Table for One

Why I Eat Korean Black Bean Noodles Every Valentine's Day

On the healing powers of jajangmyeon, the ultimate dinner for one.

by:
February  8, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland

Table for One is a column by Senior Editor Eric Kim, who loves cooking for himself—and only himself—and seeks to celebrate the beauty of solitude in its many forms, even on Valentine’s Day.


If Americans have delivery pizza, then Koreans have jjajangmyeon (often romanized as jajangmyeon), a popular black bean noodle dish studded with fatty pork. In Korea, you can order it over the phone and have a bowl delivered to your door in a matter of minutes. It’s not uncommon to see delivery men biking around the city with huge steel boxes on the backs of their bikes, filled with white plastic bowls of these incredible noodles, tightly wrapped with cling film and served alongside small dishes of danmuji (Korean pickled daikon radish, a lurid yellow dream) and raw white onion (which tastes great doused in vinegar and dipped in black bean sauce). Once you finish your bowl, you can leave it outside your door, unwashed and all, and the delivery person will come back in a few hours to retrieve it.

“Jjajangmyeon is everybody’s favorite food,” YouTube star Maangchi writes on her blog.

But considering how ubiquitous this takeout dish is in Korea—a true national favorite and peak comfort food—I’m always surprised at how many of my friends in America don’t know about it. I texted a picture of it to my boyfriend Scott, who lives in Atlanta, home to some of the best jjajangmyeon restaurants in the country, “Have you ever had these noodles?”

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“There's so much outside of Korean BBQ and kimchi! I think soondubu has also gotten a lot more popular over the years. I like jjajjangmyun but I don't like how they put so much onions in it when you order it at a restaurant. You know? There's so much that it makes me think they have a surplus of onions in the kitchen that they're trying to get rid of. Fan of your columns btw! : )”
— susan
Comment

“No, are they good?” he wrote back.

“The best,” I said. “I’ll make them for you someday.”

Palates in the States have grown to love Korean barbecue and gochujang and kimchi, but these noodles are in the shadows of the American culinary imagination. Maybe because they live in a liminal space as Korean-Chinese food—that is, Koreanized Chinese food—not unlike the likes of orange chicken and broccoli beef in America. Though jjajangmyeon is in small ways a variation of the original Shandong dish zhajiangmian, I’d argue that it’s very much Korean and has over the years evolved into its own thing entirely. As Sam Sifton wrote in The New York Times back in 2016, it’s “a birth-country dish translated to accommodate the too-tired-to-cook takeout tastes of a host nation.”

Palates in the States have grown to love Korean barbecue and gochujang and kimchi, but these noodles are in the shadows of the American culinary imagination.

Despite jjajangmyeon’s anonymity in America, there are corners of the internet where the dish lives, breathes, and thrives. Fans of Maangchi have likely seen her very popular video tutorial on YouTube, which has amassed more than 4.3 million views since its publication in 2012. Also on YouTube, “jajangmyeon ASMR” is one of the most popular search terms for people looking for relaxing sounds, like noodle slurping, to fall asleep to at night.

Jjajangmyeon gives me comfort for other reasons. Not just because I grew up eating it at the many Koreanized Chinese restaurants in Atlanta, but because it’s become the ritual dish I seek out every year around Valentine’s Day, as well. In Korea, there’s a special day on April 14 called Black Day, a sort of Anti-Valentine’s Day dedicated to single people who order in these noodles with black bean sauce. The “black” here refers not to black beans, but to the color of the soybean paste that forms the base of the unctuous sauce. (It also refers to the color of the souls who eat it, including mine.)

Mostly, the reason jjajangmyeon is the perfect meal for one is that it’s contained in a single bowl—and offers comfort on a day that leans into feelings of loneliness and solitude. It doesn’t hurt that, in Korea at least, you never have to leave your apartment or change out of your pj’s for a bowl of this comfort.

My Black Day is Feb. 14. I’ve always found Valentine’s Day an annual reminder to take care of myself, and to celebrate my independence. Pretending that Feb. 14 doesn’t exist is a cynically boring way to go about the holiday, however plastic and Hallmark-manufactured it is. My thought is: Why shouldn’t single people get to celebrate love? Even more when it’s self-love?

