North Korean cold noodle master brings northern tastes to Seoul

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Korean cold noodles, or naengmyeon, are a treat enjoyed in both Koreas. One North Korean restaurant owner is reaping the rewards of this fact after having launched a restaurant in Seoul.



MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Some cold summer treats are just too good to be enjoyed only when it is sweltering hot outside. Speaking personally, I am happy to eat ice cream year-round, especially if we’re talking cookies and cream. And as NPR’s Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, there is one cold summertime dish that is also far too delicious to be enjoyed on just one side of an international border, the one separating the two Koreas.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: We’re talking, of course, about naengmyeon, or Korean cold noodles.

All right. The naengmyeon is here, and it is beautiful. The buckwheat noodles are arranged in a tidy little sort of bun or round shape. I can see some pine seeds floating in the broth, all beautifully prepared in a brass bowl.

We’re at Sulnoon, a restaurant in an upscale Seoul neighborhood. Autographs of celebrities who’ve died here hang on the walls. The name Sulnoon actually means snow on Lunar New Year’s Day, a nod to the fact that North Koreans relish cold noodles in winter as much or even more than in the dog days of summer.

The restaurant’s owner, Moon Yeon-hee was born and raised in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. She defected to the South six years ago before opening Sulnoon. She believes her restaurant is truly unique.

MOON YEON-HEE: (Through interpreter) There’s lots of Pyongyang naengmyeon restaurants in South Korea, but we’re the only place that’s following the original North Korea recipe.

KUHN: Moon explains what makes Pyongyang cold noodles distinctive. First, there’s the broth.

MOON: (Through interpreter) Most places in South Korea only use beef for broth. We use three kinds of meat – chicken, pork and beef – that create the complex aroma of meat.

KUHN: Whole buckwheat flour gives the noodles an earthy brown color. Toppings include beef, pork, pickled radish, cucumbers, sliced egg and a slice of pear. Three generations of Moon’s family have made cold noodles, including at Pyongyang’s Koryo Hotel, North Korea’s second largest. She says that in Pyongyang, cold noodle restaurants have to be state-run because it’s considered the capital’s signature dish.

MOON: (Through interpreter) Pyongyang naengmyeon is the pride of Pyongyang. And when foreign dignitaries visit North Korea, that’s where we bring them to show how huge our Pyongyang naengmyeon restaurants are.

KUHN: Moon says that at some state-run restaurants, you can’t get a table no matter how much money you have.

MOON: (Through interpreter) There’s a quota of 5,000 bowls of naengmyeon they must serve every day. So they distribute tickets for 500 or 100 bowls of noodles to factories and organizations, and they go eat in large groups.

KUHN: In recent years, private cafes and fast-food restaurants have cropped up in the capital, serving burgers, sushi and pizza to the donju, North Korea’s wealthy entrepreneurs. But when it comes to cold noodles, Moon says, they choose the Koryo Hotel.

MOON: (Through interpreter) The main customers are party officials and their children and people who do business under the protection of the party, people who import things from Russia and China sell them in North Korea.

KUHN: With their new restaurant firmly established in Seoul, Moon and her family are now hoping to serve up their cold noodles in new lands. They’re considering opening a new eatery in Los Angeles next year.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

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