How to make japchae, the classic Korean noodle and vegetable dish
So, Medusa walks into bar. Bartender says, “Hey, lady, the noodle shop’s next door!”
Trust me, Zombie Aristophanes* wishes he’d written gags like that.
Speaking of noodles, though, there’s a classic Korean dish called japchae (or chapchae, depending on your taste in transliteration) that combines noodles with vegetables, egg, a savory sauce and maybe a little meat. Zombie Aristophanes wishes he’d had that, too, instead of all those brains.
WHY YOU NEED TO LEARN THIS
The benefits of japchae are myriad: It’s easy. It’s delicious. And, it’s one model for how to approach the larger World of Noodles.
THE STEPS YOU TAKE
Here are three things to remember about japchae : It’s Korean. It’s noodles. It’s other stuff.
For now, clasp those thoughts tightly to your bosom whilst we discuss the making of this lovely dish. Later, we’ll return and learn why those three truths are so dad-blastedly important.
To make japchae, consider first the final step, where you combine the ingredients in one pan (or wok, if you’re feeling it). The focus here is not on cooking, per se, but, rather, on heating everything to an even temperature. This being the final step, it makes sense that the earlier steps involve prepping and cooking those individual ingredients. Let’s take a gander:
Noodles. Koreans make japchae with a brownish, translucent noodle called dangmyeon. It’s made from sweet potato starch and in the package resembles the business end of the broom that Zombie Aristophanes rides through my nightmares. Since they need to be hydrated, some people soak them while others boil them, resulting in a somewhat softer texture. You can determine your own preference.
Regardless, while your noodles luxuriate in their bath, start prepping your other ingredients.
Meat. Beef is common, but, remember, it’s your dinner. Whatever you choose, it should be naturally tender because it’ll cook only briefly, not long enough to tenderize tougher cuts. Tenderloin is impressive, but, if you’ve not yet received your tax refund, save some scratch and go with sirloin. Or pork or chicken. Or, for vegetarian or vegan diets, use tofu or just vegetables.
Cut meat into thin, bite-size pieces and marinate it (see below) or not. Either way, stir-fry it just long enough to cook it through, then set it aside like a spurned lover.
Eggs. Not necessary, but eggs add protein, color and texture. Whisk them together, then cook in a nonstick pan like you would an omelet. Only, no folding. Keep it round and flat, like (here’s one for the science deniers) the Earth. Then flip it and cook the other side. When it cools, cut it into strips and set it aside like the dreams of your youth.
Vegetables. Carrots, mushrooms, any of the allium genus: onions, scallions, garlic, shallots, etc. And ginger is wonderful. Cut it all into julienne strips, then stir-fry and set aside like an elephant gun during rabbit season. If you lack the patience or skill to achieve perfect juliennes, try to avoid freaking completely out. You can buy pre-cut veggies or you could just trust that the people you’re feeding will be far more grateful that you cooked for them in the first place than they are critical of your knife cuts.
Spinach is nice, too, by the way. Blanch it and shock it in an ice bath, then squeeze it like the throttled neck of your mortal enemies to remove as much water as possible.
The sauce. Sweeten soy sauce with a little sugar and add a splash of sesame oil. How much of each? My advice is, follow your recipe the first time, then analyze. Too sweet? Not enough sesame? Next time, adjust the proportions accordingly.
And how much sauce? Overall, you want the dish to be moist and lightly coated with sauce. You want to taste the sauce, but, at the same time, you don’t want to beat down your other ingredients.
Also, make more sauce than you need, then use half to marinate the meat. Or, keep any extra in the fridge for tomorrow’s stir-fry.
Now, your prep is done: Your noodles are soaked, your beef is stir-fried, your veggies are cooked, your egg is omeletized and julienned and your sauce is mixed and waiting like a dream date. All you do now is toss it all over high heat in a little oil until it’s piping hot. Garnish with sesame seeds and you’re done.
Before we sign off, let’s revisit our earlier triptych: Korean. Noodles. Other stuff. Here’s why it’s important. The “Korean” part determines the specifics of the noodles and the other stuff. Change that “Korean” to something else, say, “Japanese” or “Italian,” and the different flavor profiles will beget a different dish. Like, udon noodles with broccoli or pasta primavera. Dig? The method, as outlined above, can be employed for literally gajillions of noodlish combinations. Now, go forth and multiply.
*Aristophanes’ original, and stupider, version of that punchline was: “Hey lady, your hat’s on fire!”
This recipe comes from my colleague chef Wook Kang of Kendall College. If you would like more noodles, up the amount to 10 ounces.
Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 15 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
5 ounces tender beef (rib-eye, flank, or tenderloin), cut into 2-inch strips
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 tablespoons low sodium soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/4 teaspoon (or to taste) ground black pepper, plus more as needed
5 ounces dangmyeon (Korean sweet potato starch noodles)
1 tablespoon sesame seeds (toasted)
1/2 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons low sodium soy sauce
2 tablespoons sesame oil
4 ounces spinach
3 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided, plus more if needed
2 eggs, beaten
1 small yellow onion, thinly sliced (julienne)
1 medium carrot, sliced into thin strips (julienne)
1 red bell pepper, sliced into thin strips (julienne)
Kosher or sea salt, to taste
Ground black pepper
5 fresh shiitake mushrooms, stemmed, caps cut into 1/4-inch strips, stems discarded
2 green onions, cut on a bias
For the marinade, combine beef with garlic, sugar, soy sauce, sesame oil and black pepper in a small bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and marinate, refrigerated, 15 minutes. Remove beef, reserving marinade and holding in separate containers.
For the noodles, add noodles to a large bowl of warm water and allow to soften, 15 to 20 minutes. Strain noodles, rinse with cold water and drain well. Toss noodles with sesame seeds, sugar, soy sauce and sesame oil; set aside.
Cook spinach: In a large pot of salted boiling water, blanch spinach until wilted, about 45 seconds; remove and shock in an ice bath. When cool, squeeze water from spinach and set aside.
Cook eggs: Place a large, nonstick pan over high heat. When hot, add 1 tablespoon vegetable oil. Add beaten egg; swirl to cover bottom of pan. Cook until underside is set, about 1 minute. Flip over; cook until set through, about 1 minute. Remove from pan; when cool, cut into julienne strips and set aside.
In a large saute pan or wok, add the remaining 2 tablespoons vegetable oil. Stir-fry the onions, carrots and bell pepper until tender-crisp, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper; remove and set aside.
Add marinated beef and shiitake mushrooms to pan; stir-fry until cooked through, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove and reserve.
Add additional oil if needed, then add sweet potato noodles. If more moisture is desired, add reserved beef marinade. Stir-fry until hot, 1 to 2 minutes. Add all reserved ingredients; stir-fry until hot throughout, 1 to 2 minutes. Taste for salt and pepper and adjust as needed. Garnish with green onions and serve immediately.
Nutrition information per serving: 459 calories, 24 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 114 mg cholesterol, 47 g carbohydrates, 8 g sugar, 14 g protein, 670 mg sodium, 4 g fiber