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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
For the ramen and broth
- 4 portions noodles, such as somen, soba, or fresh straight ramen works really well, too
- 1 pint cooked soybeans (about 1 cup soaked and boiled for 1 hour in salt water)
- 1 quart filtered water (better water, better broth)
- 4 tablespoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons tahini
- 2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
- 2 tablespoons wild sesame seeds (can substitute with black sesame or regular sesame), plus more for garnish
For the garnish
- 1 pint grape tomatoes or baby heirloom tomatoes
- 2 tablespoons garlic oil, plus more for garnish
- 1 pinch kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 1 cucumber, julienned
Did you grow up eating something you hated, only to end up loving it as an adult? Tell us in the comments below.