It turns out that I am a back alley kind of girl. This was something that I didn’t know about myself until we moved to Korea and began to travel through Southeast Asia.
Give me food stalls, stacks of dumplings steaming on street corners, wobbly stools, plastic chairs pressed up against cement walls, narrow passages crammed with tables. Let me sit elbow to elbow on a wooden bench in a bustling market noisy with sizzling, slurping, hissing, lip-smacking goodness. Paper sacks and plastic bags. Crunchy, greasy, savoury, sweet, bean paste, sesame, skewers, buns, pancakes and pockets. I am happiest at a hole in the wall: tiny stool, tinier lunch counter, maximum capacity: 6.
I marvel at the delicacies that emerge from seemingly impossible kitchens, flavours complex and somehow more than the sum of their parts. That lone wok on a empty side street in Bangkok; a griddle near the bus station where I first fell in love with jian bing, the rickety cart near the river in Tunxi piled high with baozi, juicy balls of meat in the middle of the softest clouds of steamed bread; the tiny grill in the Omoide Yokocho eatery, only 4 skewers wide… the large piece of pottery filled with hot embers, sitting in a quiet doorway from which crisp squares of bread emerged.
And the noodles! Let’s not forget the noodles!
Chewy, toothsome lengths, nested into big bowls of savoury broth: each one unique, each flavor a reflection of a place, that subtly changes as you travel from here to there. Different, yet unmistakably linked in their power to evoke the feeling of home. The familiar and the foreign encompassed in every single bowl. I think it is impossible to not feel happy when steam, heavily laden with hints of what is to come rises up to meet your nose, basking your face in dewy warmth as you lean over- chopsticks in one hand, spoon in another ready to dive in and explore taste buds first.
It was the desire for one of these bowls of noodle-y comfort food that prompted us to crawl out from under our blankets on Christmas Eve this year. We made our way from the foot of Soyosan Mountain, toward Namdaemun Market in Seoul. A freezing winter afternoon, far away from family and friends for yet another holiday, it seemed like the perfect day to go get lost in a crowd in hopes of finding ourselves gazing into the depths of a nice bowl of kalguksu. Kalguksu (칼국수) literally means ‘knife noodle soup’, and is one of the beloved homestyle dishes of Korea. Traditionally eaten in the summer (along with other Korean specialties like samgyetang), it is thought to have restorative powers. It can range from a simple fare of homemade noodles in a plain broth with a few slivers of hobak (pumpkin) or slices of zucchini, and a spattering of flaked seaweed to something more complex- big bowls topped with seasoned chicken, or an assortment of seafood tangled within.
We walked through Namdaemun, twisting and turning. The scenery changed from socks, to underwear, to furs. The street narrowed (always a good sign in my book), and seemed to grow dim (cause for more excitement), as we found ourselves staring down a long corridor broken up by a series of somewhat miniaturized doors. It was darker than the rest of the market’s streets, and at the other end I saw Santa- just standing there. I kid you not. It was rather surreal. Since it was Chirstmas Eve, we decided to go up and ask his advice: “Santa, where is the best kalguksu sikdang?” “Santa, where is your favourite?” His eyes lit up, he laughed a jolly little laugh, and was off like a flash down the alley, stopping mid way to open a door. We entered into the tiniest two table space, and took a seat. I watched as a lump of fresh dough got rolled out thin, then folded over, before the man at the counter brandished a sharp blade and began to expertly slash through the soft log with unbelievable speed and precision. Like magic, oodles of noodles appeared, then they were whisked off to a big pot of broth to simmer away. A few moments later we were slurping and chewing the thick, hand cut noodles- steadily making our way to the bottoms of our bowls. Christmas was close on our heels, and our bellies were warm in spite of the cold weather outside… feeling content, far away from home, with memories of all our recent travels bubbling to the surface.
So, this isn’t necessarily your mamma’s kalguksu. This is my ode to back alley noodles. My nod to our Chirstmas kalguksu. A flavour poem dedicated to all those slurpy bowls I have savoured, and those still to come.
