Recipe: Vegetarian Naengmyun (Korean Cold Noodles)

published Aug 14, 2009
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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

During the boiling days of summer, conversations among my Korean friends inevitably turn toward cravings for mul naengmyun, a dish of buckwheat noodles and cold, tangy broth topped with crisp cucumber, pear, and even a few ice cubes for extra chill factor.

Although it originated as a North Korean wintertime dish, icy mul naengmyun has become a favorite hot weather meal. Unfortunately for vegetarians like myself, the broth is traditionally made with beef. I had been envying my friends as I watched them slurp what looked to be an incredibly refreshing meal, so I decided to develop a vegetarian version. Finally, I was able to experience the wonderful flavors and textures of chewy buckwheat noodles and vinegary-sweet broth topped with crunchy vegetables and spicy mustard. My friends were right; mul naengmyun is a crave-worthy summer dish.

If you are looking for an authentic naengmyun recipe, you might not choose this one, but for anyone who is abstaining from beef, I think this is a flavorful substitute. I managed to taste a meat-free mul naengmyun broth for reference, and I enlisted my non-vegetarian, Korean boyfriend in taste tests as I attempted to achieve the right balance of tangy, salty, and sweet.

Finally, I also tried to develop this recipe with a minimum of specialty ingredients. The broth traditionally includes dongchimi (radish kimchi) juice, but this recipe omits it as not everyone has access to store-bought kimchi or the several days that are required to make it at home. Although dongchimi juice adds another dimension to the broth, a combination of other ingredients creates a good approximation.

As for the noodles, Korean buckwheat noodles (which may also include arrowroot or yam) are almost essential. However, the less chewy, and more readily available, Japanese soba noodles may be used. And while mustard sauce mixed from Korean mustard powder is ideal, in a pinch feel free to substitute another hot mustard.

Vegetarian Mul Naengmyun (Korean Cold Noodles)
Serves 2

4 cups vegetable broth
1-inch piece of ginger root, peeled and sliced
1 clove garlic, peeled and sliced
1 green onion, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/4 cup white vinegar
5 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons soy sauce

1 small cucumber
1/4 pound Korean radish or daikon
1 small Asian pear
3/4 teaspoon salt, divided
1 teaspoon sugar, divided
1 teaspoon vinegar, divided
1 egg
1/2 cup crushed ice

1/4 pound Korean buckwheat noodles or Japanese soba noodles

Sesame seeds
Korean mustard sauce or other hot mustard

For the broth
Combine broth ingredients in a large pot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Strain and cool. Refrigerate until cold, at least an hour.

For the toppings
Cucumber: Thinly slice or julienne. Sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon vinegar and toss to combine. Let sit for at least 10 minutes.

Radish: Peel and thinly slice. Sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon vinegar and toss to combine. Let sit for at least 10 minutes.

Pear: Peel and thinly slice or julienne. Toss with 1/4 teaspoon salt to prevent discoloration.

Egg: Hard boil, peel, and slice in half.

For the noodles
Cover noodles with boiling water and let sit for 3 minutes. (If using soba noodles, cook according to package directions.) Drain in a colander and rinse under cold water, using your hands to separate the strands. Drain again completely.

To serve
Divide the noodles between two bowls. Pour about 2 cups of broth into each bowl. Add crushed ice and arrange toppings over noodles. Sprinkle with sesame seeds. Serve with mustard on the side, which diners should add to taste.

(Image: Emily Ho)