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.

Lovely local tomatoes.



There is something so juxtaposed about “sweet” and “green” to describe tomatoes in the same sentence.  It is so unexpected that I had to write about it here.

I found these green-hued heirloom-like tomatoes at the local Wednesday market where they sell high quality seasonal produce.  There are plenty of tomatoes of different varieties available in the shops like E-mart in Seoul, but even with their bright matte-red coat, they don’t compare in flavor as they are often too tart and flavorless in the winter.

In contrast, these tomatoes are ultra sweet and have only a slight tart finish.  You can saute dices in a omelette or throw fresh dices in a pasta salad.  Both were in fact on the menu today for breakfast and for lunch, (kinda nice when you don’t have to work on a Thursday… but for the rest of the world) could be a great highlight to a weekend brunch or packed lunch pasta salad.

Keep in mind that these sweet green tomatoes are rather firmer than what you might expect.  That alone would in most cases dismiss these little guys as being under-ripe.  Somehow, though, this is not a bad attribute; the extra firmness helps to retain its shape through cooking. Mushy tomatoes are not exactly a pleasant texture unless it goes totally into sauce.

They are really so unexpectedly delicious that makes you think about where these little guys came from.  After doing a little research, I learned that these tomatoes are from Daejeo (in Busan) and they are just coming into season now.  In fact, there is a Daejeo Tomato Festival in early April.  Ha! Even Korea has its own tomato festival!

If you find these in an open market near you, or perhaps in a department store grocery, try them before they’re gone!  This was the pitch given to me, and I wasn’t disappointed.  They are not cheap but worth it at W10,000 for 10 small tomatoes, each about 2″ in diameter.

Tomato & Broccoli Pasta Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette

  • 4 small tomatoes, diced
  • 1 head of broccoli
  • about 125g short dried pasta
  • 1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 tsp fresh lemon zest
  • 1 small garlic clove, minced
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • fresh herbs if available

Boil pasta with plenty of salted water until tender as desired, drain and set aside.  I used orecchiette with spinach today from my luggage pantry (i.e. favorite pantry items that I carry from one country to another, this one sourced from home in Toronto).

We have an awesome steamer which can steam the broccoli while the pasta is cooking underneath. Super efficient.  If you don’t have this option, steam broccoli in a separate pot until tender, then cool in ice-cold water, and drain.  Cut into bite sized pieces.

To make dressing, zest about half a lemon and squeeze the juice from the lemon half into a large bowl.  Add grated or minced garlic clove.  Slowly pour a thin stream of extra virgin olive oil while whisking until homogenous.  Add salt and pepper to taste, and fresh chopped herbs if available.

Toss the drained pasta to the dressing to fully coat.  I find this step to be much more efficient at imparting flavour to the pasta rather than sprinkling dressing all the vegetables and pasta at once.  Toss in broccoli and tomatoes, and serve.

It is rare that the humble orange carrot gets any spotlight these days.  It definitely has it’s place in the culinary world, a key component of mirepoix, perhaps a side dish beside the glorified roast meat, or I can also think of the old fashioned carrot cake.

On a cold, wintery day, I decided that I would give this humble vegetable a chance to shine in my play of carrot and ginger soup.  What inspired me was discovering carrots from Jeju Island, which you can find in all the shops and markets now.  You can spot these easily as they are covered in black dirt that you would barely know they are just familiar carrots.  I once bought home pre-peeled, cleaned carrots nicely packaged ready-to-use (no doubt my old habits) when my mom said to me incredulously, “What is this? Next time buy the ones with the dirt.”  So I did.  The dirty carrots turn out to be super fresh, sweet, almost juicy when you cut it raw.  And it tastes divinely sweet when you thick julienne the carrot, saute briefly on high heat and season with salt (I realized this when I was making filling for gimbap).  I can imagine how good it would be roasted in the oven… (too bad I’m not one of the lucky ones with an oven in Korea).

So here is the rough recipe, as I did not do any measuring.  In the end, I added some maple syrup since it was kicking around and it made a world of a difference adding a lot more depth and balance of sweetness.

CARROT AND GINGER SOUP WITH MAPLE SYRUP

  • 3 large carrots, peeled, sliced
  • 2 small potatoes, peeled, cut roughly
  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • 1 Tbsp minced fresh ginger
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 bouillon cube (optional)
  • salt to taste
  • 3-4 Tbsp maple syrup
  • 1 tsp brown sugar

1.  Saute the onion in the olive oil in a large pot until slightly caramelized.  Add ginger and saute for a few seconds.  Then add the chopped carrots and potatoes, and add water (or vegetable stock) until it covers the vegetables.  Throw in the bouillon cube if using.

2.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for about 10 minutes (or until the vegetables are cooked).

3.  Off heat, carefully blend the soup to fine puree using a hand blender.

4.  Season with salt to taste, and add in sugar and maple syrup.

Note, it taste much better reheated the next day when the flavours have a chance to meld together.  It is also easy to freeze it into small portions.