Ja jang myun, a comfort food that kindles feelings of hunger and pleasure, is as much of a cultural icon in Korea as kimchi.
Called “zha jiang mien” in Chinese and “ja jang myun” in Korean, these “fried sauce noodles” are, in the simplest definition, a bowl of cooked noodles doused in a dark, chunky sauce that has been stir-fried with meat. Though the dish is native to China, zha jiang mien has been most enthusiastically embraced by Koreans since it was introduced to them by Shandong immigrants about 100 years ago.
Even just 20 years ago, it was a dish saved for special occasions like birthdays, festivities and weddings, the way an American family might celebrate a graduation at a nice steakhouse.
But as Korea’s economy boomed, ja jang myun shifted from a special treat to fast food. The red neon signs of ja jang myun houses now light up the streets of Korea in greater numbers than the yellow arches of McDonald’s.
In Korea, ja jang myun can be ordered over the phone and received piping hot within half an hour in real bowls and chopsticks. Instead of dining at an elegant table at a posh Korean-Chinese restaurant, ja jang myun is now a cheap, convenient, casual meal often wolfed down in front of the TV, with the bowl and cutlery left outside for the delivery guy to take back to someone who will wash and reuse them at the eatery. So commercialized is this dish that it even comes in an instant ramen packet.
Once a foreign dish, Korean ja jang myun now even influences the taste of Korea’s Asian neighbors. Many internationally popular Korean dramas prominently feature characters eating this Koreanized dish, creating a worldwide lust for the inky, messy and aesthetically unattractive dish.
There are more Korean-Chinese restaurants serving ja jang myun in Koreatown than there are Chinese restaurants that sell the original version in all of Los Angeles. Every Korean-Chinese restaurant will have ja jang myun on the menu, and most patrons won’t leave without ordering at least a bowl of it.
Mandarin House on Eighth Street, The Dragon on Vermont Avenue, Shin Peking and Young King on Olympic Boulevard are all well-known choices for authentic ja jang myun.
You’ll smell it as it’s being carried to your table — it’s pungent and bold, yet sweetly so, kind of like the intense sweet-savory aroma of bacon and pancakes drizzled with maple syrup. Sink your chopsticks in, toss the noodles well and slurp up a good twirl of sauce-coated strands, and you’ll be infatuated with the caramelized, inky intensity of the contrasting flavors.
The only similarity Chinese and the Korean “fried sauce noodles” share is the dark fried sauce served over noodles.
Korean ja jang myun is tarry with elaborate additions included by early Chinese restaurants to appeal to the Korean taste. Instead of the salty, brown yellow bean sauce used in Chinese zha jiang mien, the Korean adaption is imbued with the darker, sweeter chunjang (a pitch-black paste made from roasted soybeans), and thickened with cornstarch.
Diced pork or seafood provide the dish’s protein, and vegetables like onions, zucchini, potato and carrots are also included. Pickled radish and raw onion with chunjang for dipping are essential side dishes to cleanse the palate. The result is a richer, blacker, sweeter version of the Chinese zha jiang mian.
The Chinese version is simple and basic: ground pork, a bean paste, perhaps a sprinkle of chopped scallions and raw cucumber strips.
Beijing zha jiang mian uses salty, fermented sauce made from yellow beans, while most other Chinese regions, including Taiwan, use sweeter sauces also made from fermented yellow beans but sweetened and thickened with sugar and starch. Sichuan zha jiang mien will adopt its trademark spicy touch, either from a spicy yellow bean sauce or hot chili oil.
It’s a plain dish cooked in a home kitchen, not ordered out and not delivered. That makes the original version — the Chinese zha jiang mian — harder to find.
Malan Noodle, a tiny Chinese restaurant stuck in a strip mall in Hacienda Heights, has one of the best zha jiang mian dishes in Los Angeles. You can choose the width — thin or thick — and shape — round, flat or triangle — of your noodles, and they will be made fresh to order.
You only need a long, slippery inhale of the chewy strands to realize the star of this dish is its noodles. The delicate sauce is merely a chunky, gingery sidekick to loosen up the carbs.
101 Noodle Express in Alhambra is another fine option for Shandong-style zha jiang mian. Order it with hand-pulled noodles, which come thick and flat like fettuccine. The brawny medley of ground pork, tofu cubes and pickles weighs down the noodles, soaking them with tart and savory juices.
Nothing about “fried sauce noodles” is elegant or aesthetically pleasing. The dish looks like noodles with a charcoal-colored sludge plopped on top. But the taste is complex, taking on a different dimension of flavor as culture and history interact.
Sophia Lee is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism and East Asian languages and cultures. Her column “Cross Bites” runs Mondays.