It's an odd time to talk about jajangmyeon, in mid-November when everything is about Thanksgiving dishes. Yet we just eat normal, simple food that nourishes us and comforts us until that one big day. Aren't we all tired of hearing one more great idea for the Thanksgiving table anyway (which, I might still try to sneak in at the last minute ^_^)?
So I've decided to talk about jajangmyeon today, because I think I can eat jajangmyeon every day, any time of the year. The oddity of this dish is that it's one the most common people's food, yet at the same time, one of the most celebrated dishes so many associate with special occasions from their childhood. I sometimes wish I could survive on jajangmyeon. Ok, maybe I'll go back and forth between jajangmyeon and tteokbokgi (떡볶이; rice cake in spicy sauce). Like so many other Koreans, it's comfort food I don't want to grow out of.
I found a comprehensive, entertaining article on jajangmyeon from Essen (에쎈), a Korean food magazine, back in April. You can see the full article in Korean here ("한국인의 소울 푸드, 자장면 예찬," - Koreans' Soul Food, Praise for Jajangmyeon). Much of the information on jajangmyeon here comes from that article, unless otherwise noted.
Jajangmyeon started as 'jakjang myeon' (Korean pronounciation of Chinese Zha Ziang Mian) which means 'noodles with fried sauce.' It started at the dock of Incheon, a port city near Seoul (you may be more familiar with it as where ICN is located, the gateway airport to Korea). In the late 1800's to early 1900's, during the period of active trade with the Qing Dynasty, dock workers loading and unloading trade articles were in high demand.
Many of the workers were Chinese people from Shandong area, and they brought their black bean sauce from home. With that, workers were able to make a quick bowl of noodles reminiscent of home flavors, and soon jajangmyeon carts started to roam around selling this easy meal option.
The original 'jakjangmyeon,' or jajangmyeon of earlier days apparently had a much different taste. Since the original sauce was fermented and aged mix of flour and beans, it tasted much saltier without sweetness. And since it was people's food, jajangmyeon wasn't sold in Chinese restaurants in the earlier days. Even in Gonghwachun (공화춘), the Chinese restaurant in Incheon known to have first developed jajangmyeon, didn't serve jajangmyeon in the beginning but included it in the menu with its increasing popularity.
Then the new, mass-produced Korean version of the sauce appeared, with caramel sauce mixed in the original black bean sauce, which is what we've come to know as the base of jajangmyeon sauce, or chunjang (춘장; black bean paste). At the time a sweet taste was a rarity, this became something of a sensational new taste. It was also a new, convenient option for Chinese restaurants in Korea since they didn't have to make the base themselves.
While chunjang remained pretty much the same over the years, vegetable ingredients for jajangmyeon have varied based on seasonality and price. Many people remember potato cubes as a main ingredient from their childhood jajangmyeon. As you can imagine, potatoes played a major role in jajangmyeon because they were abundant and cheap. The increasing amount of onion has to do with Koreans' general preference for sweeter flavor, in addition to extra sugar that goes into chunjang during cooking. Also, lard was used to stir-fry ingredients and chunjang in the beginning. However, a shift was made to use vegetable oil after a 'shortening shock' in the late 1980s, when the news came out that the industrial-grade beef fat was used in food, which led to the general belief that animal fat was bad. The porky flavor is still there through added pork meat in the dish.
Jajangmyeon is also an item in the effective living cost index, complementary to the Consumer Price Index, in which prices of essential goods for daily living regardless of income level are carefully watched over. This shows how ingrained jajangmyeon is in Korea, and it also explains why the price of jajangmyeon would never increase dramatically.
Chinese restaurants, therefore, developed other jajangmyeon varieties for which they can charge more. Seafood (삼선; sam seon) jajangmyeon with exotic sea cucumber, shrimp, cuttlefish was introduced via the chefs from Hong Kong who were invited to work at Chinese restaurants in fancy hotels. For Koreans who love spicy food, Sichuan-style (사천식; sa cheon sik) jajangmyeon came to light. Wide plate (쟁반; jaeng ban) jajangmyeon, a generous portion of noodles stir-fried with chunjang in the wok then served on a big plate like a main dish to be shared, also appeared. Still, the most popular version of jajangmyeon to this day is the basic, original jajangmyeon. And many consider the original jajangmyeon as the barometer of a quality Chinese restaurant.
