Korean comfort food that's nothing like kimchee

Eating on the Edge: Lynnwood's Tsing Tao serves black noodles, a dish so popular in Korea that it's featured in cartoons, movies, and a Korean version of Valentine's Day.
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Tangsuyuk (sweet and sour pork) and the traditional jajangmyun (black noodles)

Eating on the Edge: Lynnwood's Tsing Tao serves black noodles, a dish so popular in Korea that it's featured in cartoons, movies, and a Korean version of Valentine's Day.

In Korea, few dishes are loved as much as the black noodles, or jjajangmyun.

The South Korean government chose it as one of the country'ꀙs top 100 'ꀜKorean Cultural Symbols.'ꀝ The cost of jjajangmyun (pronounced ja-jee-young-mee-un) is considered a significant economic indicator in South Korea, like the price of a gallon of milk in the U.S.

The noodles have been the subject of Korean pop music, appeared in the plots of cartoons, television shows and movies, and have been the object of personal obsession. A Korean man is famous for having eaten nothing but jjajangmyun for five years. Korea'ꀙs version of Valentine'ꀙs Day also sets aside a separate holiday for singles, called Black Day, when those without sweethearts traditionally console themselves by eating a bowl of jjajangmyun.

Kimchee might be the food most widely associated with Korea, but jjajangmyun is the country'ꀙs true comfort food. A meal in itself, it needs no accompaniment. Made with wheat noodles, covered in a sauce of pork, vegetables and the black bean paste that gives it its color, jjajangmyun is one of the first foods a Korean child learns to love.

It is by far the most popular meal to have delivered to your home, often by a worker on a bicycle with a metal compartment secured to the back. In this respect, it is to Korea what pizza is to America.

And like pizza, burritos, spaghetti, chili, and many other dishes we have come to think of as American food, jjajangmyun is borrowed. Strictly speaking, it is not Korean food, but Chinese in origin, introduced to Korea by Chinese immigrants in the port city of Incheon, a few hundred miles across the Yellow Sea from the Chinese province of Shandong, where most of the Chinese immigrants in Korea came from.

That is the homeland of Mei Chi Wang's parents, and the inspiration for the name of the restaurant she and her husband, Hua Ting Wang, run in Lynnwood. Mei Chi's parents are from the seaport city of Yantai, which borders the larger city of Qingdao. The Wangs' restaurant, Tsing Tao, uses the more familiar spelling (Qingdao is where the famous beer is brewed).

Mei Chi'ꀙs parents emigrated to Incheon after World War II, and then moved to Pusan, where both Mei Chi and Hua Ting grew up (his parents also immigrated from Shandong province). Mei Chi attended school in both Korean and Mandarin and is fluent in both. About 20 years ago, the couple moved to Seattle ago, where their two teenage sons were born.

Their restaurant, Tsing Tao, is located on Highway 99 in the back end of a strip mall obscured by a Grease Monkey auto shop. Hua Ting does all the cooking. Mei Chi waits table and runs the cash register. From its exterior, Tsing Tao would seem to be just another Chinese restaurant in a city of many, except for the Korean, Hangul writing on the storefront. It is surrounded by Korean-owned businesses including a very popular Korean barbecue restaurant called Ka Won. Korean-American enterprises prevail in this stretch of Highway 99. That is precisely why the Wangs relocated their restaurant here four years ago after operating a similar business farther south near Edmonds Community College.

'ꀜThis is closer to my house, the rent is cheaper, and there are lots of Korean people,'ꀝ Mei Chi Wang said.

Her customers are almost exclusively Korean-American, like Adam and Kimberly Kim of Bellingham, who, after visiting a friend, stopped in for a meal of jjajangmyun, sweet and sour pork, and Mongolian beef. Adam grew up in the Seattle area and, as a child, ate jjajangmyun every weekend with his family at a restaurant that no longer exists.

