Jjajangmyeon: A Shared Cultural Icon

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Jjajangmyeon (짜장면): a Korean-adapted dish of Chinese black bean sauce noodles.

Koreans eat over 7 million bowls of jjajangmyeon every day. To put that figure into perspective, that’s the equivalent of each and every Los Angeles (population: 4 million) resident consuming 1.75 bowls of jjajangmyeon daily. And that’s only considering the people living in South Korea; globally, that figure begins to scale rapidly. Yet, despite such staggering consumption, very few people actually know the story behind jjajangmyeon – where it comes from, how it’s evolved, and what it’s come to represent.

Jjajangmyeon’s roots can be traced back to the Shandong province of Eastern China. During the time of the first Sino-Japanese War at the end of the 19th century, many Chinese immigrants from that province, as well as other parts of China, crossed the Yellow Sea to settle in the South Korean port city of Incheon. It was at that time that jjajangmyeon’s ancestral form – the Chinese zhájiàngmiàn (炸酱面) – first made its way to the Korean Peninsula.

Interestingly, there is enough evidence to pinpoint the very birthplace of jjajangmyeon, and that birthplace was an Incheon restaurant named, Gonghwachun. It was there that zhájiàngmiàn – a dish consisting of thick noodles topped with a sauce of salty, fermented soybean paste and ground pork – and, directly translated as “fried sauce noodles,” was first served to Korean customers. And it was also in that restaurant that zhájiàngmiàn began its gradual evolution into the Koreanized jjajangmyeon that many of us are so familiar with today; a derivative version, sweetened with the addition of new ingredients like caramel and chopped onions, ultimately catering the dish to the Korean palette.

But it would take much more than just the taste of a well-adapted dish that would lead to its eventual proliferation. It was the timing. Viewing jjajangmyeon from a perspective of historical significance, its arrival couldn’t have come at a better time. The dish entered the scene right as a new wave of urbanization and industrialization was sweeping across all of Korea. Moreover, with jjajangmyeon fitting well with the economic situation of most Koreans during that period, the dish had come at just the right time and just the right place, priming it for the viral growth that was subsequently seen.

In stark contrast, in its homeland China, jjajangmyeon has been relatively non-existent for much of the past century. But that is quickly changing. The increasing popularity and influence of Korean culture on the global stage – a growing phenomenon that’s only accelerated since the early 1990s – has led to the wildfire-like spreading of all things Korean across the world. This, combined with China’s rapid increase in wealth, has fueled the fire of jjajangmyeon’s foray back into its country of origin. And judging by the demand, the homecoming was long awaited.

Jjajangmyeon’s century-long journey to come full circle represents a very important intersection of Korean and Chinese cultural history. The evolution of this simple bowl of noodles from its original roots as Chinese zhájiàngmiàn to the Korean-adapted jjajangmyeon doesn’t merely capture the historical juxtaposition and exchange of two cultural palettes, but also captures within it, the parallel geopolitical and socio-economic progressions of those two societies. In this way, jjajangmyeon, as a shared cultural icon, represent a true centerpiece against the backdrop of Korean-Chinese cultural history.

RushOrder restaurants serving jjajangmyeon:

Zzamong

Shin Beijing

Pan Holic

Young King

Heung Rae Gak

Dok Dok Chicken

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