Those who love summer sun and Korean food in equal measures can be forgiven for thinking that the two don’t mix. Although vibrant and fun, Korean summers can also be sweltering, muggy and in some regions almost unbearably hot. A Korean friend continually advises that the best way to eat at this time of year is to “fight fire with fire (이열치열, 以熱治熱)”, opting for the fieriest stew on the most roasting of days (being European, this reminds me of the propensity of those in the Mediterranean to drink scalding coffee -rather than ice slushes- during scorching weather). If a piping jjigae (찌개) in a steamy restaurant loses its appeal in the sunnier months, however, allow makguksu (막국수) to remedy.
This unique savoury dish combines traditional Korean ingredients with a refreshing chill. Forming the foundation are naturally nutritious buckwheat noodles served satisfyingly cold. These are seasoned with quintessential sesame oil and topped with a salty, spicy red pepper sauce (that’s right, there dish does contain some fire). The crunchiest and most garden-fresh vegetables including radish, cabbage, cucumbers and bean sprouts accompany. Salted seaweed and boiled egg add depth of texture and flavour. Providing the much-needed chill is an icy broth, which ranges from beef or vegetable broth to radish or kimchi water depending on the chosen dish and restaurant (as always, if you’re vegetarian it’s best to double-check. If in doubt, there’s also a broth-less bibim makguksu (비빔 막국수) variety).
As a makguksu first-timer, I was apprehensive of the concept of cold noodles, only to be pleasantly surprised at a dish that beat the summer heat whilst retaining delicious flavours. It’s an undoubtedly healthy option, and in most cases delightfully veggie-friendly. The most unexpected thing is its lightness and freshness, comparable to that of an ice lolly (there aren’t many noodle dishes that can boast this!)
I am lucky enough to have lived in Chuncheon, the hometown of makguksu, and so experienced the highest quality of ingredients and preparation. Here, along with spicy chicken speciality dakgalbi, it’s a proudly celebrated cuisine and a must-try for visitors. Makguksu Street in Chuncheon’s myeongdong has an array of dedicated restaurants. For hard core foodies, the annual Chuncheon Dakgalbi and Makguksu Festival (춘천 닭갈비 막국수 축제- held every summer) showcases the best of these two Gangwon-do classics. There’s even a makguksu museum (춘천 막국수 체험박물관) that demonstrates Chuncheon’s passion for the fare.
Friends assure me that just-as-good makguksu can be obtained in Seoul and other large cities; however speciality restaurants are less consistent in their standards, not to mention being harder to come by in the first place. It’s even less prevalent outside of Korea and I’m yet find a London restaurant that serves the stuff. If you know of a great makguksu eatery in your city, please leave a comment- this is a dish that is worth tracking down!
As an alternative, naengmyeon (냉면) is another Korean cold noodle dish that is more popular and widespread (though arguably not quite as delicious due to a lack of Chuncheon buckwheat.) Just two of the many other refreshing Korean dishes include “sushi”-style raw chamchi (참치- tuna) served on ice, and sweet red bean dessert patbingsu (팥빙수). During London’s recent heatwave, though, it’s cool makguksu that I find myself craving, and missing. If you’re feeling hungry in the heat of the sun, do your best to get hold of some makguksu- and be sure to let us know what you think.