Korean

Jajangmyeon: Porky, Oniony, Black (!) Korean Noodles

April 14, 2016

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.

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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.

What do you eat to lament your singledom? Share with us in the comments below!

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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7 Comments

Niknud April 14, 2016
Love this recipe - made it first a few weeks ago and the whole family was blown away! Had a hug pile of fresh noodles (purchased at the Asian Market with the black bean paste. The five year old was dubious and refused (out of orneriness) to try it but the rest of the family inhaled it!
 
Pearla April 2, 2016
Anyone know if Chinese and Korean black bean paste can be used interchangeably?
 
sammy April 14, 2016
Pearla, they taste very different (I grew up eating Chinese zha jiang mien), so I wouldn't make that substitution. Although if you're looking to make Chinese zha jiang mien go crazy!
 
jelloooojen March 12, 2016
I absolutely LOVE love love JaJangMyeon. Gonna try it real soon! Thanks for the recipe!
 
LE B. March 3, 2016
I am SO impressed that you featured this dish. I discovered it about 2000 in an asian restaurant nearby that is long gone. I have made it at home with great success. I ADORE udon noodles, so they are a must imo. The potato element might seem odd to some, but the texture is essential in this. The only difficult thing I found in making this dish was reading through the labels of all the jars at the korean market, looking for one that didn't have MSG. I did finally find one msg-less brand. Thank you; such a great dish!
 
EJ L. March 3, 2016
This recipe is not quite right in my opinion. Carrot and ramen noodle is no no for this dish and zucchini should be diced and cooked together. The garnish is supposed to be julienned cucumber. Noodle quality is quite important for jajangmen and for that reason not many try to make this dish at home and miss it greatly living abroad.
 
EL March 3, 2016
I don't. I celebrate my singledom! Thank god I'm single!