E-han-chi-han or “let the cold dish beat the cold weather” was once the motto of Korean food therapy.

People in the northwestern part of the Korean Peninsula enjoyed cold noodles in the last month of the lunar calendar when extreme winter weather hit the nation.

The noodles were made with buckwheat and potato starch and were served in radish water with kimchi broth. Due to the cold weather, the broth takes the form of slush as kimchi storage jars were put outside the home and endured cold weather during the winter. People feel freezing as they finish a bowl of noodles. They rush to a heated ondol room to warm up.

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“What a feeling! I wonder if those who haven't tasted cold noodles could possibly imagine what it's like,” Kim So-jeo wrote in an noodle article published in the Byulgongeon magazine on December 1, 1929. The magazine was a current affairs periodical that circulated in Korea between 1926 and 1934.

Cold noodles were a joyful culinary experience that helped people overcome the monotony of long, cold winter nights.

Until the 1910s, cold noodles were a seasonal dish available only in winter, quite a contrast to present trends. Today, cold noodles are a year-round dish, although the peak season is summer.

“Like other countries, Korea was an agricultural society and most people were farmers,” food columnist Hwang Young-chul said. “Farmers were busy all year round, except winter, sowing seeds, and growing and harvesting crops. They were able to find time in winter to make and enjoy cold noodles together with their neighbours.”

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Back then, noodles were a slow dish. Making noodles was a time-consuming, painstaking work as there were no automatic noodle makers like the ones used today.

“Noodle-making was not something one person could possibly do because people used a heavy wooden-framed machine to knead and extrude noodles after mixing buckwheat powder. And usually three or four healthy men were needed to operate the traditional noodle maker,” Hwang said. “So unlike today when a person can make noodles at home in just 10 minutes if they use an automatic machine, noodle-making in the past was a tough job that needed teamwork.”

Technological advancement, however, made cold noodles available all year round. Among others, refrigerators and noodle makers were two major game changers that streamlined the time and procedure to make noodles.

Ice-making machines were available in Korea in the 1910s when the nation fell under Japanese colonialism. The invention of noodle makers came in the 1930s, helping people cut hours and labour in making noodles.

Cold noodles South Koreans enjoy today are different from the authentic dish when it comes to texture and overall taste of the dish.

In North Korea, Pyongyang and Hamhung, 307 kilometres northeast of North Korea's capital, are two well-known cities having their own authentic noodles.

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The texture of the North Korean cold noodles is chewier than the dish South Koreans enjoy, according to So Jae-pyong, a North Korean defector from South Hamgyong province.

“The cold noodles in Pyongyang are chewier than cold noodles in South Korea. Hamhung cold noodles have an even chewier texture than those from Pyongyang. They are so chewy it's almost difficult to bite through the noodles with our teeth,” he said.

Ingredients determine the texture. In Pyongyang, buckwheat is the main ingredient and wheat powder is added to make the texture chewy.

Cold noodles from Hamhung are made purely with wheat starch, making their texture extremely chewy.

Unlike Pyongyang cold noodles, Hamhung noodles are served with spicy source made with red pepper and vinegar among other ingredients.

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So, secretary-general of the North Korean Defectors' Association in Seoul, said the overall taste of cold noodles in South Korea was different from the authentic North Korean noodles, too. “Cold noodles from Pyongyang, for example, are bland, whereas the taste of cold noodles here is sweeter. Like southerners, however, North Koreans also add a drop of vinegar as well as mustard sauce.”

“I think cold noodles have gradually adapted to southerners' tastes,” he said.

In North Korea, cold noodles are served in a radish kimchi broth. Older Koreans put a chunk of steamed beef or pork into the radish water and kimchi broth and this makes it full of sodium glutamate. Those who are accustomed to it feel it is tasty. In South Korea, cold noodles are served in a clear beef broth.

It remains uncertain where cold noodles originated.

Joo Young-ha, a professor of the Academy of Korean Studies, indicates in his book Korean Food History that cold noodles could have begun in North Korea's Pyongan and Hwanghae provinces. People there enjoyed cold noodles as they had wheat production in spring and the regions were located near the northeastern part of China where wheat was produced all year round.

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However, food columnist Hwang presents a different view. According to him, there are three prominent locations that are believed to be birthplaces of cold noodles_ Pyongyang, Seoul and the southeastern city of Jinju, defying the popular belief that cold noodles were originally exclusively from North Korea. In Jinju, cold noodles are served in a seafood broth.

“Buckwheat, the main ingredient of cold noodles, grows everywhere in the South,” he said.

The Hungnam Evacuation, the massive North Korean refugees' evacuation into the South during the Korean War, was a milestone event which fuelled the spread of the northerners' food culture in the south. The evacuation was part of a massive amphibious operation which lasted for 14 days from December 10, 1950, months after the outbreak of the bloody war that led to the evacuation of 100,000 North Koreans into South Korea.

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Some of them settled in Gangwon province and some were disembarked in the southern port city of Busan.

Most of the refugees in Gangwon province were from Hamgyong province and they cooked what they ate in the North. Hamhung cold noodles were spread to the South by the refugees. “Abai sundae” or blood sausage made by steaming cow or pig intestine stuffed with various ingredients, is one of the North Korean refugees' dishes that has also become popular in the South.

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This article was written by Kang Hyun-kyung for Korea Times.