My aunt Angela is extremely shy around strangers, an insomniac, and has a childlike quality about her even in her 60s. She’s also the Korean chef in our family. She’s never been paid to cook, but her food is on par if not better than a lot of food I’ve tasted at popular Korean restaurants (the same could be said about my mom, a relatively recent home chef, in the soup department). She pretty much has the golden touch with everything she makes, but her two signature dishes are gimbap (a Korean sushi very popular as a street food) and japchae, a dish made with potato starch noodles also called “glass noodles.” I remember being a little girl staring at her making japchae, trying my best to be still and quiet, on the verge of holding my breath, so as not to disturb her. Each time she’d adjust the flavor, she’d give me a taste and I’d be just as excited to receive one bite of the springy noodle as I would getting a chocolate bar.
To date, I haven’t been able to taste japchae that compares to hers, and not just because I love her, but because I love her and it’s that good. Last year when I actively started cooking, I asked her to teach me how to make some of her dishes, but that’s difficult with her working from day to night six days a week and us now living in different states. One of my future dream projects is to create our Korean family cookbook dedicated to my late grandmother. I think family food is an important tradition to preserve and pass down from generation to generation.
In the meantime, fun and quirky Korean food blogger Maangchi has given me a place to go to for recipes like japchae. Traditionally, japchae is made with bulgogi (marinated beef) and shiitake mushrooms, which give it extra flavor and texture. We decided to skip the beef and didn’t have mushrooms, so we did something really non-traditional – we used seitan we had in the freezer as a substitute for both the beef and mushrooms. The seitan wasn’t bad at all, but it wasn’t great either. I think seitan works better for other noodles dishes like pad thai (and even in a gyro – check back tomorrow for this recipe if you’re interested). For meat eaters, use grass-fed beef and mushrooms. For vegetarians, simply use a lot of mushrooms – the texture of the shiitake is really important in this dish.
If you’ve never tasted japchae, just know this dish is supposed to be on the slightly sweeter side. And you really need to keep tasting and adjusting the sauce, making sure the sauce is getting evenly distributed with all the noodles and vegetables. You will need to use the largest bowl you have. This recipe will take you about an hour to make. Be patient, have fun, and good luck!
Adapted from Maangchi’s Japchae Recipe
Ingredients (4 Servings):
- Starch noodles (“dangmyun”)
- 1 package seitan (or mushrooms – shiitake and white mushrooms)
- 1 large bunch spinach
- 1 large carrot
- 1 zucchini
- 1 medium onion
- 3 cloves of garlic
- 7 green onions
- soy sauce, sugar, black pepper, sesame oil, sesame seeds, olive oil
Prepare your ingredients before stir frying:
- Cut carrot into thin matchstick-shaped pieces.
- Cut 7 green onions into 3-inch pieces.
- Cut zucchini into either thin strips or cubes.
- Slice onion thinly.
- Cut seitan into strips.
- Boil 2 bunches of noodles in a large pot according to package (typically about 4 min). Take one noodle sample and taste it to see whether or not it’s cooked properly. If it’s soft, it’s finished. Drain them and put them in a very large bowl.
- Add 1 tbs soy sauce and 1 tbs sesame oil to noodles and mix well, set aside.
- In boiling water, add spinach and stir gently for 1 minute. Remove and rinse in cold water. Squeeze spinach gently to remove water.
- Mix some soy sauce and sesame oil with spinach. Add to the large bowl containing the noodles.
- On medium heat, cook carrots, zucchini, and green onions for about two to three minutes. Add to the large bowl.
- Cook onions until translucent. Add to the large bowl.
- Cook setian and 3 cloves garlic with 1/2 tbs soy sauce and 1 teaspoon sugar for about 3 minutes. Add to the large bowl.
- Add 3 tbs of soy sauce, 3 tbs of sugar, 2 tbs of sesame oil, and 2 ts of ground pepper to the large bowl. Mix all ingredients together with hand to evenly distribute the sauce. Taste and add more sauce ingredients as needed.
- Sprinkle toasted sesame seeds on top.
- Optional: serve with rice and kimchi.
Congratulations, you made japchae. Pat yourselves on the back and enjoy!