It’s the noodles in japchae that everyone talks about: their glassy, sepia-tinged translucency; their jaunty springiness; and their ability to soak up all the salty-sweet, toasty dressing yet still retain so much good chew.
But it’s the vegetables that started it all and that make japchae such a stunner. “‘Jap’ means ‘diverse, variety,’ and ‘chae’ means ‘vegetables,’” said Maangchi, the celebrated Korean-born cookbook author and chef. On a phone call from her home in New York City, she explained that in the 17th century, Yi Chung, a chef of King Gwanghaegun, impressed him by serving an eye-catching dish of dozens of colorful vegetables at a palace banquet.
His polychromatic display, an edible representation of the traditional Korean color palette called obangsaek, was reportedly the genesis of japchae. The noodles, a sweet potato starch kind called dangmyeon, and strips of marinated beef or pork didn’t enter the mix until the 20th century, but the three‑component dish has become a fixture at banquets as well as potlucks. Every bite of the strands, which are dressed with sweetened soy sauce and sesame oil, is exuberant. Japchae tastes great warm or at room temperature. It’s easy to scale up for a crowd, and it functions equally well as a side dish, a main course, or a complete meal. “Japchae,” Maangchi said, “is kind of a perfect dish.”
Sign up for the Cook's Insider newsletter
The latest recipes, tips, and tricks, plus behind-the-scenes stories from the Cook's Illustrated team.
Eat Your Vegetables
You can tell just how integral vegetables are to japchae by seeing their sheer volume and variety in the dish. But the precision that goes into preserving their colors, textures, and flavors really drives home the point.
It starts with knife work, the goal being to cut each vegetable into strips that will intermingle with the noodles. I cut carrots into matchsticks; scallions into 2-inch lengths; and an onion, a red bell pepper, and shiitake mushrooms into thin slices. To save time, I chose bagged curly spinach over more mature leaves since the former wouldn’t need washing or trimming.
The Culinary Art of Obangsaek
Japchae is a riot of colorful produce, and that’s by design. It represents obangsaek, the Korean color palette that’s woven into the culture’s art, clothing, and food. Each of the five primary colors—white, black, blue, red, and yellow—symbolizes one of the cardinal directions (including center) and the five elements of life (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water), as well as balance and well-being.
Maangchi, the celebrated Korean-born chef and cookbook author, told me that onions (white), carrots and/or bell peppers (red), and spinach (green, which often replaces blue in cooking) are “unskippable,” and that the dish can be rounded out with mushrooms (black) and strips of just-set egg yolk (yellow) called jidan.
Next, I cooked the vegetables one by one so that their colors didn’t bleed into one another and so that they just lost their raw edge. As Kate Telfeyan, the Korean American chef behind Porcelain in Queens, New York, told me over the phone, letting the vegetables “just kiss the pan” ensures that they retain their crispness.
I blanched the spinach and then the mushrooms; then, I rinsed them with cold water and squeezed each dry. I seasoned the spinach with garlic, sesame oil, and salt, breaking up the clumps, and set it aside while I sautéed the blanched mushrooms followed by the onion and scallions, the carrots, and the bell pepper.
What Puts the Spring in Dangmyeon?
You could sense a smile on Kate Telfeyan’s face when the Korean American chef and co-owner of Porcelain in Queens, New York, described her love for dangmyeon, Korea’s prized sweet potato starch noodles.
“When you eat Italian pasta, even if it’s al dente, there’s still something soft about it,” she said. “With sweet potato vermicelli, it’s just bouncy.”
That elastic chew is the vermicelli’s raison d’être and the feature that makes it such a satisfying component of Korean soups, stir-fries, and japchae. It’s partly due to the starch itself, which contains a high proportion of amylose, whose long chains form a springy gel when cooked. The noodles’ low ratio of water to starch also encourages chew, and some producers enhance elasticity by putting the noodles through a freeze-thaw cycle, which helps them stay springy when boiled.
On the Strand(s)
Dangmyeon are rigid and gray out of the package, but boil them for a few minutes and they’ll turn slack but chewy, slippery, and translucent. They’re also really long, so after draining them, cooks often use scissors to snip them into shorter strands. I cut handfuls at a time and then tossed them with soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, salt, and pepper.
I deliberately dressed the noodles before cooking the other items, thanks to a tip from Namsoon Ahn, my colleague Sarah Ahn’s mother and a former restaurant chef-owner who lives in Placentia, California, who said that their flavor would benefit from time to soak up the seasonings. As they sat, I sautéed slivers of short ribs that I’d marinated in soy sauce, sugar, garlic, and pepper. Browning wasn’t the goal, but I did cook the beef thoroughly enough that its juices didn’t discolor the vegetables and noodles. The well-marbled cut tasted rich and beefy even after it lost its pinkness.
Hands-On Nature of Japchae
Clean hands are the best tool for seasoning the spinach and tossing the noodles with the vegetables and meat. Rather than merely grasping the food, as tongs would do, your fingers can pull apart clumps, ensuring that the greens are evenly dressed and that the vegetables and beef are distributed throughout the tangle.
Then came the mixing, which is best done with your hands. After adding the vegetables and meat to the noodles, I tossed everything with more soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, salt, and toasted sesame seeds, gently detangling it all with my fingers.
Mounded on a platter with more sesame seeds, my japchae looked festive and abundant, the way party food should. But the vegetable-strewn noodles were also simple and nutritious—kind of perfect anytime.