The first time I ever had japchae was in sixth grade.  I was at my good friend Eujin’s house after school, and her mom had prepared a feast, carefully and lovingly laid out on the table.  Even though I remember there being a lot of good stuff, it was the japchae that stuck with me. I’m pretty sure my eyes bugged out of my head when I first laid eyes on the neatly piled translucent threads of sweet potato vermicelli.  It looked like one of my all-time favorite things to eat – fun see (a.k.a. mung bean vermicelli, cellophane noodles, bean threads), only on steroids.  I probably would have inhaled half the generous plate if the slippery metal Korean chopsticks in my hands hadn’t thwarted me.

Not long after that day, Eujin moved back to Korea, and it wasn’t until my junior year of high school that I encountered it again – in the Berkshires, of all places.  I was visiting my sister in college, and her fellowship had brought Korean food from New York back to campus.  I didn’t actually get to eat it because my parents and I had had dinner before meeting up with my sister.  But when I made out my sister walking towards us in the dim light of early evening, I surged towards her.

“Did you have it?”  I breathed, gripping her arm.

“Yeah, they’re like giant fun sees??”  Her eyes twinkled in the dark.

It was only then that I learned the name of this elusive dish (Korean restaurants did not have much presence in Massachusetts back then).  I vowed never to forget it.  Ever.

And I haven’t.

What appeals most to me about this dish is the texture of the noodles.  They have a springy texture with a nice bit of bite.  I love things like that.  A mouthful of it puts me in sensory heaven.

Compared to japchae I’ve had elsewhere, this one is flavorful, but not overwhelmingly heavy or soy saucey.  Some of the ones I’ve had in restaurants are much heavier than what Eujin’s mom made.  Yet, when I’ve tried making it myself in the past, I’ve struggled with keeping it both light and flavorful at the same time.  I think the key is to season each of the mix-ins adequately at each step (the mix-ins will taste way over-seasoned on their own, but fine once mixed with everything else).

The only adjustment I made to the recipe was less sesame oil since the original amounts were a bit overpowering to my Cantonese sensibilities (i.e. bland sensibilities, according to some people).  I also used ground turkey instead of the recommended sliced beef because that was all I had on hand;  it worked pretty well, I think.  As a tribute to Eujin’s mom’s japchae, I also added some thinly-sliced red and yellow bell peppers and a sad excuse of a sliced egg omelet for extra color. I don’t recall anymore what she put in it, but I remember it was pretty and colorful.  Hopefully, I haven’t bastardized the dish too much with my extras.

If you have time, check out the original recipe and description at Beyond Kimchee.  The way she describes massaging the ingredients is cute and hilarious.

Adapted from Beyond Kimchee
Inspired by my friend Eujin’s mom’s japchae

10 oz sweet potato vermicelli (aka glass noodles, dang-myun)
1/3 lb lean cut of beef, cut into 2″ x 1/4″ sticks (I used ground turkey)
1 bunch spinach
1 medium carrot, cut into 2″x1/8″ sticks
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1/4 small red bell pepper, thinly slicd
1/4 small yellow bell pepper, thinly sliced (you could leave this out if you plan on adding the egg)
6 shitaki mushrooms, thinly sliced (If you’re reconstituting dried mushrooms, I like to save the water to add to the noodles later if needed).
1/4 lb oyster mushrooms, sliced
2 eggs

For the beef marinade (mix in medium bowl):
1 Tbsp soy sauce (low sodium)
1/2 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp rice wine
1 tsp chopped garlic
1/2 tsp sesame oil
1/4 tsp fresh ground pepper

For the mushroom marinade (mix in small bowl):
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp chopped garlic
1 tsp seasme oil

For the spinach seasoning (mix in small bowl):
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar
1 tsp sesame oil
For the noodle seasoning (mix in small container):
3 Tbsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp sugar
2 Tbsp sesame seeds, toasted
1 tsp pepper
Optional:  sesame oil to taste
1.  Prepare marinades and seasonings in respective containers.
2.  Marinate meat and set and set aside.
3.  Prepare the mushrooms:
  • Blanch mushrooms in boiling water.
  • Rinse with cold water.
  • Squeeze excess water out.
  • Mix with marinade and set aside.
4.  Prepare the spinach
  • Blanch spinach in boiling water x 3 seconds.
  • Rinse with cold water.
  • Gently squeeze excess water out (Squeezing too much will eliminate the spinach’s own natural moisture and make it tough).
  • Mix with seasoning and set aside.
5.  Prepare the carrots and onion:
  • Sautee each separately over medium heat.
  • Add salt and sugar to taste.
6.  Prepare the bell peppers:
  • Sautee until cooked through.
  • Season with salt to taste.
6.  Prepare the egg omelet:

  • Lightly scramble the egg.
  • Pour egg into heated pan (medium heat) so that egg forms a thin crepe-like pancake.
  • Slice into 1/4″x1.5″ slices.

7.  Prepare the meat:

  • Sautee until cooked through.
  • Transfer meat to a clean bowl.
  • Save the juices from the meat in the pan.
8.  Prepare the noodles:
  • Boil a fresh pot of water.
  • Add the noodles and cook for 6 minutes (or according to package instructions).  A little firmer is better than overcooked.
  • Rinse the noodles under cold water, massaging them thoroughly.  This is the step that gives them the nice springy texture.
  • Optional:  Cut noodles to make them more manageable.
  • Transfer drained noodles to the pan with the meat juices.
  • Cook over medium heat to absorb juices.  Add more liquid if noodles need to be cooked more (Use the mushroom water here).
  • Add the noodle seasoning.
  • Cool to room temperature.

9.  Combine ingredients:  When all ingredients have cooled to room temperature, combine everything in a large bowl.  Mix by hand.

10.  Adjust seasonings to taste.
11.  Serve at room temperature.

4 responses to “Japchae

  1. you’re posting!! I was thinking about your blog recently, and am glad to see an update. :D (do more! pls?)

    • Wahh, I’m so touched you remembered/thought of my blog :D There’s a bunch of stuff I want to try…just need to find time!

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