I’ve always loved noodles, of pretty much every shape and flavor. Since my dad spent time in Japan, I grew up with a much deeper affection for ramen topped with wasabi and togarashi compared to most of my friends. It’s not so surprising then that I fell hard for Korean-style spicy noodles (bibim guksu) while I was in Seoul for a friend’s wedding. In the absurdly humid summer heat, these spicy Korean noodles are served cold and topped with pickled radishes for extra cooling.
I’ve looked for spicy Korean noodles on menus at restaurants ever since coming back from Seoul. The restaurant our “temporary” roommates took Ean and I to in Sunnyvale that same summer served me a perfect bowl of bibim guksu, but I haven’t found a good version anywhere else since.
Given my struggle to find good spicy, slurp-ful noodles in either the Bay Area or San Diego, my expectations were pretty low making my own rendition. Maybe it was a case of memory being rosier than reality? Or hunger and heatstroke amplifying flavor? Let me provide some reassurance before I continue. This recipe for spicy Korean noodles from Starry Kitchen did turn out as delicious as I remembered “real” spicy Korean noodles to be.
This post is quite a bit longer than I originally intended, but bear with me (please). Most of the text is just me talking about all the ways you can tweak this recipe to suit your purposes. Don’t be put off by the ingredients list is really all I’m saying… these noodles are excellent (assuming you like spicy foods), quick and simple to make, filling but not heavy, and easily scaleable for a crowd.
The ingredients list does require some items you might not have in your pantry, but the odds are good that you probably have everything for the sauce but the gochujang, light soy sauce, perhaps the Chinese sesame paste, and maybe the Korean chili pepper powder. No two brands of gochujang taste the same, and this taste test convinced me to find the brown rice gochujang from Sun Foods. I didn’t bother with light soy sauce (I couldn’t find it), instead I just used a touch less of regular, low-sodium soy sauce. Otherwise it was easy for me to find these sauce ingredients locally, but I do live close to Japantown now, so it might be more difficult for others. The good news is they are pretty cheap from Asian markets and gochujang has become popular enough that it’s available in most supermarkets. If you can’t find Korean chili pepper powder, just grind regular chili pepper flakes (carefully!) and start by adding only half the amount (depending on your spice tolerance). If you can’t find the sesame paste, either use tahini in it’s place or 3 teaspoons of smooth peanut butter plus another teaspoon of sesame oil.
A similar tolerance to substitution is true for the toppings as well. Traditionally these noodles have some kind of kimchi on top (that’s the pickled watermelon rind or pickled radish) – so if you can’t find either of these, you could just add regular kimchi, chopped, or some other pickle. The Asian pear, cucumber, and watermelon help to counteract the heat from the sauce, while the egg adds richness to the dish.
Since the recipe for the sauce makes more than you need, you can either double the number of noodles and store the leftovers, or you can use the sauce as a marinade for a flank steak, which can then be grilled, sliced against the grain, and served atop the noodles.
Spicy Korean Noodles
Spicy sauce (makes ~ 1 cup)
- 6 tablespoons gochujang*
- 6 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 4 tablespoons honey
- 3 tablespoons sesame oil
- 2 tablespoons light* soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons (30 g) brown sugar not packed
- 2 tablespoons toasted white sesame seeds
- 1 tablespoon Chinese sesame paste
- 2 teaspoons Korean chili pepper powder
Noodles and Toppings
- 8 ounces fresh ramen noodles or 11 ounces dry noodles
- 1/2 cup spicy sauce
- 1 Asian pear julienned
- 2 Persian cucumbers julienned
- 3 scallions finely chopped
- 4 thin watermelon slices cut into triangles
- 1/4 head Savoy cabbage optional
- 1/2 cup picked watermelon rinds or pickled radish (or both!)
- 2-4 soft-boiled or poached eggs optional
- toasted white sesame seeds for garnish
In a small bowl, combine all of the ingredients for the sauce. Whisk together until it becomes cohesive (this happens more rapidly than you'd expect). Cover and refrigerate until chilled.
Noodles and Toppings
- Julienne the Asian pear and Persian cucumbers, finely chop the scallions, cut the watermelon into bite-sized triangles. If using shred the cabbage.
- Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. As the water approaches a boil, prepare an ice water bath in a large bowl.
Drop the noodles into the boiling water and cook until al dente, about 3-4 minutes for fresh and 4-5 minutes for dry ramen noodles. Quickly drain the noodles then shock them in the prepared ice bath for 2 minutes. Remove the shocked, chilled noodles, shake off any excess water, than transfer the noodles to a serving bowl.
Add the 1/2 cup of sauce to the noodles in the serving bowl and toss together. Once the noodles are fully covered in sauce, garnish the bowl with the pear, cucumber, watermelon, cabbage, and pickled watermelon rind (or radish) in separate discrete stacks. Place the soft-boiled eggs such that they separate the bowl into quadrants, then dust everything with sesame seeds. Serve.