If the title of this post does nothing for you, stop for a minute and listen. The sounds you hear are squeals of excitement and moans of hunger from all the people for whom the three words zha jiang mian evoke yearning memories of their favorite comfort food, a deeply flavorful noodle bowl from childhood.
A Chinese-Korean hybrid, zha jiang mian may soon join the noodle bowls from around the world – ramen, pho, pad thai – that have become mainstream American fare. Korean food is expanding out of urban Koreatowns: restaurants are cropping up featuring bimimbab, the spicy vegetable and rice bowl, or light, crispy Korean fried chicken, glazed with a sweet garlic sauce. Momofuku’s David Chang is taking over the world. Zha jiang mian can’t be far behind.
Like curry from India growing into the national dish of England, zha jiang mian (pronounced zah-jahng-myun) is a Chinese dish that has been enthusiastically adopted as Korea’s most popular comfort food (phoneticized from Korean it’s jajangmyeon). In Korea, it’s as popular and ubiquitous as pizza in America.
Zha jiang may look mysteriously dark, but it’s simply an Asian take on spaghetti with meat sauce. Instead of tangy tomato, zha jiang is infused with a satisfyingly intense richness, salty and a bit sweet, with the heft of meat and the soft crunch of finely chopped vegetables.
The story of zha jiang mian is the story of my family. My parents both came from Shandong, the coastal province in northern China that is also the ancestral home of Confucius and zha jiang mian. Beginning in 1897, when Germany leased from China the main city of Qingdao (and promptly set up breweries, such as Tsingtao), Shandong endured a tumultuous half-century, from German control to Chinese-Japanese dispute post-World War I, to Chinese warlords, to Japanese invasion, to civil war and finally the iron curtain of Communist control in 1949.
No wonder that desperate people from Shandong left to seek opportunities elsewhere. Like many men of their era, both my grandfathers labored in Korea, sending money home to their wives and children in China and visiting rarely. When the situation in Shandong became dire, both of my grandmothers took what children they could and begged, borrowed and bribed to find transit to Korea.
War broke out in Korea shortly after. My parents grew up in shanty towns with other Chinese refugees, and though my mom lived in Korea for over a decade, she speaks no Korean at all. The main cultural exchange was through food. Like many others, my mom’s family sold food by the roadside for income. My parents developed a lifelong love of spicy Korean kimchi, and Koreans were exposed to many Shandong specialties, including zha jiang mian. read on…