'ꀜTo be honest, I didn'ꀙt know it wasn'ꀙt a Korean dish,'ꀝ Adam said, reflecting the presumptions of most, who are often puzzled when they do not find it on the menu at a Korean restaurant. Whether in Incheon, Seoul, Los Angeles or New York, you can find jjajangmyun only in a Chinese-Korean restaurant.

In Seattle, Tsing Tao is even more of a rarity, a restaurant that specializes in Korean-style Chinese specialties, jjajangmyun the most important among them. (The dish is phonetically spelled several ways, like jajangmyeon or chachangmein, as it appears on Tsing Tao'ꀙs menu.) With a little exaggeration, Mei Chi said 90 percent of their customers order one of four dishes: jjajangmyun ($6.95); a spicy, seafood noodle soup called champong ($7.95); fried chicken wings in hot sauce, called gamponggi ($13.95); and tangsuyuk ($13.95), or sweet and sour pork. Tsing Tao also serves a version with chicken.

Both sweet-and-sour dishes barely resemble the Chinese-American version, which is deep red in color and saltier in flavor. In the Chinese-Korean version, the meat is also battered and fried. But the sauce is prepared separately and poured over the fried meat, rather than cooked with the meat. The sauce is pale in color, containing cucumbers, carrots and onions, and is very tart in flavor. Lovers of the American version probably will not take quickly to the Korean version.

That is the nature of Chinese food around the world, adapted to local tastes and habits until it can no longer be called Chinese. There is Chinese-Indian food, Chinese-Jamaican, Chinese-Hungarian, Chinese-Peruvian, and many others. Chinese-American favorites like egg foo young, chop suey, and General Tso'ꀙs chicken (Tsing Tao serves it), are foreign to most Chinese.

Jjajangmyun is a version of a Chinese dish of slightly different pronunciation, zha jiang mein. Sometimes referred to as Chinese spaghetti, it is also made with pork and bean paste. It is not nearly as popular among the Chinese as jjajangmein is among Koreans. And it is not always on the menus of Chinese restaurants, although versions of it are occasionally served there. (It is sometimes called noodles in Peking sauce, or Peking noodles.)

Tsing Tao'ꀙs version is made with diced pork, onions, and zucchini. Hua Ting makes the noodles by hand in the restaurant. Some sauces are thicker; Tsing Tao'ꀙs is more soupy. Tsing Tao also serves a popular seafood version, samsen chachang ($9.95), to which Hua Ting adds octopus and shrimp. In traditional fashion, the noodles are served with raw onions and more bean paste, and a dish of sweet, yellow, pickled daikon, a Japanese condiment called takuan.

In large part due to the Japanese occupation of Korea, Koreans developed a taste for many Japanese foods like sushi. A popular picnic food among Koreans is gimbap or kimbap, a meatless version of a Japanese maki roll. Takuan, which the Koreans call danmuji, comes with every bowl of jjajangmyun, as does a small dish of kimchee. Tsing Tao'ꀙs kimchee is made with round cabbage instead of napa or Chinese cabbage, and is less gamey and spicy than the traditional Korean version.

There are other accommodations made for the Korean clientele, like the jar of ground red peppers at each table and the television broadcasting Korean soap operas.

The menu of about two dozen items is relatively small when compared to the epic menus one finds in most traditional Chinese restaurants. Tsing Tao also serves familiar favorites like kung pao chicken ($10.95), mapo tofu ($10.95), Hunan beef ($9.95), and prawns with honey and walnut ($15.95).

But when customers finish eating, and the table is ready to be cleared, what you mostly see are big, empty bowls, smeared with black sauce.

If you go: Tsing Tao, 15004 Highway 99, Lynnwood, (425) 745-828. Hours are 11:30 am to 9:30 pm Monday and Wednesday-Saturday; noon to 9 pm Sunday. Closed Tuesday.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Hugo Kugiya

A former national correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsday, freelance writer Hugo Kugiya has written about the Northwest for the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. His book, 58 Degrees North, about the sinking of the Arctic Rose fishing vessel, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award. You can reach him at hugo.kugiya@gmail.com.