I made a bad batch of jajangmyeon tonight. These things happen when you’re adventurous–not all experiments succeed, and I can’t really think of a dish I’ve experimented with more than jajangmyeon.
I started out with Eat Your Kimchi’s recipe. It’s still what I use as my template, but it’s a recipe that openly calls for adaptation. For example, their version has no vegetables, even though they strongly recommend adding vegetables (and I concur–it makes the dish much less heavy and greasy), because they’re trying to replicate fast-food jajangmyeon.
It’s also a little…complicated. Keep in mind that one of my favorite cookbook authors is Mark “The Minimalist” Bittmann, and I still simplify his recipes. If cooking is hard, I won’t do it–there’s always take out or fast food, and if the choice is between health and convenience, I will go for convenience. So, I keep it really simple.
The first things I simplified about that recipe was the ridiculously specific quantities of oil and black soybean paste (people call it black bean paste, but it is not made from black beans). Seven tablespoons is very nearly half a cup, and measuring a half-cup takes far less time.
In addition, black soybean paste is the color and consistency of tar. TAR.
Your guide to Korean soy pastes: If it looks like tar, you use it in jajangmyeon. If it looks like baby shit, you use it in stew. Both are actually quite yummy, but they don’t taste alike, so don’t mix them up!
Try measuring out seven tablespoons of STICKY TAR and you too will switch to a half-cup measure. What I do is fill the half-cup measure half full of oil (because you really don’t need a full half-cup of oil) and pour it into the pan, and then I measure out the black soybean STICKY TAR FROM HELL paste into the oiled half-cup measure, using a knife and not a spoon. It’s the only way.
The second thing I modified is the noodles. This is going to anger the food purists, but I don’t care–the noodles desperately needed simplification, so I did what I had to do.
The very first word I read in Korean was kalguksu–the noodle traditionally used in jajangmyeon. Kalguksu noodles are very delicious, but from the point of view of preparation, they are a pain in the ass.
Let me list the ways:
1. As EYK notes, the very microsecond you stop cooking kalguksu noodles, you must shove them under cold water and rinse them thoroughly, separating each and every noodle strand. Otherwise they will stick like crazy, creating a huge disgusting mass of half-cooked noodle dough. (I eat my mistakes–trust me, you do not want to eat a giant blob o’ kalguksu.)
2. Kalguksu noodles don’t keep. You can refrigerate jajangmyeon sauce, but you have to cook the noodles fresh each time.
3. Cooking kalguksu noodles involves dirtying a pot and a strainer.
How to solve this? I wondered.
The other thing that happened the first time I put vegetables into my jajangmyeon sauce was that they produced a lot of liquid. To get the traditional thick sauce, I had to cook it down, and then mix up the slurry of thickener (a fork, bowl, and measuring spoons dirtied).
Why bother? I wondered.
I cut my teeth on Italian cuisine, and in that cuisine, it’s not uncommon to cook pasta in the sauce.
I’m going to kill two birds with one stone, I realized.
So, when I make jajangmyeon, I leave out the thickener, and I cook the noodles in the sauce. (I’ve also made jajangbap like this, cooking the rice in the sauce.)
You cannot even remotely do this with kalguksu noodles–no effen way. They hit the sauce (hic!) and immediately form an impenetrable wad.
So I poked around for a similarly-flavored noodle that would tolerate being cooked in sauce, and I hit upon udon noodles–they’re used in soup, so they’ll stand up to anything. If you make your jajangmyeon with udon noodles, they can sit in the sauce in the fridge for a week, and they’ll still be good enough to eat–a little mushy, sure, but nothing gross. You slop some of your leftover jajanmyeon on a plate, stick it in the microwave for a couple of minutes, and viola! Dinner!
Added bonus? Where I live, udon noodles are available in the regular grocery stores, but kalguksu noodles require a special trip out to an Asian market.
I’ve played around with other stuff, too. like switching meats (ground turkey really doesn’t work–even white-meat turkey is too bitter). Why didn’t tonight’s jajangmyeon work out? The problem was the oil. I used oil left over from frying chicken. The oil you use really does affect the flavor of the jajangmyeon, and in this case the oil was really salty from the breading. So, tonight’s jajangmyeon is too salty, but such is life–nothing ventured, nothing gained!
ETA: I’ve also made this in an Instant Pot–notes on that here.