Japchae. Japchae. It’s almost as fun to say as bibimbap. And come to think of it, every Korean I’ve met seems to utter the word with revere and a sigh.
Maybe that’s because the noodles used to make the dish are magical. Called Dangmyun, they are dried vermicelli noodles made with sweet potato starch. When heated, they go from being opaque to transparent, and from a drab, matte gray color to elegant glass that’s dressed in the color of the sauce they are tossed in.
Magic foods, like purple beans that turn green when cooked, are a delight to children and provide childlike moments of wonder for adults, too.
It makes me wonder if all of the sighing Koreans I’ve met have a childhood memory of the dish, and its magic noodles, which makes them utter the word with such affection.
Or is the texture of the noodles? They’re dense, chewy, and springy. I can imagine a lot of childhood fun being had with springy noodles.
It could also be the mild but full flavor that makes the dish so likeable (and sighable). It does not have the characteristic chili heat associated with so many Korean dishes. The recipe for Japchae in The Korean Table, the current DCCC pick, owes its flavor to marinated beef strips, a variety of vegetables and fungi, and seasonings that include dark sesame oil and the multi-purpose Sweet Soy Base Sauce. The latter, a flavor foundation used in several recipes in The Korean Table can be thought of as a signature soy sauce. Why use plain soy sauce when you can it as a base that’s enriched with the flavor of garlic ginger, black peppercorns, light brown sugar, and wine?
The recipe for Sweet Soy Base Sauce that I’ve included in this posting is what authors Taekyung Chung and Debra Samuels refer to as the “mini” version. It makes 1¾ cups, enough for their Japchae recipe plus two more recipes I’m going to be sharing with you in the next couple of weeks. The full recipe for the sauce makes a whopping 8 cups; however, if you make good use of the book, you will find yourself repeatedly dipping into the sauce, and being happy you have such a generous quantity of this homemade flavor booster on hand.
Glass Noodles with Beef and Vegetables
Serves 4, if eaten with a variety of Korean side dishes (banchan)
¼ pound sirloin tips or rib eye steak, cut into matchstick strips
1 tablespoon Sweet Soy Base Sauce (recipe below)
1 tablespoon minced green onion (scallion)
1 teaspoon dark sesame oil
* * * * * * * * * *
5 ounces dried Korean vermicelli noodles
½ pound spinach
2 tablespoons canola, safflower, or other neutral oil
1 small onion, sliced
1 carrot, peeled and cut into matchstick strips
3 dried shiitake mushrooms, reconstituted in water for 20 to 30 minutes and cut into matchstick strips
2 dried wood ear mushrooms, reconstituted in water for 20 minutes and coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon dark sesame oil plus more for drizzling
5 tablespoons Sweet Soy Base Sauce (recipe below)
1 tablespoon roasted sesame seeds
Fine-grain sea salt or kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
- In a small bowl, combine the beef and marinade ingredients. Toss the beef strips until thoroughly coated. Let the beef marinate while preparing the other ingredients.
- Place the dried noodles in a large heatproof bowl. Cover with boiling water and let soften, about 8 minutes. Drain the noodles. Cut the noodles in half with scissors and set aside. If they get sticky just give them a quick rinse with warm water.
- Fill a medium saucepan halfway with water and bring to a boil. Add the spinach and cook for 1 minute. Drain and set aside.
- In a large skillet or wok, add 1 tablespoon of the neutral-flavored oil and place over medium heat. Stir-fry the onion, carrot, and mushrooms separately, seasoning each with a pinch of salt. Add additional oil to the pan as needed. Place each vegetable, when done, into a large serving bowl.
- In the same skillet, add the beef and stir-fry for 3 minutes. Add to the serving bowl.
- To the skillet, add the 1 tablespoon of sesame oil and 5 tablespoons of Sweet Soy Base Sauce. Bring to a boil. Add the softened noodles and mix well. The noodles will become transparent. Turn off the heat.
- Add the noodles to the serving bowl along with the cooked vegetables and beef. Add the roasted sesame seeds and a drizzle of sesame oil. Toss until the ingredients are distributed. Taste and season with salt and pepper if needed. (P.S. I forgot to add the sesame seeds and drizzle of sesame oil when I photographed the dish, but they should be added. Don’t go by my photo!)
Sweet Soy Base Sauce
Jomi Ganjang 조미간장
Makes approximately 1¾ cups
½ cup water
4 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced
Six ⅛-inch slices peeled fresh garlic
1 teaspoon black peppercorns, crushed
1 cup low-sodium soy sauce (see Note)
½ cup light brown sugar
¼ cup red or white wine
- Combine the water, garlic, ginger, and peppercorns in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Be careful not to let the liquid evaporate completely.
- Add the soy sauce, brown sugar, and wine. Turn the heat to high and boil for 2 minutes.
- Remove from the heat and let the mixture cool to room temperature.
- Strain the sauce through a sieve into an airtight container. Discard the ginger, garlic, and peppercorns. Store the sauce in the refrigerator. It will keep for 3 months.
Note: Korean soy sauce tends to be less salty than Japanese soy sauce. If you can find a Korean soy sauce, use that; otherwise, low-sodium Japanese soy sauce is a close substitution.
(Recipes from The Korean Table by Taekyung Chung and Debra Samuels. Recipes for Japchae and Sweet Soy Base Sauce reprinted with the express permission of Tuttle Publishing, http://www.tuttlepublishing.com/.)