There may be no comfort food more universal than noodle soup. Southern Italians eat steaming bowls of ceci e tria made with fresh tagliatelli, frying half of the pasta in oil until crispy, and softening the rest of it in bean soup. The Japanese eat udon, ramen and delicate buckwheat soba in broth, and the Vietnamese eat pho, while in China, the variations are seemingly limitless. Uighurs eat soup made with long, ropy “flung” noodles that are stretched by hand to arms’ width and folded, over and over (just try and watch this without thinking of those spring-loaded bust-enhancers from the 1970s). Persians consume ash-e reshteh made with mint, spinach and dollops of yogurt.
The most beloved of Korea’s noodle soups are little-known outside the country. They’re considered poor people’s food most places, too simple to qualify as restaurant cooking. The first of them, a clear, seafood-based rainy-weather broth that’s larded with sliced vegetables and thick, chewy, hand-cut wheat noodles, is called kalguksu. Sujebi is similar, but the pasta is hand-pulled and then torn off in rough-edged chips.
They’re hard to find, even in the Koreatown at Bloor Street and Christie; a friend whose Korean father used to make kalguksu said he’d never seen them in a restaurant here.
Last week, I took him to Mot Na Son, an unpretentious little room on Yonge Street, in North York, where Sun Ok Lee, who runs the place with her husband, Chris Lee, makes the pasta from scratch. “It tastes like I’m back at home,” my friend said. (To my great disappointment, he did not weep.)
The broth is clean-tasting and savoury. It’s made by simmering vegetables with dried anchovies and kelp. There are discs of fat, sweet zucchini, as well as carrot, and a fist-sized mound of shredded, dried seaweed on top that flutters and waves in the updrafts of steam.
The pasta are the star, though, in large part because of their texture. The knife-cut noodles in the kalguksu are nearly as thick as pencils, while the sujebi’s pasta look a little like unravelled Bugles. If you eat them straight away, before they absorb too much liquid, they’re deliciously bouncy-chewy from strenuous kneading, with the texture that the Taiwanese lovingly call QQ. (It’s hard to think of a North American equivalent; a table mate on another night, who is nine years old, said, “It’s like eating elastic bands if the elastics tasted amazing and you could eat them.”)
They sell big metal bowls of the stuff for $10 apiece.
The rest of the menu’s great in places, humdrum in others. The cold corn noodles in hot sauce, though store-bought, are excellent, with retroactive chili heat and a pair of boiled eggs on top. (Eat the eggs too soon and many Koreans will assume your family’s rich; save them till last and it’s obvious you’re poor.) The marinated sea snails are also worth ordering if you aren’t the delicate type: They’re fat and as meaty-tasting as beef heart, with sweet-briny marine flavour and high-toned vinegar acidity, followed by heat and crunch from scallions and raw carrots and the nutty pop of sesame seeds.
The seafood pancake is also a good bet: It’s loaded with shrimp and fried to a gloriously greasy, golden crisp. The banchan – the free little dishes of kimchi, radishes, and other snacks that arrive with every Korean meal – are also good, particularly the marinated sweet potato that’s dark-flavoured and honeyed.
The kimchi and tofu stews, called jjigae, are fine, but unremarkable (they’re more weakly flavoured than the usual, and come without a raw egg, which is typically cracked into the boiling liquid); the tabletop barbecue is the standard stuff, if slightly pricier than at many other places (you can choose from different cuts of pork, veal or beef, marinated or not; you will smell like aerosolized grease and smoke when you leave).
The cooking here is mom cooking: It’s simple, without pyrotechnics, a great introduction if you’re new to Korean.
But nothing’s a better introduction than that soup. The second time I visited I brought my son, who isn’t quite five yet. He had the bulgogi and white rice (what kid doesn’t love starch and sweetened meat?), and didn’t mind the glassy sweet-potato noodles with vegetables (he has much to learn still, evidently: The sweet-potato noodles were great).
He couldn’t stop eating those hand-cut noodles in soup, though. He kept at it through three servings, until he was slumped in his seat in carb-induced bliss. Noodle soup’s a universal. I’ve got to get him onto the Uighur stuff next.
A Cheap Eats pick, where you can dine well for under $30 before alcohol, tax and tip.