Signature Dishes : Japchae
Japchae is a Korean dish of cellophane noodles made from sweet potato starch (called "dangmyeon") mixed with sesame oil, soy sauce and a variety of vegetables, and sometimes a little bit of beef. Usually served at parties and special occasions (like weddings, and landmark birthdays), it is now often served as a side dish ("banchan") at some Korean restaurants.
The chewy, rubbery texture of the sweet potato noodles is what makes this dish so memorable for first-time diners. It's ironic that japchae is known for its noodles, when the dish originated as a vegetable only recipe in the early 17th century, during the reign of King Gwanghaegun of the Joseon Dynasty.
The name "japchae" comes from the combination of two Chinese characters, "jap" (which means stirred or mixed) and "chae" (which means vegetables). So, in Hanja (Korean written in Chinese characters), japchae literally means a mixture of vegetables.
The dish had its origins in festivities, when a liege of the palace, named Yi Chung, created the dish for a party to please the king. It was originally made with a combination of thinly sliced and shredded vegetables and mushrooms. The king liked the dish so much the liege was promoted to one of the higher positions in the country, what would be the equivalent of the Secretary of Treasury today.
Like many royal dishes, it became popular among the commoners. The sweet potato noodles were added in the 20th century, once the noodles were imported to Korea from China.
Although japchae with noodles is the most popular around the world, varieties without noodles can be found in Korean restaurants.
Those who like their food with a kick may like the "gochu japchae," which is made with thinly sliced green chile peppers. "Buchu japchae" is made from Korean chives (which look like thin blades of grass, but has the mild flavor of leeks). Varieties are made with soybean sprouts ("kong namul") or mushrooms ("beoseot"). "Haemul japchae" is made with vegetables and a combination of seafood.
Now, japchae is not just reserved for special occasions or the royal table. It can be eaten as a common meal, in a dish called "japchae bap" in which the japchae is served on a plate of rice. It can also be served as an appetizer or just eaten as an afternoon snack.
When making the dish at home, be sure to not overcook the noodles. They should be translucent, but still pliable. Any variety of vegetables can be used, but the most common way of making the dish is with shiitake and/or oyster mushrooms, onions, spinach, carrots, bell peppers, green onions and garlic. Everything is thinly sliced, or julienned with a mandoline for faster cooking and easier eating. A little bit of thinly sliced beef is also tossed in, or leave it out if you want a vegetarian version. Everything is mixed with some soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, a bit of black pepper and tossed together for a fabulous recipe. Sprinkle everything with a generous amount of sesame seeds to add a fun and delicious touch to the whole dish. Enjoy just by itself or with a side of kimchi and rice.