My first year in New York, I got dressed up—a button-up shirt and red tie—and took myself to a movie alone. Another year, I cooked myself a fancy salmon dinner and saw Chicago, one of my favorite Broadway musicals. It was a lovely night (Roxie threw a bouquet of roses into the audience and I caught it). One year I made the mistake of going to one of those restaurants with a Valentine’s Day prix fixe. Dinner was awful, but I had a great time. Each year since has been an opportunity to improve on the last, and to try something new—always on my own.

Until I met Scott in Atlanta four years ago.

That’s when black bean noodles came into the picture. I needed a new ritual to help me deal with my long-distance relationship on a day when I'm forced to watch others get to be with the people they love. Jjajangmyeon is exactly what you want to eat when your heart is leaden and you feel like you could sink into the floor, when you miss someone so much you start having dreams about them, and all you want to do is go back to sleep so you can be with them again. Getting out of bed is especially hard on days like that.

Should we ever feel truly lonely if we never ate alone?
Christopher Isherwood, author of 'A Single Man'

I suppose it was from that moment on that my solitude really grew wings, along with my threshold for pain. It's when my ability to stay composed and whole and human in this long-distance relationship became paramount to my survival in New York, 873 miles away from the man that I loved. I had a choice to make: I could either crumble under my pining, or learn to live through it and make peace with our distance. Better yet, I could grow stronger from it.

For the best bowl of black bean noodles in New York City, I’d head to Shanghai Mong in K-Town. The noodles are chewy and yellow from eggs, and perfect in every single way (plus, the restaurant happens to be especially solo diner–friendly). I plan a visit there every Valentine’s Day because I know it’ll make me feel a little less alone that day. Because instead of wallowing in my great, big sadness, I can inhale a bowl of those comforting noodles and tell myself, “Today is going to be a good day. Because today, I get to eat this.”

The only thing better than eating jjajangmyeon on Valentine’s Day is eating jjajangmyeon on Valentine’s Day on the couch in front of the television. In the spirit of self-care and all that, and because I don’t live in Korea with access to black bean noodle delivery, I’ve come up with a homemade version just for one.

It’s a pared-down recipe in method and in ingredient list (I don’t add zucchini or potato to mine, vegetables that are traditionally used, just lots and lots of onions). A little pork belly—4 ounces—goes a long way. The trick here isn’t to get the pieces so crispy that they’re tough. In fact, if the pork fat is too rendered, its texture becomes unpleasantly chewy once it’s laden with the thick sauce. Which is why I like to pan-fry it lightly for a few minutes and let its succulence speak for itself.

Photo by ChoripDong

The secret ingredient is, of course, the black bean paste, aka the chunjang. You can find it in most Asian supermarkets these days (I get mine at H-Mart), or online, and keep it in the fridge to zhush up all manner of dishes, including stews, meats, and soups. I like to stir-fry the bean paste for a couple of minutes in the fatty, porky juices, then add some of the starchy pasta cooking liquid to form it into a thick, glossy sauce. Most recipes call for a slurry of cornstarch and water to thicken it, but I find that when you have such a small portion of sauce, and so much fat, all you need is the starchy pasta water to reduce down into a luscious gravy.

The last and probably most important ingredient: the noodles. There’s a specific jjajangmyeon noodle—often hand-pulled and wheat-based, pleasantly chewy and somewhere between a thin linguine and a thick spaghetti, which is why I’d recommend either. You can actually buy these gradients at most grocery stores, labeled “linguine fini” and “thick spaghetti.” But if you can only find linguine or spaghetti, either will work perfectly fine. You could even go for a bucatini if you wanted a really thick, chewy noodle—which I sometimes enjoy.

The finishing touch is a simple julienned cucumber, mounded on top like jade.

Scott and I might not get to be together on Valentine’s Day, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get to celebrate what we have.

Maybe years later, when the world finally decides to give me a break, I’ll look back on my bachelor years and laugh at all of the bowls of jjajangmyeon that got me through the dark and lonely days. Hopefully I’ll be sitting across from him at the table, slurping these noodles with gusto and telling him, mouth half-full:

"They're good, aren't they?"

What's your go-to comfort food when you need a dose of self-care? Let us know in the comments below.

