I use the name ‘Japchae’ because the premise is the same, and the flavours are the same, but in fact i’ve taken many liberties here. This is a flexible Japchae. Koreans would most likely frown upon my Japchae attempt. Yet it is still embodies the key elements of the dish – chewy noodles, rich, umami sauce, sesame, beef and speedily fried, crunchy veg – resulting in a most wonderful recipe, full of Korean flavours, mouth-watering textures and brimming with veggies and all-round goodness.
I was first cooked Japchae by my brother, at which point we were still under the impression it was called ‘Jap-a-chae’ (sigh). I was overwhelmed by how easy it was, how quickly he made it and of course how tremendously delicious it was. Japchae is actually pronounced ‘Jap-chee’ (as far as I know), and the word is Sino-Korean, of Chinese origin, and translates as ‘vegetable-mix’, though strangely the dish is mostly known for its main ingredient glass noodles. Glass noodles, often described as cellophane noodles, are made of sweet potato starch and are easy to find nowhere. At all. Unless, of course you have a Korean supermarket round the corner. Hence you’ll notice a big fat absence of glass noodles in this recipe. I ended up following in my brother’s footsteps and started using the same base, but with whatever I found in my cupboard at the time. I found that medium width rice noodles (rice sticks) are wonderful in this dish and soak up the flavours beautifully, whilst still giving a lightly bouncy chew.
I also often throw in veggies I have at hand. If you have an orange pepper lying around? Toss it in. A red cabbage perhaps? No problemmo. Anything green? More than welcome. I’ve also made vegetarian versions, where I use eggs instead of beef, and it’s also a possibility to just leave the beef out if you’re going for a vegan option. Play with it and make it yours.
This recipe is very quick once it comes to cooking, so make sure you have everything prepared before you start. There is a lot of rapid stir frying involved so I like to use two wooden spoons or silicone spatulas to keep lifting and stirring as you go (and to avoid the kitchen becoming a bomb site – fat chance).
Japchae – a flexible version
Quantities: Feeds 3 (I often cook portions for 3 as it leaves enough for lunch the next day)
Timings: 20 mins (10 mins prep and 10 mins cooking time)
Kitchen stuff: Wok, wooden spoons or tossing utensils
- 220g dried rice noodles (rice sticks), small or medium width (feel free to try with vermicelli or glass noodles if you fancy)
- 3 tbsp soy sauce
- 4 tbsp oyster sauce
- 1 tsp sugar
- 2 1/2 tsp sesame oil
- 1-2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 tbsp sesame seeds (black or white – or a mix)
- 300g lean minced beef
- 1 onion, halved and thinly sliced
- thumb sized piece of ginger, grated (if no grater then finely mince)
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 3 spring onions, cut into inch long pieces
- 60g shitake mushrooms, thinly sliced
- 200g cabbage / greens / spinach / pak choi (your choice), sliced – I often do half cabbage and half spinach
- 1 large carrot, peeled and cut into matchsticks (julienne) *
* an easy way to julienne carrots is to thinly slice them on the diagonal then pile 3-4 slices at a time and chop the carrot slices into matchsticks from there. See pic below for an example
1. NOODLES: First prepare your noodles. If using rice sticks, cook in boiling water for about 3 1/2 to 4 minutes then drain and run under cold water immediately until cool to stop them becoming softer. Drain and toss with 1 tsp sesame oil. Snip into slightly shorter pieces using scissors (this makes the easier to manage in the pan).
2. VEG PREP: If you haven’t done so already, then cut your carrots into matchsticks, slice your onions, slice your mushrooms, slice your greens, mince your garlic, grate your ginger and snip your spring onions into pieces.
3. SAUCE MIX: Mix together the soy sauce, oyster sauce and sugar in a small bowl.
4. WOK IT: Heat your vegetable oil in a wok or large, deep frying pan over a high heat until hot, but not smoking. Have two wooden spoons or tongs at the ready. Add your carrots, onion and minced beef and stir fry on high heat, for 1 -2 minutes (not long at all) until the veggies are starting to soften and the mince is just cooked. Tossing and stirring all the while. Add the garlic, ginger, mushrooms and spring onions and stir fry for another 30 seconds or so. Add the noodles, sauce, greens and fry for another 2-3 minutes, tossing and mixing until everything is saucy and combined and the noodles have slightly softened. Don’t over-cook as they will get too soft and become mushy. Remove from the heat and stir through the rest of the sesame oil and sesame seeds. Serve immediately.