Korean japchae is noodle nirvana
With a base of dangmyeon noodles, Korean japchae is a snack on its own or a meal served with rice and kimchi.
To paraphrase your average romantic comedy, there is a noodle out there for everyone. Noodles are cut, stretched and extruded from wheat, rice, tofu, mung-bean starch, acorns(!) and the root of a bizarre-looking flower called Amorphophallus konjac or devil's tongue. Sometimes I eat four or five types of noodles in the same week, which is my idea of a balanced diet.
Some days, nothing will do but the Korean noodles known as dangmyeon, which are not made of any of the above.
"The noodles are made from yam or sweet potato, which gives that weird rubbery texture," says Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee, author of "Eating Korean" and "Quick & Easy Korean Cooking" (coming out next month).
"I love the rubbery texture," I put in.
She laughs. "Yeah, I know, it makes it fun."
Indeed, dangmyeon are among the world's chewiest noodles. They're not al dente like Italian pasta; they're springy and snappy like mung-bean cellophane noodles, but more so. If you're familiar with Japanese shirataki, the noodles found in sukiyaki, they're similar to that. (I realize this is like explaining quinoa by saying it's kind of like amaranth.)
Dangmyeon don't taste like sweet potato, because they're made from the starch. If you're not Korean-American, you've probably walked right by these spindly, gray specimens at the Asian grocery. The brand I tend to buy is Wang, in a green bag. It's not better or worse than any other brand, but it's frequently on sale.
Korean cooks use dangmyeon for essentially one thing: japchae, a stir-fry with vegetables and beef. Now, "noodles, vegetables and beef" doesn't tell you much. It could just as easily describe spaghetti Bolognese or beef lo mein or something else warm and comforting.
Japchae is in the same league. The constants are sweetened soy sauce (which turns the gray noodles a lovely chestnut color) and a riot of vegetables. It's a confetti-colored dish from one of the world's most colorful cuisines, and befitting its appearance, it's a traditional Korean party food. "It's a noodle dish, but you serve it with rice," explains Lee.
This is probably why japchae tends to show up in the appetizer section on Korean restaurant menus. But this is your house and your japchae, and you can do whatever you want. Serve it with rice or without.
Double up on the vegetables and make a vegetarian version. Eat the leftovers cold out of the fridge. You can even do . . . the unthinkable.
You see, I love spicy food. My daughter does not. So I've become a connoisseur of hot sauce. Korean hot sauce, gochujang, thinned with a little rice vinegar, is my absolute favorite. It combines plenty of heat with a rich, savory undertone from fermented soybean paste. I was blithely spooning it onto my japchae one night when it occurred to me to drop Lee an e-mail and ask whether this practice was kosher.
"We don't spice up japchae, really," she replied. "We always have some type of kimchi on the table, so usually, we'll eat it with the traditional napa cabbage kimchi. Don't tell the Korean food police that you've been putting gochujang on yours!"
I'm not sure what kind of justice is meted out by the Korean food police, but I have a feeling it involves an extruder.
Matthew Amster-Burton is a Seattle-based freelance writer. Barry Wong is a Seattle-based freelance photographer. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Serves 3 to 4
This is a salad-like japchae, fresh and light. It can be served as part of a larger dinner or as a meal in itself, with steamed rice or without.
6 ounces (or half a 12- to 16-ounce package) dangmyeon (sweet-potato-starch noodles)
½ bunch spinach (about 4 ounces), rinsed and trimmed
2 cloves garlic, minced, divided
1 tablespoon plus 1 ½ teaspoons Asian sesame oil, divided
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
6 ounces beef rib-eye, cut into ¼- to ½-inch-thick strips
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon soy sauce, divided
¼ medium onion, sliced
3 to 4 shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded and caps sliced
1 carrot, shredded or cut into thin strips
3 green onions, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 tablespoons sugar
Toasted sesame seeds for garnish
1. Cook the sweet-potato noodles in a large pot of boiling water according to the package directions, 4 to 6 minutes. Immediately drain and rinse thoroughly under cold water. Be sure not to overcook the noodles, or they will lose their chewy texture. If you like, cut the noodles with scissors into 6- to 7-inch lengths for easier eating.
2. Blanch the spinach in boiling water. Rinse immediately under cold water, squeeze the water from the leaves and form into a ball, then cut the ball in half. Combine the spinach, half the garlic, ½ teaspoon of the sesame oil, and the salt in a small bowl. Set aside to let the flavors soak in.
3. Heat 1 tablespoon of the vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the beef, 1 teaspoon of the soy sauce, and 1 teaspoon of the sesame oil. Stir-fry until the beef is cooked, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the remaining garlic and transfer to a plate.
4. Heat the remaining tablespoon vegetable oil. Add the onion, mushrooms and carrots and cook until the onion is translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the green onions and stir-fry for another minute. Remove from the heat.
5. In a large bowl, thoroughly combine the noodles, beef mixture, spinach, vegetables, remaining 3 tablespoons soy sauce, 1 tablespoon sesame oil and the sugar. Serve warm, sprinkled with sesame seeds.
— Adapted from "Quick & Easy Korean Cooking" (Chronicle Books, $22.95) by Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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