When the weather heats up, your appetite probably melts like ice cubes on blacktop. But you still need to eat — and when you do, it's most likely something cold you crave. Asian cultures, well acquainted with hot weather, have a long tradition of serving cold noodle dishes to satiate summertime hunger. While it might seem odd to pour ice cubes on your cooked pasta, that's how the Japanese and Koreans prepare their cold noodles. Vinegar is a popular flavoring, as it's thought to be an appetite stimulant. And expect a lot of spice, since it's believed that hot foods make you sweat, which has a cooling effect.
Hiyashi chu ka (Japanese)
How much: $9.63
What: The name literally translates as "cold Chinese-style" noodles. In Japan, once you see the signs in ramen shops advertising this dish, summer has officially arrived. At Batten Ramen, it's available only from May to October. Because presentation is almost as important as taste in Japanese cooking, this dish is prettily plated with slivers of cucumber, tomato, ham, omelet and red pickled ginger, forming a colorful pinwheel. The standard sauce is a vinegar-soy sauce. But Batten's version is a slight riff on the original. It also includes slices of fried chicken, marinated mushrooms and bamboo, with a light sesame sauce. Any topping goes if you're making it at home— from corn to shrimp to crab meat — as long as it's finely sliced. Once served, it's up to the diner to mix everything together with chopsticks.
Bun bo noung (Vietnamese)
Where: Mekong Grill, 24 Chestnut St., Ridgewood. (201) 445-0011
How much: $8.55 (lunch portion)
What: As the climate in most of Vietnam varies from hot to very hot much of the year, bun (pronounced "boon"), or rice vermicelli dishes, served at room temperature, are an ideal light meal. This version is served with strips of grilled flank steak marinated in lemongrass, fresh bean sprouts, carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, basil and mint. It comes with a tiny fried spring roll and a side of nuoc nam, fish sauce vinaigrette. The crisp and crunchy texture of the mixed greens, along with the grilled meat and vinegar flavors, complement each other perfectly. "You'll find this dish everywhere you go in Vietnam," said owner/chef Tai Nham. "And you have to have it with the basil and mint."
Chengdu cold noodles (Chinese)
Where: Chengdu 23, 6 Willowbrook Blvd., Wayne. (973) 812-2800
How much: $5.35
What: If you're ready to try an authentic street-stall dish native to the province of Sichuan and the neighboring city of Chongqing, go ahead and order Chengdu cold noodles. But be warned — if you can't handle heat, stick with its tamer, Americanized cousin, cold sesame noodles. This appetizer includes cold egg noodles topped with fresh bean sprouts and a red sauce made of sesame oil, sesame paste, tongue-numbing ground Sichuan peppercorns, chili sauce and crushed peanuts. "Spicy foods make you sweat and add balance," said owner Kevin Lin.
Mul naengmyun (Korean)
Where: You Chun, 135 Broad Ave., Palisades Park. (201) 363-1950
How much: $10.95
What: Summer guarantees long lines outside this Broad Avenue eatery, famous for its refreshing cold noodles.
First, some background, according to Judy You, whose family owns the shop: Hundreds of years ago in Korea, naengmyun was actually a winter dish. Families didn't have vegetables to eat, so they rolled noodles out of buckwheat, potato, yam or arrowroot powder.
Perhaps going against Western logic, for Koreans, the typical summer dish is samgyetang, a steamy hot chicken ginseng soup, which they believe gives you nutrients and stamina in the heat. But, naengmyun is as popular today. You Chun's version— mul naengmyun, meaning with soup— begins with handmade arrowroot powder noodles swimming in a mild beef broth in a metal bowl.
The garnishes include a few thin slices of Asian pear, pickled white radish, julienned cucumber, half a hard-cooked egg and hot yellow mustard. Then it's topped with crushed ice for that finishing chill. The broth tastes sweet, salty and vinegary, all in one slurp.
If you're dining in, the server comes by wielding a pair of scissors, offering to cut your long noodles. "People who are traditional don't cut it," says You. "They think it tastes better [that way]."