Korean

The Vegan Cold Korean Noodles We Can’t Stop Slurping

by:
June 20, 2018
Mokbar's soybean noodles hit me like an A/C on full blast. Photo by Bobbi Lin

I don’t remember the first time I ever ate kongguksu, or chilled Korean soybean noodles. But I do remember the first time I rediscovered it years later as an adult (if a lonely, flailing twentysomething counts as an adult).

It was payday on a hot summer Friday in New York City. And maybe it was the heat or the overexposure to sunlight (which a troglodyte like me can never really get used to), but I remember being very hungry and, like the narrator in that Tracy K. Smith poem, “journeying for water/ From a village without a well, then living/ One or two nights like everyone else/ On roast chicken and red wine.”

Except the village was my office, and the roast chicken and red wine were kongguksu and Korean beer at Esther Choi’s solo diner–friendly mŏkbar (which is pronounced “muck-bah,” in case you didn’t know what that little symbol over the “o” meant).

I sat down at the bar and was surprised to see it on the menu, listed in the mŏkbar-ian way as a “soybean ‘kong’ ramen.” You’ll be hard-pressed to find these chilled noodles even on K-town menus. But that first bite involuntarily took me back to a time I had completely forgotten about; I wouldn’t be so dramatic as to say it was a Proustian madeleine, but it certainly made me pause.

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Choi’s noodles were utterly chewy, the broth was refreshing and necessarily nutty. The garnish of slow-roasted tomatoes was the American addendum to this classically Korean dish, and an ode to the season. It was exactly what I needed at that point in my life, and on that hot summer day.

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Top Comment:
“Yeah I don’t really remember eating this dish much or being a staple korean dish but I really want to eat it now. That picture of it looks amazing. I’ll try the recipe. Thanks! ”
— Jessica M.
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I caught up with Choi over the phone to dish on this nostalgic recipe, and to help me share it with you.

Our conversation has been edited for clarity.


Eric Kim: You’re Esther Choi of mŏkbar! I love you!

Esther Choi: (laughs)

EK: I’ve been watching your meteoric rise. Can you tell me a little about yourself? Your journey from womb to incandescence?

Baby Esther and her mother. Photo by Esther Choi

EC: Sure! Well, I grew up in suburban South Jersey in the 1980s. We were a Korean immigrant family in a town that had zero Korean people. My mom got lonely, so eventually my grandma came over, too. I learned how to cook from my grandma, hanging out with her in the kitchen. She was always this amazing cook—and cooked really special Korean food. Made everything from scratch. Like, one time she found this huge area in our neighborhood that had gosari namul? You know, those Korean fiddlehead ferns? She found a whole patch of them and made us pick them with her.

EK: Oh my gosh, that’s so Korean. Reminds me of this time my grandma made me bring home crabapples from a tree in our neighborhood so she could make wine out of it.

EC: (laughs) It was probably in someone’s backyard, right?

EK: (laughs) Right, right!

EC: So everything was super organic; like, the ingredients came from nature, and her garden. (Mind you, this was back when Whole Foods didn’t exist, so when I say organic, I mean organic.)

EK: What was in her garden?

Esther and her grandma. Photo by Esther Choi

EC: Oh, all kinds of Korean vegetables: a ton of peppers—you know, those Korean ones (she’d make her own gochugaru, red pepper flakes); Korean cucumbers (the texture is, let’s see, different, crunchier, smaller, skinnier, longer, has fewer seeds); Korean pumpkins, green summer squash; doenjang (fermented soybean paste, aka Korean miso).

EK: My grandma made doenjang, too! In those big earthenware pots, right? They smelled so bad. But wait, she grew her own soybeans?

EC: No, no, not the soybeans. She’d bring those from Korea.

EK: Got it. Oh, speaking of soybeans, what’s the story behind the summer “kong” ramen on your seasonal menu? I was so surprised to see it. Most Korean restaurants don’t serve it. It’s more the kind of thing people make at home, right?

