Love in the Time of Noodles
Black Day: when Korean singles stare in desperate misery into a bowl of jajangmyeon. What is jajangmyeon you ask? Well, perhaps the more urgent question is what is Black Day? Black Day is the day on the South Korean calendar when young Korean singles commiserate their singledom. En masse. In public. It is precisely this intersection of public and private life, and the Korean pre-occupation with marriage and procreation, that make this day so typically Korean.
Black Day is ‘celebrated’ by Korean singles who did not receive gifts on the preceding two days of love on the Korean Calendar. The 14th of February, Valentine’s Day (the one we all know) is when Korean women give gifts to men. The 14th of March, White Day, is when Korean men give gifts to women. If the same two people give gifts to each other on these preceding days, then the deal is pretty much sealed. If you did not receive a gift on these days, then the 14th of April, Black Day, is when these sad souls gather together to eat jajangmyeon, which is noodles in a black bean sauce. You may think that in the apparent spirit of despair and self-loathing of this day, this particular noodle dish may not be one too highly favoured amongst noodle dishes, but it is in fact a worthy contender in the pantheon of comfort foods. You may also be wearing black clothes and other black accessories as you graze morosely on this aromatic and flavourful dark-coloured dish. And if you were to bare your teeth in an anguished and lonely grimace, your teeth may very well be stained black too.
Black day is in fact only one of a few iterations of specific days dedicated to love (or the lack there of) on the Korean calendar. And indeed, it is hard to be in Korea for any length of time and not be aware of just how central and consuming this bewildering and beautiful human experience is. One of the most common questions you’ll be asked on meeting someone is, ‘Are you married?’ If your response to this is negative the next question will inevitably be, ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ If the answer to this is also in the negative, you will quite possibly be asked (please prepare yourself for the horror), ‘Why?’ And you will feel deeply obliged to give a satisfactory answer, a satisfactory justification for your romantic ineptitude, even though later you will gaze on yourself and in a defeated and desolate whisper ask, ‘Why?’ Why did I actually begin to sweat as I tried in blind panic to answer what would seem quite an intrusive and ridiculous question? (Asked often, it must be noted, by someone you’ve just met). Am I not independent? Am I not strong? It is hard not to feel as if you have under-delivered in a serious way, and I will always be grateful that I was not ‘solo’ during my first few months in Korea. Although I did still on occasion have to satisfy curious strangers that I was not, in fact, a Russian prostitute, an occupational hazard of being blonde and Caucasian in South Korea.
But, but…and there is always a ‘but’. Love in Korea is very enticing, it is very cute, very romantic and it has managed (at least on the face of it) to maintain a lovely sense of innocence. The markets are littered with couple wear, couple t-shirts, couple shoes, couple rings, even…brace yourself…couple underwear. There are little photo booths everywhere to take couple pictures, and the movie houses there were my first experience of…couple seats. There are coffee shops on every corner, and new ones constantly spring up, filled, as you may now imagine, with couples. It even has a theme park called ‘Love Land’ which is home to not a few statues depicting various and creative acts of coitus and huge genitalia. It is also not particularly unusual to see six, seven-foot-tall phali standing erect and on-guard at the entrances to restaurants and roadside craft shops, filled to bursting with artwork dedicated to this most mischievous organ and its female counterpart. Food is often classified, popularly, between food that is ‘good for the man’ (wink wink) and food that is either neutral or decidedly ‘bad for the man’. I’ve bought produce at a market and been assured with a delighted grin that what I had bought was ‘good for the man’. My partner was once pulled aside and informed in an alarmed whisper that the soya milk he’d just put in his coffee was, in contrast, ‘very bad for the man’. Luckily, he has of yet suffered no ill-consequence of this risky soya-consuming behaviour. In short, and herein perhaps lies the crux of the matter, all of this feeds the marriage machine in a society where fertility and virility are highly and publicly revered. Family and the continuation of family are central to the Korean psyche and experience, and the pressure in Korea to marry and procreate is enormous. Women are expected to be married by the time they are 30, and if they haven’t, popular imagination often considers them, ‘Too old’.
So, although I have never personally eaten jajangmyeon on Black Day, I’ve definitely been asked, ‘Will you eat jajangmyeon?’ on Black Day, or ‘Did you eat jajangmyeon?’ the day after Black Day. And both versions of the question are always followed with a smile and a little laugh. Because Koreans have a wonderful sense of humour, and they are as dedicated to having fun as they are to falling in love. Perhaps the question, ‘Did you eat jajangmyeon?’ is really just another version of ‘Are you married?’ And although this all sounds very serious, even perhaps a little dramatic, in truth, most single Koreans simply take the day as an opportunity to hang out with friends, have a bit of fun and eat together. Because friends are nice, jajangmyeon is delicious and food should never be eaten alone.
Jajangmyeon: Korean-Chinese Black Bean Noodles
¼ cup vegetable oil
300g chungjang (black fermented soybean paste)
2 yellow onions
1 russet potato
150g ground pork
2 cups vegetable broth
2 T corn-starch
Dried somyeon or udon noodles
Frozen peas (optional)
2 T soju or cooking liquor
2 T honey
1 T soy sauce
1 T chopped garlic
1 t chopped ginger
½ t ground black pepper
1) Heat vegetable oil in a wok. Stir-fry black chunjang paste over low heat for about 10~15 minutes or until the wok becomes evenly greasy. Set aside.
2) Make the marinade by combining all ingredients. Add ground pork and set aside.
3) Chop the leek. Cut other vegetables into bite-size blocks.
4) Heat 2 T of oil and add chopped leek. Once the oil becomes aromatic add potatoes and carrots.
5) Add onions and cabbage.
6) Add the marinated ground pork and keep stir-fry over medium-high heat.
7) Add the greasy chunjang and incorporate.
8) Add the vegetable broth and simmer. Mix corn-starch with 2 T of water and add it to the pan to thicken the sauce. Add frozen peas and corn kernels if desired.
9) Boil water in pasta pot and cook the noodles according to direction on packaging. Dried somyeon (thin noodles) or jungmyeon (thicker noodles) work well. Frozen udon noodles also work.
10) Drain the cooked noodles and place in a bowl. Ladle the black jajang sauce over the noodles.
11) Top with julienne cucumber and serve.
Amy is a Cape Town based teacher and freelance writer. She studied Comparative Religion and English Literature at The University of Cape Town and spent four years living and teaching in South Korea. Of all the things she loves about Korea, kimchi, Korean babies and makoli are what she loves most. A fascination with East Asia began as a child, courtesy of National Geographic and the novel, Water Touching Stone. She loves to write and explore and is happiest on an airplane, bus or train: free with her thoughts and on her way to an adventure.