Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Ja Jang Myun and Cold Noodles

I wasn't going to post quite so soon, but this morning I got a surprise call from the Rev. Dr. Woong-Min Kim, who is my boss, and the District Superintendent for the Hawaii area of the United Methodist Church. We have a very close relationship, as he was the last and best associate pastor serving under my dad (The Rev. Dr. Young Yong Choi) at the Robertson Korean United Methodist Church in Los Angeles (now LAKUMC). Rev. Kim's son, Stephen Kim, is the pastor of the West Los Angeles UMC, where many of the congregants I used to pastor now attend. There's a beautiful symmetry there.

Anyway, Rev. Kim took me to The Mandarin, a restaurant whose address is 725 Kapiolani Blvd., unit C123 in Honolulu, but don't bother looking for it on Kapiolani. The restaurant faces Cooke Street, and the parking is off of Kawaiahao, and you can access the restaurant from the parking lot.

Ja Jang Myun (the Korean pronunciation) is a Chinese dish (Cha Jiang Mein is the Chinese pronunciation) that has been adapted for Korean palates, as many Chinese, fleeing Communist China, settled in Korea and opened restaurants. Korean style Chinese food is a whole cuisine unto itself; it is neither completely Chinese or completely Korean, but it is, of course, completely delicious. The word "myun" or "mein" means noodles. According to Wikipedia, Ja Jang means "fried sauce." The more purely Chinese style of this dish really resembles spaghetti with meat sauce. I just can't help feeling that Marco Polo tasted this when visiting Kubla Khan, thought it was great and brought it to Italy, where it was adapted for Italian palates into versions like the rich and sumptuous Pasta Bolognese.

The version designed for Korean palates is more of a black bean sauce with onions and a small amount of meat, or with squid, sea cucumber, and shrimp. The numerous fans of Korean soap operas (many of whom are not Korean) know it as "black noodles," and I have accompanied friends wanting to try what they've been watching for a long time and not able to taste.

The Ja Jang Myun at The Mandarin is good, with wonderfully chewy, beautiful noodles. The sauce was a little milder than what I'm used to, but it was okay. I'm not a big fan of sea cucumbers, so I didn't want the seafood based sauce. Those more adventurous or more used to those ingredients might enjoy it more than the regular sauce.

Rev. Kim suggested that we share two main dishes. The second was simply called Cold Noodles. The same great noodles served in a cool sauce that I'm guessing had rice vinegar, a small amount of chili pepper, soy sauce, and something that gave it a slight nutty flavor, which I think was sesame paste. The bowl was topped with char siu (Chinese BBQ pork), matchstick cucumbers, carrots, and sliced omelet-like eggs. These were excellent and the highlight of the meal.

The service was attentive and friendly. The decor was nothing fancy, but clean and pleasant. I would recommend this restaurant and this combination.

Grace and aloha,


P. S. Somehow, the omelet-like eggs that make their way to many Asian dishes remind me of my dad. For the first several years of my life, I never saw him in the kitchen. But when I was about 12 or so, my mother got into a car accident, was bedridden for awhile and couldn't cook. My dad cooked for us meals like hotdogs boiled in instant ramen broth and then the noodles were added - a complete meal in a bowl.

Then one day, he made what he called his version of Egg Foo Yung. It was the first "from scratch" meal I had seen him make. I asked what the recipe was. He said nonchalantly, "Eggs, bean sprouts, a little Lawry [Seasoned] Salt. It was pretty good. I was impressed that my dad could pull something off like that.

For some reason, I always remember him saying "a little Lawry Salt." It was the secret ingredient that gave the dish flavor. There was something so endearing about the those few little words and the way my dad said them.

Much later on, when I was in seminary in New Haven, Connecticut, my dad became very ill with Valley Fever, which is a lung infection caused by airborne spores that proliferated in Camarillo farmlands, which were near where my dad and mom lived. There was even a thought that he might die.

I called him one December day, just before finals. He heard my voice and he said, "Tom!! I love you." At age 24, it was the first time I had ever heard him say those words. I had definitely felt that my dad loved me, and he was more affectionate than most Korean dads I knew, but he had never said those words. There was something powerful and amazing to actually hear them.

In the Gospel of John, the writer talks about the Word becoming flesh, which refers to Christ. The description of the embodiment of God and the ultimate expression of grace - unconditional love - is as a word. A word is expressed and it is gone. And yet, it lingers, it remains, it is treasured.

"A little Lawry salt," "Tom! I love you," mere words which were uttered in the past, but will be etched in my mind and heart forever, even as the grace of Christ is.

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