20 Comments

Nikkitha B. February 14, 2019
This is all I want to eat
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 14, 2019
Happy V-Day, friend.
 
hushmush February 13, 2019
Now I'm craving jjajangmyeon.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 14, 2019
Get yours!
 
susan February 12, 2019
There's so much outside of Korean BBQ and kimchi! I think soondubu has also gotten a lot more popular over the years. I like jjajjangmyun but I don't like how they put so much onions in it when you order it at a restaurant. You know? There's so much that it makes me think they have a surplus of onions in the kitchen that they're trying to get rid of. Fan of your columns btw! : )
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 12, 2019
Ha! So true about the onions.<br /><br />And thank you, Susan. :)
 
Ttrockwood February 10, 2019
I always love your column...! Is there such a thing as a vegetarian version? Or is that too lame because nothing will substitute the fatty pork? I could use tempeh or tofu but neither are especially rich
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 11, 2019
And I always look forward to hearing from you. Vegetarian jjajangmyeon—not lame at all! I think the black bean paste is so meaty and flavorsome that an all-veg version would taste great. I found this recipe for you: https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/267271/jajangmyeon-vegetarian-korean-black-bean-noodles/ Or you could follow mine and try replacing the pork with tempeh and/or diced zucchini and potato.
 
Erin A. February 10, 2019
I can't wait to try these black bean noodles! They sound like exactly what I need this Valentine's Day. Thank you for sharing, Eric.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 10, 2019
Thanks, Erin!
 
asbrink February 10, 2019
Eric, I've been entralled every article in your new column so far. I think even those of us who are in traditional relationships can identify with some of the loneliness and singularity that you describe so well. The vulnerability that you gift to us in your writing is just so moving and relatable. You inspire me to be braver and more independent. Thanks so much, and please keep sharing! I look forward to it every week.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 10, 2019
Means a lot to me, asbrink. Thank you so much for this comment.
 
CameronM5 February 8, 2019
Wow this is such a romantic story. It makes me wish I had a food that made me wax poetic but I feel like all I have in times of yearning are the stereotypical ice cream and French fries. Ironically that’s what I wanted tonight after a long week and your piece made me reach for another.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 8, 2019
Hey, the classics are classics for a reason right? Even better than ice cream/French fries, in my opinion: French fries dipped into a malted vanilla shake.
 
Whiteantlers February 8, 2019
Oh my word! This sounds scrumptious as all get out, Eric! <br /><br />My best friend's birthday is 2/14 and after my wife died, I'd spend the day with him. He's a chef and having been in the restaurant, hates going out to eat on Valentine's Day. As a result, we'd cook something at home for his special day-braised short ribs and baked potatoes, hand made pasta with a simple sauce, loaded minestrone and home made rolls-basic comfort foods. He later moved back to upstate NY so I treat 2/14 as I would any other day.<br /><br />I love the fact that you dressed up and took yourself out. Like my chef friend, I avoid the scalper's menus on V-Day but I generally make a special meal for myself like a petite filet mignon, seared scallops or a lobster tail. This year I am going to make a special roast chicken dinner including the day before prep to make the skin extra crispy. <br /><br />Normally my comfort food is a pot of fine loose tea and a small saucer of good toast cut into triangles and cultured butter followed by a very crisp, cold apple cute into batons. When I comfort myself with food, I like to make the meal last, no matter how small or simple it is.<br /><br />I think it's important for every one to realize that being in a relationship can, at times, have just as many painful periods as being single. The grass really isn't greener on either side. Something I heard from my meditation teacher about the feeling of loneliness; he said to remember that when we sit (in meditation), we sit with everyone and everything. We are never sitting alone. <br /><br />Happy Noodle Day to you and I wish you love always. <3
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 8, 2019
I love that you named those specific foods. It just so happens that scallops and roast chicken for one are coming down the pipeline! Also, this meant so much to me tonight: “We are never sitting alone.” Never, indeed.
 
jubiejulie February 8, 2019
As someone else who has celebrated way too many solo Valentine's evenings, thank you for writing this. I've never tried to make this at home but maybe this will be the year I enjoy a bowl of 짜장면 in the comfort of my living room.<br /><br />I should also take a minute to let you know that I truly do enjoy reading all of your articles. Some of them are a little too painful in their level of relatability but that's okay too.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 8, 2019
I appreciate it, Julie. Here's to another solo Valentine's Day. May yours be filled with noodles, too.
 
Emma L. February 8, 2019
I love this piece, Eric. Thank you for writing something so relatable and bravely honest.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 8, 2019
Thanks, Emma. x