Monday, 15 July 2013

Japchae: Korean National Party Dish

July 2013

SmartCooks here.

Vacation, bliss.  At long last.  Time to relax, get back to the blog, learn more about international food dishes.  

A Korean dish, Japchae, is my latest find.  It means literally a 'mixture of vegetables' and is made with cellophane noodles made from sweet potato starch.  The vegetables are cooked in sesame oil and low-sodiumsoy sauce.  I would characterize it as a summer food i.e., serve it cold or warmed.  

Origins of Japchae

Japchae (also spelled 'chap chae') originated in the early 17th century, when the Joseon Dynasty was reigning in the Korean peninsula. As legend goes, when King Gwanghaegun hosted a big party at his palace, one of his lieges, Yi Chung, created a dish of vegetables to please the king’s palate. The king liked this dish so much that he rewarded his liege by promoting him to the position of hojo panseo (equivalent to the Secretary of the Treasury).  Foodie indeed.

Sweet Potato noodles were not part of the original dish but made their debut in the early 20th century.  The long noodle (called 'danymyeon) symbolize long life/long happiness so purists do not cut them.

Today, Japchae is usually served at parties and special occasions like weddings and landmark birthdays. It's also popular street cart food.  At Korean restaurants, it is often served as a side dish or "banchan".  It can be made with beef/chicken/tofu or just with vegetables.  

'Doing the Carb Count":  Sweet Potato Cellophane noodles

Ever curious about 'better carbs', I googled 'sweet potato' vs 'pasta' noodles with some surprising results.  The good news is that the noodles are gluten-free, low sodium and contain no fat, a big plus for many.   But, not surprisingly, they have about the same calorie/carb count as whole wheat pasta, meaning about 170 calories in a portion of noodles and 43 grams of carbs.  Nonetheless... for a treat... 

Cooking the Dish

The vegetarian version from Savoury and Sweet Life was straightforward (the author was a guest blogger at Herbivoracious, photo at left).  There are a few guidelines for preparing the dish i.e., 

Noodles:  They should look translucent but still be pliable.  Don't overcook them.  

Vegetables:  The most common (so ones I tried) are shiitake and oyster mushrooms, onion, spinach (Korean or North American variety), carrots, bell peppers, green onions and garlic. 

Preparation:  Everything should be thinly sliced, either with a knife or julienned with a mandoline. 

Must-have's:  Everything is mixed with some soy sauce (less sodium), sugar, sesame oil, pepper, and sesame seeds.

If using beef or chicken, the best recipe was from a blogger called Beyond Kimchee, which follows the same guidelines as above but includes instructions for cutting meat into small 2 inch long by 1/4 inch thick pieces, marinading it and then adding it to the noodles.  Recipes for the vegetarian and meat versions of Japchae are given below.  

It's too hot and humid here in Ottawa (42 degree C and rising) to even consider cooking or eating anything today but there's always tomorrow!  And judging from the political events playing out today, I've cancelled holidays in C'Town this week and am back to the A/C at work for briefings.  Enjoy!  

Japchae Recipe
(Inspired by Sweet and Savoury Life, Herbivoracious and Beyond Kimchee blogs) 
Serves 2-3 as a main dish


1 bundle of potato starch cellophane noodles (packages contain 2-3 bundles)
2 cups of fresh spinach
1/2 medium yellow onion, julienned
1 carrot, peeled and cut into match sticks
1/2 red bell pepper, julienned
8-10 fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced
2 stalks green onions, sliced in 1.5” slices (green parts only)
½ block of firm tofu, cut into small rectangle pieces (approx. 1.5”x1”x1/4”)
2 cloves garlic, minced
Olive or Canola oil
LIght soy sauce (amounts will vary, see directions)
Sesame oil (vary amounts in directions)
Salt and pepper
2 T sugar
3 T toasted sesame seeds


Noodles:  Boil one bundle of noodles for 5 minutes until softened and al dente in texture. Drain the noodles and do not rinse. Add noodles to a large bowl and cut them three times with kitchen shears (or not).  Add 2 T (each) of low-sodium soy sauce and sesame seed oil. Toss noodles until sauce is evenly distributed.  Set aside. 

Spinach:  Using the same pot as the noodles, add enough water to boil spinach for 1 minute. Remove spinach from water and allow to cool just enough to squeeze as much water out as possible. Cut spinach in thirds, and massage it while seasoning with 1 tsp of sesame oil and a pinch of salt and pepper. Add spinach to the noodles.

Vegetables:  Heat a wok or large frying pan on high. Add 1 tsp of olive or canola oil and cook and stir sliced onions for 2 minutes. Season with 1/2 tsp of sesame oil and a pinch of salt and pepper. Add onions to the large bowl of noodles. Repeat the same process as the onions except reduce cooking times to 30 seconds for the carrots, 2 minutes for the bell red pepper, 1 minute for the shiitake mushrooms, and 10 seconds for the green onions.

Tofu:  Fry tofu squares for 1 minute per side – but do not add to the bowl of noodles. 

Assembly:  Add 2 T of low-sodium soy sauce, 1 T of sesame oil, 2 T of sugar, and ½ tsp of pepper to the noodles and toss everything until well mixed.  Add 1 T of olive or canola oil to the hot wok and add minced garlic. Allow garlic to cook for a few seconds and add the entire bowl of mix noodles and vegetables to the wok/pan. Stir-fry everything for 2-3 minutes and turn off heat. Gently add tofu and transfer noodles to a large serving platter. Sprinkle toasted sesame seeds on top. Serve warm or cold.

Meat versions:  Cut beef or chicken into strips of 2 inches long x 1/4 inch thick.  Marinade meat in 1 T low-sodium soy sauce, 1/2 T sugar, 1 T rice wine, 1 tsp chopped garlic, 1 tsp sesame oil, and 1/4 tsp pepper.  Saute in hot wok a few minutes, then remove.  Keep sauce in pan and add noodles and vegetables to it and stir fry.  

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