With my wife still being out of town for work, I continued on my week of Food My Wife Wouldn’t Mind Me Eating Without Her. The next dish I wanted to try to make was chajangmyun. It’s a korean noodle dish made out of black bean paste that I’ve talked about before on this blog. For some reason, this dish always freaks my wife out, but I love it. And given that I have little desire to explore Chicago for Korean restaurants, I decided I would try making it at home.
1. Pick a vessel: I looked over a couple of other chajangmyun recipes, and it seemed like you needed a wok. I don’t own a wok. But, after thinking about the recipes for a while, it occurred to me that making the sauce for the chajangmyun is very similar to making an Italian braising liquid (e.g. Anne Burrell lamb shank recipe). But instead of tomato paste, you will be using black bean paste. And instead of using a sofrito, you will be using a mix of korean vegetables. So, since Anne Burrell uses a dutch oven, I figured a dutch oven would work just fine for my chajangmyun. I set it on the stove and turned on the heat. It’s cast iron, so it takes a while to heat up.
2. Brown the meat: While at the Korean grocery store, I found a pound of what was labeled as “Black Pork Bacon.” Looking at it, it looked like it was certainly pork belly. But whether it was from a black pig, or whether it would taste like American bacon, was a mystery. But for the price, I thought it would be worth a shot. I opened the package and dumped it in the hot dutch oven
3. Chop and add the veggies: I chopped into small cubes 1 medium potato and 1 large zucchini. I also diced half an onion. When the bacon started to look cooked, I added the potato and the zucchini.
4. Add some toasted sesame oil: I let the potato and the zucchini cook for a while with the bacon, but the bacon wasn’t giving off nearly as much fat as I had expected it to. So I added about a tablespoon or two of toasted sesame oil. My wife hates this flavor, which is why I decided I would make it while she was out of town.
5. Add the zucchini: Then, I added the zucchini and kept stirring.
6. Brown the black bean paste: When making her braising liquid, Anne Burrell will add the tomato paste and then cook it, even though you would think it would just burn the paste. It doesn’t. She does it because, otherwise, it would just taste raw. For my chajangmyun, I put 4T of black bean paste in a small sauce pot with about a tablespoon of vegetable oil. And I cooked it until it got nice and toasty.
7. Add water: I put 2C of water in the dutch oven with the bacon and vegetables. I pretty much guessed as to how much water to add, which is basically how I approach water in all my Korean food cooking. The picture shows what it all looked like when I first added the water. After scraping the fond off the bottom of the pot and letting it all boil for a couple minutes, the liquid took on a nice brown hue.
8. Add the cooked black bean paste: Dump the cooked black bean paste into the pot. It will make everything black.
9. Slurry: The last part of the recipe is to thicken it with starch. Traditional recipes will call for potato starch, but I don’t have that. Instead, I furiously mixed 1T of cornstarch with about 1-2 T of water in a small bowl. And then I dumped it into the pot. You have to then bring the whole thing back up to a boil. The key is heat. It will not thicken without heat. You are looking for a sauce that will hold a line on a spoon, but you don’t want it to get as thick as a béchamel. It should remind you of a runny chili or curry.
10. Cook the noodles: I bought these noodles at the Korean grocery store. I don’t think I quite got the right ones, but they were close enough, like getting fettucini when you needed linguini. Korean noodles have a different kind of chewiness to them than Italian noodles. Korean noodles wouldn’t be good in Italian cooking, and Italian noodles wouldn’t be good in Korean cooking. They just aren’t interchangeable.
11. Serve with side dishes: Korean food needs to be served with banchan – the little dishes that accompany every meal. The dishes may vary, but they are typically an array of pickled vegetables, a testament to Korea’s long history of a lack of refrigeration.
Another of the side dishes was dahk kwang. It’s a pickled raddish that is neon yellow. You can buy it sliced or unsliced. The best kind are the half-moon slices that are all the exact same size because, as we have discussed often on this blog, things taste better when they are all the same exact size.
Dahk kwang goes really well with chajangmyun because it provides a crisp palette cleanser to contrast the chajangmyun’s richness. Dahk kwang always makes me think of my dad. Because when you eat it, you usually pour a little bit of rice wine vinegar on top of it. And my dad is always the one who does that.
Overall, my first attempt at chajangmyun was pretty good. I overcooked the noodles somewhat, and I added too much slurry so the curry had a graininess to it that was noticeable at times (the recipe above has already been adjusted to remedy this problem).
The pork belly was just pork belly. It wasn’t bacon at all. Which was fine. It tasted like the pork usually tastes in a chajangmyun. But the pieces were way to big; I should have chopped them to the same size as the vegetables. Also, this dish is traditionally garnished with julienned cucumber. I didn’t have any, so I skipped it.
I remember my mom trying to make this for me at one point growing up. And she couldn’t figure out why her sauce just wouldn’t thicken. Turns out, you shouldn’t add more slurry. You should add more heat. Otherwise, when you finally do figure out that you need to heat it, it will turn into a big solid mass of inedible blackness.
This is one of my favorite cooking memories with my mom, not that we have that many. My mother would always try to accommodate my food whims, even when I asked her to make things that she had no idea how to make – like chajangmyun, tang soo yook, or hash browns. I think it is from her that I get my impulse to just go ahead and try things in the kitchen, regardless of whether you know what you are doing.