Makes 2- 4 servings… depending on how big your bowl is!
for the noodles:
1 cup flour
rounded 1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 teaspoon vegetable oil
1/3 cup water
for the broth:
1/2 pound chicken breast
5 1/2 cups water
3/4 teaspoon whole black peppercorn
2 1/2 inch length of peeled, fresh ginger, sliced into 1/4 inch rounds
3 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon salt
half of a small yellow onion, sliced
For the yangnyumjang:
2 Tablespoons of soy sauce
1 teaspoons sesame oil
1/2- 1 teaspooon gochugaru (Korean chili flake) or red pepper flake
1 small clove of garlic, minced
for the chicken seasoning:
1 1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon toasted sesame seed
1 minced garlic clove
1/4 tesapoon salt
For the garnishes:
2 scallions thinly sliced
handful of cilantro
2-4 quail eggs
extra gochugaru/red pepper flake
1 Tablespoon toasted sesame seed
In a large bowl, mix 1 cup flour, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1 1/4 teaspoon vegetable oil, and 1/3 cup water. Stir together until it starts to clump together into a dough. Turn out onto a floured surface, form into a ball, and knead about 8 minutes until smooth and not tacky. Dough will be quite firm. If it seems too dry, wet your hands and continue kneading. Let dough rest in a bowl covered with plastic wrap in a warm spot for 45 minutes to an hour.
In a medium sized stockpot or equivalent, add 5 1/2 cups water, 1/2 pound chicken breast, rounded 3/4 teaspoon black peppercorns, 1 teaspoon salt, the 2 1/2 inch hunk of sliced ginger, 3 smooshed garlic cloves, and sliced onion. Bring to a boil, and then simmer, covered, for at least 30 minutes. Turn off and let broth rest and cool a bit (don’t remove chicken breasts)
Toast 1 Tablespoon sesame seed.
Make yangnyumjang- combine 2 Tablespoons of soy sauce, 1 teaspoon sesame oil, 1/2- 1 teaspoon gochugaru (Korean chili flake) or red pepper flake, and 1 small clove of minced garlic in a small bowl- set aside.
Make chicken seasoning. Mince 1 clove of garlic, and add to a medium bowl with 1 1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil, 1 1/2 teaspoon of the reserved toasted sesame seed, and 1/4 teaspoon salt (or more to taste). Mix well.
After broth cools slightly, remove chicken breasts, shred and toss thoroughly with the garlic seasoning mixture.
Strain broth, and put it back into your stockpot. (You should have around 4c of flavourful stock.)
Take the ball of rested dough and knead again for 3 minutes, let rest for 5, then roll into a very thin (1/8 inch) 11 x 14 inch sheet on a lightly floured surface. Flour surface of dough, flip and turn as necessary to get as thin a sheet as possible.
Bring broth to a boil again, then lower temperature to a simmer
Fold dough sheet gently about 4 times from the long side, flouring between layers, to form an oblong roll. Cut into 1/4 inch slices, and toss lightly with flour to prevent sticking as you separate gently with your fingers. Add noodles to broth, and simmer 4-6 minutes, or until tender and the noodles float on the surface.
While noodles cook, fry quail eggs- 1 per serving. Thinly slice scallions, and remove cilantro leaves from stems.
Divide noodles between bowls, pour broth over, top with a healthy heap of chicken, drizzle in 1 Tablespoon or so of yangnyumjang, top with scallions, toasted sesame seeds, and extra gochugaru/red pepper flakes. For a not so traditional spin on your dak klaguksu (not your eomma’s, afterall!) try adding my favourite toppings: a small handful of cilantro and a hardboiled or lightly fried quail egg.
Gobble. Slurp. Enjoy.
This post was concocted as part of The Funnelogy Channel’s Culinary Travel Week. A flavourful collection of travel inspired recipes from a great group of adventurous foodies.
Looking for more recipes from journeys across the globe? Venture here for all sorts of delicious links from this year’s fellow participants.