(photo added 1/23/2013)
Japchae literally means "mixed vegetables." But the main ingredient of this classic dish is Korean sweet potato starch noodles (dangmyeon), also known as glass noodles. The chewy and springy noodles are nicely paired with thin strips of beef and various vegetables (such as carrots, spinach, onions, shiitake mushrooms, cucumbers, and bell peppers). All ingredients, separately cooked to develop the layers of flavor, are combined at the end into a deliciously colorful dish. This classic method is what makes this dish special and a Korean favorite for special occasions and traditional holidays. Serve it as a first course or side dish or over a bed of rice to make it a main dish.
6 ounces (170 grams) Korean potato starch noodles (dangmyeon)
4 - 5 dried shiitake mushrooms* (soaked until plump)
4 ounces (110 grams) lean beef such as sirloin or rib eye
6 ounces (170 grams) fresh spinach
1 small carrot
1 small sweet onion
vegetable oil for stir frying
salt and pepper
* Dried shiitake is ideal for its concentrated flavor and meatier texture, but you can use any kind of fresh/dried mushrooms such as oyster or button mushrooms.
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 1/2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 teaspoons roasted sesame seeds
Combine all sauce ingredients in a small bowl and mix well until the sugar is dissolved.
Bring a pot of water to a boil, and cook the noodles according to the package directions (usually 6 - 7 minutes). Rinse in cold water and drain. Cut the noodles with kitchen shears or a knife into 6 -7 inch lengths. Mix in 2 tablespoons of the prepared sauce in a large bowl.
Cut the beef into thin 2-inch long strips and mix with 1 tablespoon of the sauce. Cut stems off the mushrooms and slice into 1/4-inch thin strips. Season with 1 tablespoon of the sauce. Blanch the spinach in boiling water only until wilted. Drain quickly and shock in cold water. Squeeze out excess water, cut into about 2-inch lengths, and lightly season with salt and pepper. Cut the carrot into match sticks. Thinly slice the onion. Cut the scallions into similar lengths.
In a large non-stick skillet, stir fry the noodles over medium heat, stirring frequently, until translucent and a bit sticky (about 3 - 4 minutes). Transfer back to the large bowl. Stir fry each vegetable (except the spinach) separately with 1 teaspoon of oil over medium high heat, lightly sprinkling with salt and pepper, about 1 - 2 minutes. (Do not overcook. The vegetables should be crisp.) Stir fry the beef, about 1 - 2 minutes. Transfer the vegetables and beef to the large bowl with the noodles as each is cooked.
Tips: The real secret to successfully create the authentic flavors of this dish is to find the right balance between soy sauce and sugar. You might think the amount of sugar this recipe calls for is a lot, but it is needed to balance the flavors. It does not make the dish too sweet.
Also, leftover japchae should be kept refrigerated. Japchae reheats well in the microwave. The noodles will get soft and chewy again.