Jap Chae: Korean Stirfried Noodles
I hear that Korea has been eliminated from FIFA. Well, to be more specific, I hear that both the North and South Korean teams are glaring malevolently at one another from the Teams That Lost lounge. Too bad, really, as I had high hopes for both teams! Mostly because I was looking forward to making delicious kalbi again next week, but still. Also, I’m somewhat superstitious and I can’t help noticing that Spain won after we feasted (on three occasions, because they’re that good and I’m on my third round of serrano from the deli) on the tapas dish Pa Amb Tomàquet, and England lost the day that I finally scowled into my fridge and threw out the last of the blood sausage. I don’t actually think that I have some sort of culinary super-mojo whereby the quality of my food will dictate the outcome of international soccer (if I did, I feel strongly that South Africa would still be in the running) but….okay, or maybe I do.
You can blame me for the Koreas’ poor performance if you like, because I rather blame myself. I’m quite sure that it was suspiciously tied to my completely inadequate panchan served with their celebratory meal. If you aren’t too familiar with Korean food, panchan refers to somewhere between two and twelve very small dishes that are served on the table before the meal, eaten during it and replaced frequently as they run out. The most infamous panchan dish would be kimchi, Korean spicy fermented cabbage. After that, the iterations are endless. Usually there are a variety of small vegetable dishes that may have been salted, stewed, pickled or steamed. There may be a spicy preserved tofu dish, fish or seafood panchan (my favorites are crispy dried whiting and crab custard), or even small fried foods like scallion pancakes. It is worth noting that Jap Chae itself is often served as a small panchan, so I took the lazybones route and only made a quick chili and cucumber pickle The fresh kimchi and preserved tofu were purchased from a local Asian market.
That was a mistake.
The kimchi was good. Well, if you like kimchi, I suppose. I go through phases of dramatic ambivalence. The tofu, however…..dear lord, my stomach shudders at the mere recollection. And hey, guys, I DIG tofu. The bean curd and I are buddies. What I got in that jar was something entirely different. The texture was soft and cheesy, with an acrid smell that could only have produced by fermenting rat feces in ammonia. This is not an exaggeration. I can count on two hands the number of foods in my life that I have been unable to swallow, but even the thought of that putrefied soy product makes my pharynx panic and swell shut. You see? Is it any wonder that the Korean teams lost when I pay them homage like that?
Equally lazy, we have the Jap Chae. Also spelled jab chae and chap chae, among others, Jap Chae is simply a light stir-fried noodle and vegetable dish dressed with sweet soy and sesame oil. Enough about the preserved tofu (click your heels three times and turn in a circle to the left), you know that at least this will be tastily delicious. The thing about Korean food is that much of it is a labor of love. Jap Chae may be ubiquitous on the menus of Korean restaurants all over the world, but at it’s heart it is a dish of celebration. A careful home cook who cares does not just stir fry vegetables and fling some noodles in there. Oh no, my friends. Jap Chae is a process. Each ingredient is cooked separately and often in it’s own sauce or marinade before everything is married at the end. A thoroughly traditional Jap Chae can take upwards of two hours from start to finish. Clearly, I am not about to make a traditional Jap Chae on a Tuesday night. What I do give you is a cheapskate facsimile; this is the kind of Jap Chae that you expect to get at an Asian restaurant, and frankly you never thought to mind…
Please note that this dish is vegetarian. If you wanted a meatier, heartier Jap Chae you could stir fry some shaved beef (marinated like bulgogi, preferably) at the same time as the mushroom.
