Vegetarian Japchae: Korean glass noodles
I first discovered Japchae ages ago at an all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ restaurant in Los Angeles. The side dish consisted of sweet potato “glass” noodles that were perfectly coated with soy sauce and sesame oil and tossed with an array of vegetables. I was hooked. I believe I ate more of this side dish than the barbecued meat!
Japchae, translated to “mixed vegetables,” was created way back in the 17th Century Joseon Dynasty by one of King Gwangaegun’s subject at a royal celebration. This humble meal of mixed vegetables impressed the king so much that he promoted his subject to the position of Secretary of Treasury! In later years, the dish evolved to what it is now with the addition of sweet potato noodles.
Japchae has been described as stir-fried noodles but in actuality, the vegetables are stir-fried separately, the noodles are boiled and drained, and everything is mixed together in the end. You may eat this on its own, as a side dish with rice and other dishes, or with barbecued meat. It’s a dish fit for a king and queen!
Vegetarian Japchae Recipe
Serves 8-10 people (pot luck party size!)
- 10 oz (300 g) Korean sweet potato noodles*
- 5 cloves garlic, chopped finely
- 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
- 1 large onion, cut in half and sliced thinly
- 10-12 button mushrooms, sliced thinly
- 8 oz (250 g) spinach
- 1 red bell pepper, sliced thinly into strips
- 2 medium carrots, cut into matchsticks
- 6 stalks green onions, cut into 2 inch long pieces
- ¼ cup soy sauce (or to taste)
- 1 tablespoon sugar (or to taste)
- 2 Tablespoons Korean sesame oil* (or to taste)
- Roasted sesame seeds, to taste
- Salt, as needed
*You will find these items at a Korean or Asian grocery store. I use Korean soy sauce and sesame oil because they taste slightly different from the Chinese ones. The Korean sesame oil in particular doesn’t have such a strong flavor and suits this dish much more. If you have a gluten allergy, you may substitute the soy sauce for a gluten-free alternative.
Boil the noodles in a large pot of water according to the instructions (usually 5 minutes). Drain in a colander and immediately drizzle sesame oil and mix the noodles to prevent sticking. Put the drained and oiled noodles in a large mixing bowl and set aside.
In a large pan, drizzle vegetable oil over medium heat. Add ¼ of the garlic and all the onions to the pan and stir fry for a minute or two or until the onions are soft. Add the mushrooms and fry until they are soft and cooked. Remove and set aside.
In the same pan, add another ¼ of the garlic and more oil if needed. Stir fry the spinach with a pinch of salt until soft and place on a plate (drain the liquid). Continue this process with the rest of the vegetables (red bell pepper, carrots and green onions). Fry them separately until cooked and set them aside.
Then add all the cooked vegetables into the large mixing bowl with the cooked noodles. The veggies will be hot so use a pair of tongs to mix them together with the noodles. Add sesame oil, sugar, soy sauce and sesame seeds to the bowl and mix thoroughly. Taste often and add more sesame oil, soy sauce or sugar if needed.