Koreans love jajangmyeon, a Chinese-Korean mash-up dish that is served in restaurants and made in homes throughout America.
Over and over again, while writing Koreatown: A Cookbook with Deuki Hong, I encountered Korean-American friends (and strangers, too) who pressed us to include a recipe in the book. My response ranged from “Yeah, we sure are” to “Hell, yes!” depending on how emphatic the questioner was, and the dish was placed at the top of white board filled with recipe names in Deuki’s apartment kitchen.
Yet as somebody who didn’t grow up with this jet-black bowl of noodles, I was often curious as to why is was so beloved. Because, to me, it was just a bowl of inky noodles. A curiosity at best. Boring at worst. But boy was I wrong.
At face value, jajangmyeon is a pretty simple dish. Fresh jajangmyeon noodles (very similar to udon) are cooked and then tossed with a mixture of diced pork belly (not bacon), pork shoulder, onions, and a salty black bean sauce called chunjang. Made with soybeans, flour, and caramel coloring, it's a Korean version of the Chinese fermented black beans called douchi.
Despite its bold color, the paste is milder than the fermented and funky Korean staples gochujang and doenjang (read more about those here). It’s said that chunjang (and jajangmyeon noodles, at that) was first brought to Korea through the port city of Incheon, where a busy Chinatown was established around 1900 and Chinese-Korean restaurants opened serving jajangmyeon. The dish’s popularity spread throughout the peninsula, then eventually to the U.S., where it remains a favorite.
Like greasy takeout lo mein, the noodles should be slightly oily and splatter a little when slurped. In our recipe, we like to use red onions in what is a very onion-centric dish. And if you can’t find fresh noodles, you can substitute with a couple bags of instant ramen (leave out the spice packet, of course) or even spaghetti.
And fun fact—well, slightly depressing fun fact: Jajangmyeon is typically eaten on what Koreans call Black Day, which is observed every April 14. The idea is that those who didn’t receive a gift the previous two fourteenths of the month — Valentine’s Day (February 14) and White Day (March 14, when girls return the favor to the boys) — should treat themselves to a bowl of black noodles and commiserate on their life of perpetual singledom.
But at least you get a really good bowl of sweet, salty, porky, oniony noodles.
- 1 pound fresh jajangmyeon/udon noodles (can substitute with a couple packages of instant ramen noodles)
- 2 tablespoons Vegetable oil
- 6 ounces fatty pork belly, large diced
- 3 ounces pork shoulder, large diced
- 1 piece 1-inch knob of ginger, peeled and minced
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/2 medium carrot, peeled and diced
- 1 large Yukon gold potato, peeled and diced
- 2 medium red onions, diced
- 1/2 zucchini, peeled and diced
- 1/2 cup chunjang (Korean black bean paste)
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 pinch Kosher salt, to taste
- 1/4 cup julienned zucchini, for garnish
- 1/4 pickled yellow daikon, cut into half-moons (optional)
What do you eat to lament your singledom? Share with us in the comments below!