Last Friday was my Mom’s 57th birthday.  Unlucky that it fell on a day, actually a week, in the hospital, but we still managed celebrate in our own way.  I asked the day before if there was anything she wanted to eat.  She thought only for a moment, and replied, “japchae.”  This is a traditional Korean dish of glass noodles with lots and lots of vegetables, all tossed together in a light seasoning of soy sauce and sesame oil.

The next morning, I looked around the kitchen to see what ingredients were already on hand.  I searched through all corners of the pantry and thankfully found a small bit of dried glass noodles (called dang-myeun in Korean) from my Aunt’s visit a long while back.  I have never bought these noodles before, so that just saved a lot of time.

I made a quick trip to the vegetable shop a block away, and picked up a carrot, a huge bag of spinach (500g = A lot of spinach), and a bowl of Korean style mushrooms. I don’t know the English name for these mushrooms; they are about 2 inches in length, with a small grayish cap, and they can be easily spotted in shops.  All the veggies only costed 2,500 won, and I was amazed how such fresh produce can cost so little.

I should mention here that I’ve never made japchae before, though I’ve seen it being made a few times. I took out my little booklet of 10 most-loved Korean recipes – in Korean, a gift I received from my cooking school.  Wow, talk about over-complicating a recipe, how could such a simple dish look so complicated?  Maybe it’s because of a whole page full of small-font Korean words intimidate me!

Really, the dish is not complicated per se, but it does take a bit of time for preparation as each ingredient is cooked separately.  The most time consuming is the vegetable preparation, but throwing everything together in the end is easy!

The vegetables can be varied, but in general, onion, mushrooms, carrot and spinach are always in the mix.  Beef is also optional, but this dish can be easily made vegetarian.  Dried mushrooms rehydrated are normally used, but fresh can be used as well. Good point to note is eye-balling about 50/50 veg to noodles in the finished dish.  It’s no rule or anything but this dish is best when it’s heavy on vegetables.

I finally made my way to the hospital with the packed japchae in a plastic bag, a little chocolate cake I bought in a bakery, and another spinach and Korean whole grain risotto – an experimental dish.  Mom didn’t care for the latter, but I actually thought it turned out quite nicely and will follow with a post.  But the japchae was a success, and she ate a whole big bowl of it.  Mind you, she skipped lunch and was starving while I showed up really late with all the food…. Still, I will count this as thumbs up on my japchae attempt number 1.

Japchae – Korean glass noodle salad with mixed vegetables

serves 3-4

The portion of vegetables is a bit more than what you need, but I purposely loaded the dish with vegetables.  Another tip I was advised afterwards is to saute the finished japchae for about 5 minutes at the end to get nice, chewy textured noodles.

  • about 60g dried cellophane noodles (당면)
  • about 350g fresh spinach, trimmed, washed well
  • 1 carrot, peeled, julienned thin
  • 1 sweet red pepper, julienned thin (optional)
  • 4 dried shittake mushrooms, soaked, sliced
  • about 150g fresh mushrooms, sliced
  • 1/2 onion, sliced 1 cm thick
  • 1 small garlic, minced
  • about 2 Tbsp grapeseed oil (or other similar oil) for sauteing the vegetables
  • salt for seasoning each vegetable

Seasoning for noodles:

  • 1 Tbsp soy sauce, 1/2 Tbsp each of sugar, roasted sesame oil, roasted sesame seeds, 1/4 tsp salt

Rehydrate the dried shittake mushroom in warm water for about 1 hour or until fully rehydrated. Remove the stems, and pat dry. Set aside.

Cook the cellophane noodles according to instructions, about 5 minutes, or cook until it’s cooked through but still has a slight bite .  Drain, and wash well with running cold water several times, mixing the noodles with your hand.  Drain well, then place in a large bowl.  Add the seasonings to the noodles and mix well.  (Most Koreans use disposable plastic gloves).  Set aside.

Blanch the trimmed and washed spinach in boiling water with a little salt for about 30-45 seconds or so, or until they wilt.  Drain quickly, or skim off the spinach with a strainer from the pot, and cool immediately in ice bath.  Gently squeeze the water out of the spinach. In a small bowl, season with minced garlic, salt, 1/2 tsp sesame oil.  Set aside.

Prepare the carrot into thin julienned matchsticks, and slice thinly the red pepper to the same size. Slice the shittake and fresh mushrooms into thin slices.  Cut the onion in half, and make about 1/2 cm thick slices. Saute each vegetable separately on medium-high heat with a little oil.  Ideally, the vegetable should not crowd the pan, and should be sauteed only briefly, about 45 seconds-2 minutes, until vegetable is slightly softened.  Remove each vegetable into a small bowl.  Season to taste with salt, mix well, then add it to the noodles.  Repeat for all 5 veggies.

Toss all the vegetables, including the spinach, and noodles to distribute evenly.  Using your hands works best.

Before serving, saute the whole mix on a frying pan for about 5 minutes.  Taste, and correct seasoning if needed with salt.  Garnish with toasted sesame seeds.

Store leftovers in the fridge.  Reheat in microwave until slightly warm, about 1 minute.

Cellophane, or clear glass noodles. It is made from the starch of sweet potato.

Fresh spinach about to be trimmed.