According to a Korean idiom, "A loaf of bread is better than the song of many birds." This indicates the importance Koreans place on a good meal, even when one is at a breathtakingly beautiful site. The same is true when vacationing in Gyeongju, in North Gyeongsang Province in the southwestern part of the country.
Although it seems possible for visitors of this historic site to feel full after drinking in the scenes of various cultural treasures, nothing can really substitute for a hearty meal. A good entrée and dessert complement Gyeongju's beauty and splendor, and this is especially true in the case of milmyeon noodles and Hwangnam bread.
Milmyeon is a cold noodle dish that comes in two flavors, mild and spicy. The mild dish called mul-milmyeon consists of flour wheat noodles in cold beef broth topped with various garnishes, such as braised pork, sliced cucumber, pickled radish, hard-boiled egg and sesame seeds. The spicy dish known as bibim-milmyeon is similar, but has no broth. It comes instead with a red hot pepper sauce that gives it a uniquely sweet, sour, and spicy taste.
The history of these two dishes date back to the 1950-53 Korean War, as milmyeon is actually a reinvention of North Koreans' favorite noodle dish, naengmyeon, or chilled buckwheat noodle soup. As North Koreans fleeing to the south during the war could not easily find or afford buckwheat, they came to substitute it with flour wheat. There are certain key differences between the original and the variation.
Milmyeon's flour wheat noodles preserve the chewy nature of the buckwheat noodles due to the amount of salt used, the way the dough is kneaded, and the simmering time and cooling temperature, while sweet potato starch is added to give it some extra punch.
Another key difference is the kind of meat that is put into each dish. It is common to put beef slices in naengmyeon and pork slices in milmyeon, which means it combines the five traditional colors of Korean cuisine: yellow (egg), blue (here represented by cucumber), white (radish), red (sauce) and black (dark pork).
Milmyeon has come to occupy a special place in the hearts of the people of North Gyeongsang Province, where it is now a signature local dish enjoyed all year round.
Meanwhile, Hwangnam bread is the perfect dessert to chase up a bowl of chilled soup noodles. Designated as a regional specialty by the provincial government, this golden-crusted bread with embossed flower decorations has a history of 70 years; the patented recipe has been passed down for three generations.
The batter for crust is made from a mixture of eggs, water and wheat flour that is carefully measured on a hand-weighed scale. Inside is a generous serving of sweet red bean filling that is boiled for a long time before it is stuffed into the dough. Although there are many rival varieties, Hwangnam is the most popular for its thin but richly flavored crust and sweet red bean filling.
More than 10,000 loaves of Hwangnam bread are sold every day for just W600 each (about 50 cents). The bread is said to have been a source of stamina for Korean soccer players who stayed in Gyeongju during the 2002 World Cup, when Korea advanced to the quarterfinals for the first time. Excellent as both a souvenir and a snack, Hwangnam bread will surely gear visitors up for the remainder of their trip in Gyeongju.
By Yeon Dana, a student at Columbia University