EC: Right. Well, soybean is really popular, and we serve it at mŏkbar in the summer. It’s a dish I grew up eating with my grandma, kongguksu. The beauty of it is that it’s so simple: just a few ingredients, completely vegan. I use special noodles at the restaurant: They’re a mix of wheat and buckwheat, which gives it more of a bite than the traditional white noodles you’d ordinarily find in kongguksu. Then I make a soybean broth from soybeans imported from Korea, blend that together with regular toasted sesame seeds and wild sesame seeds—you know, deulggae—plus really good water.

EK: Water?

EC: Yeah, when you’re using so few ingredients, and the broth is so simple (it’s literally fresh soy milk), the kind of water you use makes a big difference. But, see, I adapted it to my palate as an adult. I also add tahini for creaminess and depth (that’s my own spin). And then it’s just a matter of the garnishes: cucumber “noodles” on top—super refreshing—and slow-roasted tomatoes which add that savory umami taste.

EK: Oh, I love the tomatoes. They make such a difference! I’ll admit, I grew up hating kongguksu, thought it was bland, but it was my dad’s favorite. So I always called it “dad food” and associated it with (what Nigella Lawson calls) “the clean eating brigade.”

EC: Me too. But I think as I got older, I started to appreciate the nuances of the dish, the flavors. I got it in Korea as an adult and really liked it. And when I learned how to make it myself and developed this dish for the restaurant, I realized how simple it was. Now I love it.

EK: Your kong ramen is definitely the version of kongguksu I love eating. But do you think other people feel that way about it? Grew up not liking it?

EC: I think so. It actually doesn’t sell itself. We make it fresh every day, a small portion, because we only put out eight to nine a week.

EK: Wait, eight to nine?? What is that—like, 1.2 a day? But you still keep it on the menu?

EC: Yeah, definitely. Because it’s special to me. And the people who get it really appreciate it. They know what they're in for.

EK: That’s true. It’s kind of self-selecting. A hidden gem. Well, maybe this story will help you sell more of them.

EC: (laughs)


After my chat with Choi, I turned to the internets (my Instagram followers) to pose a question: Did anyone grow up eating Korean kongguksu? If so, did you like it? Tens of people, mostly Koreans, slid into my DMs with their own kongguksu narratives:

  • “I like the nuttiness.”

  • “You should try it with watermelon.”

  • “It was all I ate as a kid whenever we went out for Korean food in the summer.”

  • “It’s an acquired taste, but I hated it when I was little. My mom used to say it was gosohae, but I just thought it was bland and blah—but now I love it!”

Five people wrote me that it’s gosohae, which Google translated to “sue”—so I typed in gosohada (“It is gosohae”), which Google translated to “sweet.” Which is inaccurate as well. Because there’s no perfect translation for the word so many Korean use to describe foods that are tasty. “Nutty” would fall into this, maybe, but I think even that might be too specific, though the word gosohae is often used to describe sesame, which Choi’s kongguksu has in the broth and as a garnish.

Others had a similar transitional relationship to kongguksu, acquired a taste for it later in life like Choi and me:

  • “I DESPISED it as a kid, but I love it now. I make it with peanut butter, which gives it a more complex, gosohan flavor."

  • “I didn’t. But as an adult I do. I didn’t know you could add sugar and eat it like a sweet noodle dish. Maybe more kids would like it then?”

  • “My parents love it and would make it from scratch. I feel like this dish is really hit or miss (when talking to other Korean friends). It’s usually someone loves it or strongly dislikes it.”

  • “I loved kongguksu because my grandpa loved it. We ate it together,” shares Irene Yoo of Yooeating?!. “Maybe I only liked it because of that. It’s kind of bland.”

  • “Hated it growing up, but I love it now! Guess I’m not the only one,” says contributor James Park of honey-butter chip cookie fame.

  • “Omg yes! I’ve been craving kongguksu this whole summer, but restaurant guksus (noodles) are never like Grandma’s. And I don't know how to make it myself. Here I am salivating over this picture. Do you have a recipe to try?”

Yes, yes I do.

Did you grow up eating something you hated, only to end up loving it as an adult? Tell us in the comments below.


