Netflix’s newest food program is a splash into cold foods, namely cold noodles, ideal for this time of the year. Korean Cold Noodle Rhapsody, which came out this past Friday, is a two-part documentary series that explores the complex nuances defining one of Korea’s most beloved and seemingly simple dishes: naengmyeon.
Naengmyeon translates literally to “chilled noodles,” and typically, it’s considered a summertime staple. But it turns out, there’s so much more to it. Hosted by South Korean chef and food researcher Paik Jong-Won, the series is a follow-up to 2020’s Korean Pork Belly Rhapsody. This second chapter journals Paik as he travels to different parts of Korea, from the cities of Seoul, Jinju, and Busan, to the islands of Baengnyeongdo and Jeju, to taste how naengmyeon varies from region to region. “Other people may see [naengmyun] as another item on a menu but it’s unique to us,” Paik says in the show. “I’d love for people all over the world to learn why we eat this and what the advantages are. I want to share with them what its secrets are.” As such, viewers are served countless bowls of noodles by proxy of Paik’s intense slurps, gulps, and thoughtful explanations of how each eats. But even he is just one part of the complete noodle oracle.
To really truly learn about naengmyeon, the documentary features a number of expert food critics, historians, restaurateurs, and just plain aficionados. It touches on the long history of naengmyeon, from the first written record of the dish’s consumption during the Joseon Dynasty (around the early 1800s) in the book Gyuhap Chongseo to a modern day plating of a naengmyeon recipe once served to King Gojong. We examine the evolution of the machinery required to extrude the buckwheat noodles. At one restaurant Paik visits, the general manager unpacks their rank of cooks involved in the process of bringing the singular food to life: the dough maker, the starter who cooks the noodles perfectly (as the GM explains, “just a little late, and the noodles become lumps. Too early, and it’s al dente”), the quality inspector, and the garnisher.
For those unfamiliar with naengmyeon, Korean Cold Noodle Rhapsody serves as a thorough introduction; for those who are familiar and quite frequently consume the stuff (like I do), it provides a supplemental knowledge that only furthers your understanding and admiration for the dish.
The program deliberately avoids assigning a singular definition, flavor profile, and story to naengmyeon. Of course, there are a few structural tenants to the dish: “naengmyeon is made by pressing the buckwheat and making noodles with that. You add garnish and stock. You eat it cold whether it’s summer or winter,” says the food critic Gwang Hwanghae. Aside from that, it totally depends on the maker and consumers on hand; in fact, according to the show’s experts, that’s the whole point. “This dish is over 500 years old,” Paik explains, “it always changes, develops, and always evolves.”
As a food writer who frequently writes about Korean cuisine, I sometimes feel obligated to explain what things are in the most clear, often too simplified of terms for the Western audience. Perhaps my shortcomings stem from a longstanding desire for acceptance and the remaining doubt I hold about how my food culture may be perceived in food media, a landscape that’s only now reckoning with representation issues. This docuseries was a personal lesson in not to cut any corners.
In place of stating just what naengmyeon is, what it does so well is conveying the multitudes of why naengmyeon, to Koreans, is such a complicated thing. Why you should gnaw away at the long strands of buckwheat noodles instead of cutting it with scissors. Why, for how much it stands as a national food, there is no “classic” version because it’s also hyper-regional cuisine, with ingredients subject to differ based on availability within various local food systems. Why the time before and after the Korean War drastically shaped the map of where different naengmyeon varietals settled depending on the migration trajectories of refugees. And why naengmyeon returns people back to a time and place that otherwise would be unreachable. This is best displayed in a scene in the film, where a North Korean defector goes to eat at a restaurant that specializes in making Pyongyang naengmyeon, a style of the noodle originating from the North Korean city. She consumes her bowl joyfully without restraint, then thanks the chef for providing her a taste of home.
On the central theme of home, Korean Cold Noodle Rhapsody doesn’t shy away from discussing how naengmyun belongs to the entire Korean peninsula, a refreshing retreat away from the solidified divide between the North and South. One minute we walk through small alleyways with groups of refugees, the next we hear a curious lot of South Korean millennials. Such juxtapositions, and the documentary’s assembly of narratives, clearly express how naengmyun is not just a cold noodle dish, but a force for connection. A shared penchant for soupy, slurpable cold noodles certainly might not be sufficient to bring upon reunification in the Korean peninsula. But it’s a start.
Naengmyeon is a beautiful, complex, multi-hyphenated dish - to experience it in entirety, you’ll have to tune in and watch.
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