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.

One of my favorite things about Seoul are the traditional markets dotted all over the city in every neighborhood.  They are a place of adventure and excitement of what awaits to be discovered. No less true when one day I randomly ran into the Gwangjang Market that I have heard of but have never been.

Gwang-jang market.

It was after one of my cooking classes on a Saturday evening, having an errand to run, I headed towards Dongdaemun area keeping an eye for interesting eats.  Close to Jongno-5ga, I found a sign for a market selling clothes, blankets and random things, a common market scene in this area.  But as I walked further in, I saw glowing lights ahead, and to the delight of my tummy, the sight of food stuffs started to appear.

The mysterious alleyway.

I peered down a small mysterious alleyway to my left.  I saw a buzzing crowd and a row of eateries that I thought must be serving something yummy.  My eyes quickly scanned the Korean words looking for clues as to what they were serving.  As I walked further in, I saw old ajimmas (ladies) in front of the restaurants ushering customers in to small 12-seat joints and fresh, shiny red meat and liver displayed in the front.  My first thought was that they must be serving some BBQ, but oddly, I thought, no smells wafting my way.  Then, I finally clued in.  Ah, the signs that said “hwyae”, which is Korean sashimi, is actually referring to raw beef and raw liver!  My realization was confirmed as I turned my head and saw a ajjoshi (man) dipping his raw beef in a sesame oil seasoning enjoyed along side his soju.   I know some Koreans have an obsession with raw foods, including raw beef sashimi, but eating slimy, RAW cow’s liver… that is really extreme food!  I thought you DIE if you eat this stuff.

This is cow's liver sliced up, eaten sashimi style.

Fortunately, I found an even more buzzing food scene as I walked further down the market hall (that seemed endless).  Suddenly, the crowd was bigger.  There were bigger food stalls and lots of people sitting around drinking and eating everywhere.  There was ajimmas frying nokdu (mung bean) pancakes, even grinding the bean in front of you with an old stone grinder.  For a good few minutes, I just took in the whole scene – the little food mountains everywhere, like japche, jokbal, and kimbap, the older gentlemen enjoying soju with their friends, the steamy pots and pans of yummy-looking food, and the buzzing noise of people just going about their own business enjoying dinner.

As I walked from one food stall to another, the ajimmas behind at each stall gestured for me to take a seat and asked what I was looking for.  Finally, after doing a little circle around, I took a seat at one of the benches and asked the ajimma for tteokbokki, a classic street food of rice cake cylinders smothered in spicy chili sauce, and soondae, a Korean blood sausage made of pig’s blood, glass noodles and glutinous rice.

Ajimma slicing my soondae order.

Soondae on the left, and the tteokbokki with the sweet and spicy red sauce.

I took my first bite at the soondae, seeing that the tteokbokki looked and smelled a little spicy.  I don’t know if it was just because I was hungry or if it was the atmosphere of the market, but it was the best tasting soondae I ever tasted.

On to the tteokbokki.  Honestly, after one bite, I was in tears.  Nothing emotional here, my eyes were just sensitive to the spiciness and the steam from the fish broth that was a few inches from my face. Next thing I know, the wells of tears in my eyes had turn into full streams of tears running down my face, and I was starting to feel slightly awkward (it’s not like I can run to the bathroom!).  The guy next to me passed around the toilet paper roll that was used as napkin, and soon enough, everything was under control.  The tteokbokki was spicy indeed, but SOOOO tasty that I finished it all.  I mean, the sauce was killer, in a good way.  It looked like it had been reducing on the burner for hours, coating the fat rice cake cylinders just perfectly, which itself had the perfect soft, chewy texture.

After the satisfying meal, I headed out right away escaping through one of the alleys.  The rest of the exploring will have to wait for the next visit, now that I know how to find this market.


White tteok cake. This is the most simple tteok cake made with rice flour and syrup. It's served at the 100th day birthday to symbolize cleanliness, purity and health for the new baby.

Truffle tteok. Little bite-size tteok rolled in red beans cooked and mashed through a sieve. The tteok is made with glutinous rice and a small, round yellowish grain called su-su, which gives it a slightly nutty flavour.

Little wrinkled dried daechu with pine nut lacquered in a syrup reduction. This is a common garnish as well as a dish made into an elaborate piece for special occasions.

Ma (a root vegetable) coated with honey & rice flour, which is then pan-fried and dusted with finely chopped pine nuts.

Soy-pickled Korean radish. Love the crunchy texture of the fresh baby radish and the sweet, soy flavour. And yes, all those chili peppers give it a mean, spicy kick.

Raw oysters in spicy red chili pepper seasoning. A delicious banchan and not as spicy as it looks.

Making barley kochujang, the 4th kochujang variation learned so far. Kochujang is a fermented red chili paste and is a major seasoning in Korean cooking. I have garlic kochujang and sweet pumpkin kochujang fermenting at home.

After being doped on drugs yesterday and with lots of rest, I made it to class today. I’m sure the Wednesday Super Samgyetang also helped my speedy recovery.

It’s already into week 4 of Korean cooking classes.  Here’s the day captured – 9 hrs – 3 classes.

Lettuce "salad" with sweet rice flour.

Inside is Lettuce tteok layered with white sweet bean powder - ready to be steamed.

Lettuce tteok cake, just after it's been flipped out from the "shi-lu" clay steamer

Surprisingly, this is one of my favorite tteok so far. The sweet bean powder melts in your mouth, and the texture of rice cake turned out perfectly.

Honey tteok, before boiling. Dough was made out of sweet rice with various natural colouring.

Honey tteok, after boiling. Rolled in syrup, and hit with a pine nut.

Evaluation time.

Green tea rice cupcakes with sweetened black bean.

Candied lotus root, candied kumquat, candied potato coloured with strawberry powder, candied white root Korean veg coloured green.

Candied kumquats I got to take home. Very tasty, and great to have around.

Sweet pumpkin gochujang (red pepper paste) ready for fermentation, which takes 2-3 months.

Fresh squid marinated in spicy red pepper. Ready to be fermented for 3-4 days. It was the most pungent kick I've had in awhile, in not so good way. Hope the flavours mellow out after fermenting.

Fermented flat fish with white Korean radish.