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24 Comments

lin June 26, 2018
i really want to try this! im going to try to get my vegan sister to make with me. the only other cold noodle dish i've ever had was a vinegar salad (i think thats what it was called) at a japanese restaurant which i loved and was a lot like something my mom made all the time when i was little but i hated. fresh sliced cucumber served in a bowl of white vinegar and salt. yucky to me back then but now i want to eat it again. same thing with quiche, i hated it! we used to eat it multiple times a week until i started to refuse to eat it. now i really crave it after not eaten any in 15 years.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. June 26, 2018
Are you talking about naengmyun? I always hated that growing up, too—but now it's super refreshing!
 
FS June 25, 2018
I made this once from a slightly different recipe and was rather disappointed by the bland "broth". This recipe may be better, but I'm not sure it's worth trying.
 
Joann Y. June 24, 2018
I don't remember ever having this but when I go visit, I'm going to ask my mother to make it! I love hearing the stories! I grew in where there were no other Koreans. My mother grew kong namul amongst other things. I did a project for a science fair making tofu and got honorable mention! I hated gosari namul growing up, we called the "stinky root" when she would make it. Obviously, it's not a root but we didn't care. Now I can't get enough of it!
 
Zander June 22, 2018
This looks amazing! The lady and I will be trying this momentarily :)
 
Author Comment
Eric K. June 22, 2018
Let me know how it goes!
 
Kevin June 21, 2018
Udon know how much I want that dish right now.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. June 22, 2018
Nice.
 
Carol June 21, 2018
Excellent article, my friend even forwarded it to me.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. June 21, 2018
Thanks for reading, Carol.
 
CameronM5 June 21, 2018
The story of the crabapples made me remember my best friend and I gathering dandelions for her father to make dandelion wine. It was, alas, a thankless task beacsue we were probably at least a decade away from being able to taste the spoils of our labor. Still we ran from lawn to lawn in the neighborhood picking the happy yellow weeds which I’m sure the neighbors weren’t sad to see go.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. June 21, 2018
Dandelion wine sounds divine.
 
CameronM5 June 23, 2018
That rhymes 🤗
 
Carlos C. June 21, 2018
great read. This seems like one of those rare dishes that is simultaneously refreshing, light, and creamy (that isn't ice cream, of course). The article has me thinking of other foods I grew up disliking but now appreciate.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. June 21, 2018
Thanks, Carlos. :) You're 100% right about kongguksu; light, refreshing, and a little creamy. Nutty, especially.<br /><br />What other foods?
 
Carlos C. June 21, 2018
there was something my dad used to make called sancochado. It is not anything like the Dominican sancocho, which is super flavorful. It is basically a large piece of beef that is boiled with cabbage, leaks, pumpkin, carrots, potatoes, and cassava. You strain the solids and eat them with a variety of hot sauces, and you drink the broth. It was so insipid and boring. I thought it was the worst possible food ever. But recently I have been wanting to try it again. Hardly any restaurants in the US serve it, because it is really homey. The problem is that it makes so much that you have to invite people over, and it sounds so boring and bland that it is difficult to convince people to come over for a dinner of boiled beef and vegetables.<br />
 
Author Comment
Eric K. June 21, 2018
Sounds kind of like corned beef and cabbage, sans "corned." Bet the pumpkin makes the broth sweet. There really is something about home food that stays home food, huh? I think this soybean noodle dish is like that.
 
Semi June 21, 2018
I’ve only had a bite of it when my mom made it for her mom when I was very young.. I would definitely try this version with the chewy noodles! Looks v good.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. June 21, 2018
Chewy noodles release endorphins in my brain like nothing else.
 
Jessica M. June 21, 2018
Yeah I don’t really remember eating this dish much or being a staple korean dish but I really want to eat it now. That picture of it looks amazing. I’ll try the recipe. Thanks!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. June 21, 2018
Let me know how it goes! I have the soybeans if you want me to ship them to you.
 
Kevin June 20, 2018
I actually don't remember eating this, but wanting to try it now. Great post!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. June 20, 2018
Well, the one we had growing up didn't look this fancy. :) I think Umma put misugaru in hers, though.
 
Irene Y. June 21, 2018
YAS misugaru – that brings back memories of my mom making misugaru for my dad every day for him to take to work.