a place that serves basically everything under the Korean culinary roof. Specialization implies focus, which in the case of naengmyeon is the noodles themselves: homemade and completely original. And that’s what I got at Homung Nangmyun: chilled to perfection potato flour noodles, balanced by fermented skatefish, marinated in a sweet and spicy gochujang sauce. The noodles were delectably chewy, and naturally I couldn’t ask for anything more.

Steamed meat dumplings, a common complement to Naengmyeon meals

The nice thing about Homung Nangmyun is they have other great menu items. I tried the Goki Mandoo, or steamed meat dumplings, and was pleasantly surprised. Another hit item that I saw going around to virtually every table was the Haemul Pajeon, a Korean seafood scallion pancake. The Pajeon is a perennial favorite among casual diners in Seoul, and although I never figured out why, for some reason people prefer eating it on rainy days. With makgeolli, no less.

I remember eating naengmyeon with my family in Seoul and the conversation would inevitably touch upon North Korea, a place probably best summarized by a quote in the 2005 film Capote, as he referred to Perry Smith, a convicted killer with whom he develops a special relationship: “We were brothers. But one day he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front.”

Most Koreans feel similarly about their brethren in the North. South Korea elected to go out the front door and prospered, while the North went out back, or backwards, and languished. It’s sobering to think a specialty like Hamheung Naengmyeon could be a rare treat in the city of Hamheung itself. But that’s a story for another day.

Homung Nangmyun
570 Piermont Road
Closter, NJ 07624
Recommendations: Hwe Nangmyun ($11.95), Mool Nangmyun ($9.95), Haemul Pajun ($16.95), and Goki Mandoo ($7.95) – Prices subject to change