When asked about his go-to comfort food, my friend Sam Kim doesn't hesitate: "It's jajangmyeon." The chewy bowl of noodles topped with a sweet-and-salty black bean sauce, thick with hunks of pork and vegetables, may have roots in Chinese cuisine, but today it's thoroughly Korean.
Susanna Yoon, a chocolatier and the founder of Stick With Me Sweets in New York City, shares Kim's sentiment. "It was a popular noodle dish for family outings. We enjoyed it together quite often," Yoon told me, noting that she grew up outside Seattle, where there were many restaurants that offered the dish. "My dad would make it for us at home, too, sometimes," she says, adding that she loves its "super-hearty, salty and sweet flavors."
While jajangmyeon is made and enjoyed year-round, I only recently read in chef Peter Serpico's book, "Learning Korean," written with Drew Lazor, that it's traditionally served on April 14, known as Black Day in Korea. This anti-Valentine's celebration follows Valentine's Day on Feb. 14 and White Day, another couples' holiday, on March 14. On Black Day, "single people dress in gothic attire and drown their romantic woes in mountains of noodles the same color as their clothes, and maybe their souls," Serpico writes.
Serpico, whose birth name is Kyung-ho, tells me that he doesn't have memories of eating jajangmyeon as a kid because he wasn't raised on Korean food. "Like my siblings, I was adopted. My parents were very adamant about raising me American. ... They wanted us to fit in, and part of that was not eating Korean food as a family," he explains. As a result, Serpico spent most of his life feeling caught between several worlds.
More than a decade ago, well into his career as a chef at some of New York's most acclaimed restaurants, something clicked.
"The spark came to me in Queens, around a modest table covered end-to-end with the first, and best, real Korean food I'd ever tasted," Serpico writes of his Korean mother-in-law's spread. The first time he had the black bean noodles she made for the family - alongside other Korean dishes - Serpico tasted something that finally felt like home. He credits his wife, Julie, and her parents for introducing him to the home-cooked Korean food that was the key to understanding his heritage and, by proxy, himself. "I'd eaten Korean cuisine before," he writes, "but it took intimate, substantial moments like these for me to finally get it."
Today, Serpico makes Korean food for his daughter, Charlie, and it's a bonding and learning experience for them both. "Jajangmyeon is Charlie's favorite dish," Serpico tells me, noting that he makes it with whatever vegetables he has around. Though pork belly or shoulder is used in traditional recipes, sometimes he uses bacon or skips the meat altogether. He specifies honey instead of sugar in his recipe, "because I try to make things a little healthier for us at home."
The sauce's striking onyx color comes from chunjang, Korean black bean paste. Find it at Asian grocery stores and online; it lasts a long while in the fridge. In this recipe for jajangmyeon, adapted from Serpico's book, carrots, zucchini and potatoes add flavor and texture to the sauce. Serpico's recipe makes enough to feed 4 to 6, but if you're feeding just yourself, the sauce freezes extremely well. Serpico notes that this can come in handy in the future "in the event of a bad breakup."
Whether you're brokenhearted or not, jajangmyeon is a recipe for comfort.