Words by Ciaran Hickey, executive chef of the w seoul walkerhill
Meat, heat, and noodles are all optional with this flexible dish, making it ideal for the picky cook.
Of all the Korean dishes I have tried, I really thought this would be the one to go global. With its simple preparation, unique noodles and flexibility of ingredients, japchae makes a great “Asian” dish for Westerners. The famous Chinese Chef Ken Hom did an almost identical dish while visiting us here last year on his Noodle Road odyssey.
Japchae, meaning mixed vegetables, is basically a dish of glass noodles or dangmyeon (당면) mixed with shiitake mushrooms, wood ear mushrooms, finely chopped beef, assorted thinly sliced vegetables and yangnyeomjang sauce (a seasoned and sweetened soy sauce). The chopped beef can also be left out to keep it vegetarian. What sets it apart from similar dishes is that it’s not all stir-fried together as you would expect but rather tossed together once all the ingredients have been cooked and seasoned separately. Both fresh and dried mushrooms are used for japchae, though I find that the rehydrated dried variety have a much stronger flavor overall. I like to sneak a sliced red chili into the proceedings as I enjoy the slight burn it adds.
The noodles that are used for this dish are slightly different in that they are made from sweet potato starch. They only need to be soaked for about 20 minutes before use rather than traditional boiling. A drop of vinegar may be added to the water to stop the strands from sticking to each other. There is another camp that advocates boiling or quickly stir-frying the noodles, but I have found that this is purely a personal choice.
The sauce that’s generally used on japchae is one of my favorite multi-purpose sauces here in Korea. It’s made by mixing soy sauce, sesame oil, minced ginger, chopped spring onions, minced garlic, salt, pepper and toasted sesame seeds. Some people add rice wine which gives it a nice tangy taste. In addition to japchae, this sauce is great with tofu and seared tuna.
Japchae prepared without the added noodles, as it was originally made, is a common namul banchan or side dish and crops up everywhere, generally served cold. Japchae-bap is another common variation and is essentially the japchae served over or with steamed white rice. As I find the mix of noodles and rice a little odd I would recommend this with just the beef and vegetables, but then again dining is all about personal preferences.
So if you like the sound of japchae and believe the stories claiming that eating noodles makes you live longer, what other motivation do you need to give this gem of Korean cuisine a try?
Jimiwon 지미원: People still remember this restaurant for the chef’s preparation of royal cuisine on the 2003 Korean TV series Dae Jang Geum. Guests are served japchae in the middle of a full-course Korean meal once reserved for the kings of the Joseon Dynasty. You’ll need to look majestic to enjoy the delicacies dished out onto traditional brass platters. • 870-10 Na-un 2-dong, Gunsan, Jeollabuk-do. 063-463-3900
Suryeon 수련: Come here to experience veggie-enriched japchae on big dark ceramic plates decorated with red flowers. Your pleasure is doubled by the classy atmosphere of this traditional Korean house. • 3F, 1086 Jung 3-dong, Bucheon-si, Gyeonggi-do. 032-329-9100
Jijimi 지짐이: This popular franchise is the ideal place for those in search of an inexpensive serving of japchae. Sprinkled with sesame seeds, this stir-fried favorite practically begs you to send down some soju after every mouthful. Find it all over Korea. • ggmi.co.kr