In addition to the information on jajangmyeon in the Essen article, jajangmyeon signifies other meanings for various occasions. One that I find sad yet funny is the ritual that is forced upon(?) singles on the Black Day on April 14th. Just to give you a little background on the Black Day and related 'holidays' without getting into the legitimacy of these highly commercialized days, in short, Koreans celebrate the Valentines Day (February 14th) as the day of women confessing their love for their men with chocolates. Then comes the White Day (March 14th), when the men return the favor with white, or mint-flavored candies. What's left out in these two celebrations are the singles who are to gather together on April 14th to commiserate their misery of singlehood by eating dark, gloomy black food, and what else fits that description better than jajangmyeon (which I, and many Koreans, accept as not the most aesthetically pleasing dish)?
I want to address one more thing about jajangmyeon before getting into a simple home recipe. The National Institute of the Korean Language determined Jajangmyeon (자장면) as the standard spelling and pronounciation for the dish in 1986, but people never relented to it. Only on TV, reporters would pronounce it as jajangmyeon, but in the real world, people said it with the accented "jja" (짜) as in jja-jang-myeon (짜장면). Finally, in August of this year, both 자장면 and 짜장면 were recognized as standard spellings. As far as I know, there has been no study on why people have been so attached to the slightly stronger pronounciation, a nominal difference at best from the outside. Yet, my guess is that sometimes people have such strong memory attached to a certain dish, they want to keep everything about it as they remember, including the pronounciation, from their childhood. Yes, I also pronounce it as 짜장면 with the accented 'jja' but left the English spelling here as jajangmyeon for...convenience on my part.
There are now many options of enjoying jajangmyeon at home. You can buy the 3-minute jajangmyeon sauce pouch, which you can put in boiling water or in the microwave to heat up and pour over the noodles. You can buy instant jajangmyeon, packaged and cooked just like Korean ramyeon (라면; Korean version of ramen). Personally, I consider these different noodle dishes with different tastes. When I crave jajangmyeon, I'm thinking of a big bowl of noodles mixed with glistening black sauce and the sides of kimchi and danmuji (단무지; sweet radish pickle, yellow or off-white).
Over time, my jajangmyeon has become simplified, now left with only few ingredients that are essential to the jajangmyeon flavor. This, by no means, belongs to a health food category. But once in a while, this does satisfy my cravings without much effort of going to a Korean-Chinese restaurant or spending much time on (trying) cooking an elaborate restaurant version. Here comes my weeknight comfort dinner - simple, spicy jajangmyeon.
To make simple jajangmyeon for one)
Spaghetti or linguini pasta
Water for cooking pasta, 1/2C of which should be reserved
1 TBSP sesame oil
2 TBSP pork belly (삼겹살; sam gyeop sal), cut to small pieces
1/2 medium-sized onion, peeled and diced (about 1/2 C)
2 TBSP black bean paste (춘장; chun jang)
Optional) 1 TBSP gochujang (고추장; Korean red pepper paste) to make it spicy
Optional) cucumber for garnish
Cook pasta according to package instruction. However, don't be concerned about cooking pasta to al dente. Jajangmyeon noodle is on the softer side, if not chewy, which we're trying to mimic. So spaghetti or linguini pasta can be cooked a little longer than the usual al dente state. After cooking the pasta, reserve about 1/2 C of cooking water.
Drizzle sesame oil on a warm pan. Add pork belly and render the fat over low heat. I keep it slightly covered with the lid so that pork fat won't splatter all over but I don't want the pan to get too hot by completely covering it. Check once in a while to stir for even cooking.
When pork belly pieces turn crispy brown, add the diced onion and stir well. As the onion pieces start turning translucent, add chunjang and stir. Take your time mixing in chunjang, incorporating pork fat and onion pieces well.
If you want a spicy version of jajangmyeon, add gochujang and stir to cook for another 2 minutes.
Add pasta water to loosen up the sauce. Start with 2 TBSP of pasta water and stir to incoroprate the sauce. Depending on your preference, add more water. Bring it up to a boil.
Add cooked pasta in the sauce and mix in the noodles in sauce over low heat. Remove from heat.
Optional) Garnish with raw cucumber strips.
Serve with danmuji (단무지; sweet radish pickle) and/or kimch.
pork belly 삼겹살 (sam gyeop sal)
onion 양파 (yang pa)