Noodle Tuesday: Ja jiang myun at On Dong and Eastern Paradise
Is Honolulu the unofficial noodle capital of the world? Judging from the volume and variety of noodles in this town, we should certainly be in the running. While we're waiting for Google to weigh in on the issue, we're launching our own campaign with a new series, Noodle Tuesdays. We'll explore Honolulu's many noodles, from Japanese ramen to local saimin (at the very least, we've got to be the saimin capital of the world), Chinese look funn to Vietnamese pho to Thai pad khi mao to Italian pasta. … all of it. This week, to launch the series, we're doing a ja jiang myun taste-off.
I ate zha ziang mian growing up. My mom called it Chinese spaghetti, to get her first-generation, growing-up-too-American, daughter to eat it. It’s only later that I realize the irony: After learning a little noodle history, it seems that spaghetti should really be called Italian mian.
The great restaurateur, Beijing-born Cecilia Chiang, credited with bringing regional Chinese food to America in the ’60s, writes in her cookbook that, according to Chinese legend, Marco Polo took zha ziang mian back to Italy after his travels in China, and this was the root of Italian bolognese.
So it’s a dish that crosses cultures easily. Chiang’s recipe uses a ground pork and fermented yellow bean sauce and hoisin as the base, and there are variations of the dish throughout China. But it’s only in Honolulu that I’ve experienced the Korean version.
Introduced to Korea by Chinese immigrants from the Shandong province, Koreans have embraced zha ziang mian (or ja jiang myun in the Chinese-to-Korean-to-English translation) as their own in the same way Americans took Italian pizza and folded it into American culture. Like pizza in America, ja jiang myun in Korea is available anytime and anywhere, from restaurants to fast-food joints.
Korean ja jiang myun is inky black, made with a darker, sweeter soybean paste. Here’s a comparison of two you can find in Honolulu:
On Dong and Eastern Paradise are on the same block of King St. and both feature northern(ish) Chinese food by way of Korea. The owners are ethnically Chinese, but moved to Hawaii from Korea. What that means: menus in Korean and Chinese, kimchee on every table, and a bowl of ja jiang myun next to it (both are known for their noodles, which both claim to make in house).
On Dong's noodles and sauce
Noodles: They’re springy and slippery and alkaline, slightly yellow.
Sauce: Thick, black, with a smooth, silky surface. Chunks of pork and crunchy chopped cabbage.
Mixed together: The salty sauce mellows out to the perfect level of seasoning when mixed with noodles.
Eastern Paradise's noodles and sauce
Noodles: These noodles lack the egginess of On Dong’s noodles
Sauce: More pork, plus bay shrimp, with a greater onion-to-cabbage ratio. The sauce is a touch more tangy when it first hits the palate. It's slightly broken, though—instead of a uniform, shiny surface, it’s dotted with little pools of oil.
Mixed together: Once mixed, the broken sauce doesn't really matter—it sticks to the noodles as well as On Dong's
I’d give the slight edge to On Dong for ja jiang myun because of the sauce's smoothness and cabbage crunch, though it's pretty close.
On Dong, 1499 S. King St., 947-9444. Ja jiang myun, $7.95
Eastern Paradise, 1403 S. King St., 941-5858, easternparadiserestaurant.com. Ja jiang myun, $8.95