9Jap Chae: Korean Glass Noodles
Serves 4 as a light meal, 6 as a starter or side dish
- 200 g (~1/2 lb) cellophane noodles / dang myun*
- 1 tbsp white vinegar
- 75 g mixed Asian mushrooms **
- 1 large carrot (150 g/ )
- 3 green onions
- 1/2 sweet red pepper
- 1/2 white cooking onion
- large handful snow peas (~150 g)
- 2-3 large handfuls spinach (~ 1.5 oz)
- 2 cloves garlic
- 3 tbsp light soy sauce
- 2 tbsp sesame oil
- 2 tsp sugar
- 1 tbsp sesame seeds
* Cellophane noodles are a crazy dog of many names. This transparent Asian noodle is made from a simple mixture of starch and water, and the Chinese version are sometimes called starch vermicelli, bean thread noodles, crystal noodles or glass noodles. In Korea, the starch of choice is usually sweet potato. These sweet potato starch noodles, called dang myun/tang muyn/ dangmyun are usually thin like vermicelli and a translucent grayish-green color. Also, they are delicious. Let’s not forget that. If you can’t find Korean dang muyn/sweet potato starch noodles, you can substitute a Chinese glass noodle. Or, if your grocery stash is even more limited than that, you can use rice vermicelli in a pinch…..although it won’t be the same. And your family will judge you and shake their fists at the inferior food. I might judge you too, with a slight sniff meant to imply, “Seriously, there isn’t a SINGLE Asian market in your area?”. But hey, you do what you feel is right.
** Shiitaki and wood ear mushrooms are the most common to fine in Jap Chae, but I like to throw in a few oyster mushrooms or whatever is hanging around in the bottom of my crisper. Jap Chae: the great produce eliminator.
Put the noodles into a large heat proof bowl and pour piping hot water over top until they are covered by about 2 inches. Add in the vinegar which will discourage the noodles from sticking to one another. Set the noodles aside to soak for 20-30 minutes or until they’re tender.
Before you get started make sure that all of the vegetables are prepped and ready to go. Peel and quarter the onion before slicing fairly thinly, about 1/8″, and mince the garlic. Cut the carrots into some semblance of a matchstick like shape, sliver the mushrooms and peppers and finely slice the green onion. When you start to stir fry the vegetables, the process moves far too quickly for you to spend time putzing around and practicing those serious knife skills of yours.
Heat up one tablespoon of sesame oil in a large wok set over high heat. When the oil is shimmering and fragrant, add the onions and carrots. Stirfry the carrot and onion, stirring frequently and tossing them around, for about a minute.
Next into the wok would be your mushroom and garlic, which will take about 1-2 minutes to cook most of the way through or until they are softened and about half cooked.
Stir in the peppers and snow peas and let them cook for just less than a minute. When you’re making a stir fry, remember to keep things moving because your wok will be screeching hot and you want things to cook quickly and evenly.
Push some of the vegetables out from one side to make a little well. Pour in two tablespoons of soy sauce and sprinkle in the sugar. Give this a quick stir so that the sugar melts into the soy and then toss the rest of the vegetables in the dressing. Add the green onions and stirfry for just 20 seconds or so.
Toss in the spinach and toss it with the other ingredients for another 20 seconds, or just until it starts to wilt. Remove the wok from the heat.
Drain the noodles. Use kitchen shears to snip the noodles into shorter lengths and add them to the wok.
Pour in the remaining tablespoon of soy sauce and one of sesame oil, and toss the noodles thoroughly until they are coated. Sprinkle on the sesame seeds, while you’re at it. Make sure that you’re scooping right from the bottom when you toss the pasta so that every single noodle gets coated in dressing.
Jap Chae can be served on it’s own as a light lunch, or as one of many dishes on a Korean table. We were slightly conservative with our nam prik, with small bowls of kimchi, quick chili pickled cucumbers, and the oddly offensive tofu, otherwise known as That Which I Shall Never Sample Again.
Jap Chae can be served at room temperature or cold, but personally I like it best when it is fresh, glistening, and just slightly warm.
If you’re looking for a virtuous “pasta dinner”, this one is for you. Brimming with colorful vegetables, this lightly dressed clear noodle salad is absolutely one of my favorite picnic charms. Better yet, it’s mild enough that the whole family can enjoy it! Unlike the tofu. Just sayin’.