Mar 11, 2010|
It took me two years, 43 meals, and a shameless amount of sucking up before the owner of one of my favorite Korean restaurants in Kowloon told me the secret ingredient to her naeung myun. A bowl of perfect cold buckwheat noodles like the kind that’s made here deserves a respectful moment of silence. Like any good naeung myun, it comes garnished with half a boiled egg, a slice of pear, and shards of ice still floating atop the beef and turnip broth that I always spike liberally with vinegar and mustard. But in the lingering after-notes of this particular concoction, one can detect something extra—and outstanding.
That X-factor was more pure, more refreshing, and more distinguishable in a blind taste test. Perhaps they used a special type of spring water from some pristine Korean cove for that extra kick of minerality? Or maybe a specific breed of cow, milk-fed and lulled to bed nightly with classical music so beautiful that you can taste the sweetness in their meat? So fiercely guarded is this secret, she told me not to reveal the name of her restaurant. So I shan’t, but I shall tell you the special ingredient.
“It’s 7-Up,” said the owner in a manner so matter-of-fact that it was instantly apparent she wasn’t joking. “Good, isn’t it?” she answered her own question with an approving pat on my back. It felt like a slap to the face. Like a quest for the holy grail ending in the discovery of, well, a can of soda pop.
In Hong Kong, especially, this often appears to be the case. The key to the perfect scrambled eggs isn’t cutting up bits of cold French butter from Isigny or using some handcrafted copper pan with perfect heat distribution—it’s a dash of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup. The reason a bowl of magical noodles turns out perfectly al dente even after the most grueling boil isn’t due to some meticulous kneading or special flour within the dough—it’s just a brew of “chemical water” they add to the mix (hey, nobody ever said the noodles were good for you).
More often than not, the secret ingredient turns out to be some banal product you can find on an everyday supermarket shelf. You were just too busy perusing the gourmet aisles to notice it. It’s the classic mishap of the Type A student who overcomplicates the question, and gets the wrong answer on the test.
Stop for a moment and consider that many of the oldest recipes we glorify today were created at times when eating wasn’t a form of art, but sustenance. People made do with what they had. They had 7-Up—they used it. You got to give them a gold star for creativity.
The moral of this story isn’t some wholesome “Kung Fu Panda”-inspired wisdom that “there is no secret ingredient” after all. That the real secret ingredients in life are love, or belief, or confidence in oneself. Sure, sometimes those things work. Sometimes, however, it’s MSG that does the trick.