Japchae: The Colors and Taste of Spring
Photo: Hyosun of KoreanBapsang.com
A toss up of color, flavor, and texture, 잡채 (japchae) is one of my favorite Korean dishes to recreate at home. A simple recipe with an authentic flavor, japchae is a crowd pleaser that is compatible with almost every kind of food restriction and palate.
A History Older than the Noodle
Aside from the vibrant colors and fresh taste, japchae has an old history. Japchae, literally meaning “mixed vegetables,” was a dish originally made with chopped and stir-fried vegetables. While the dish that comes to mind today has leveled up since its invention, the original japchae was made for King Gwanghaegun in the middle to late 1500s. After falling in love with the dish, japchae was added to 조선왕조 궁중요리 (Joseon wangjo gungjung yori—Korean royal court cuisine) of the Joseon dynasty.
Over time, the royal dish, which comprised of vegetables and mushrooms due to the strong Buddhism influence of the time, evolved to include noodles and meat. It has been historically debated whether the Chinese or the Mongols introduced noodles to Korea. Due to their nomadic lifestyle, the Mongols relied heavily on a diet of protein from the animals they raised. As they roamed the Eurasian steppes, beef and other meats were introduced into Korea. Additionally, Mongols brought grains to the region which led to the introduction of buckwheat and wheat noodles.
Due to Korea’s lack of fertile pastures, grains and herds are harder to maintain in the steep and mountainous lands. Meat, even today, is considered a luxury due to the limited pasture lands. Prized cuts and meat dishes have made a name for themselves in Korea and around the globe. From the crowd favorite thinly sliced and marinated 불고기 (bulgogi) to the world renowned 한우 (Hanwoo) beef, the addition of protein has revolutionized the ingredient list of numerous dishes. The introduction of sweet potatoes to Korea in the mid-1700s from Japan also led to the integration of sweet potato noodles—also known as cellophane, vermicelli, starch, or glass noodles due to their translucent appearance—into the traditional mix of vegetables of japchae.
Any Occasion for Japchae
Aside from a food served to royalty, japchae can be served as a main dish with the addition of protein or as a banchan (side dish) or even served over rice nowadays. From meals to special occasions, japchae is a staple dish that is easily made in bulk for weddings, celebrations, or birthdays—especially 돌 (dol—1st birthday) or 환갑 (hwangap—60th birthday), with the noodles signifying a long life.
From the nuttiness of the sesame to the slight crunch of the vegetables with the soft noodles, meaty mushrooms, umami taste of soy, and the overall sweetness blended with the fresh taste of vegetables, japchae is a nutritious and filling meal. The simple dish is extremely versatile, making it easy to modify to the liking of the consumer. Additionally, japchae can be enjoyed hot, at room temperature, or even ice cold on a hot summer day. More experimental versions have swapped out the traditional ingredients of onions or carrots for more modern or palate-influenced flavors such as bell peppers, zucchini, Western herbs, fusions of many local and foreign ingredients (pineapple chunks in your japchae anyone?), or even seafood.
Most individuals with certain food restrictions can also enjoy japchae. Individuals with sesame seed allergies can swap the nutty sesame seed oil with a neutral vegetable oil. Traditional vegetables such as carrots, spinach, and shiitake mushrooms are main players in the dish; any seasonal vegetable can be substituted (check out our Spring Korean Foodie Favorites for more 봄나물 (bom namul—spring vegetables) to substitute into your own japchae). Those who can’t have beef or pork can also choose to have japchae sans meat or substitute non-traditional protein sources such as tofu or seafood.
Aside from the flavor profile of the dish, japchae also satisfies visual hunger with a balance of colors, like the orange carrot, green spinach, and brown mushrooms against the translucent noodles. Incorporate thinly chopped fried egg yolk (yellow) separated from the egg white along with thin slices of chili to complete the color palette.
Build Your Own Recipe for Japchae
For culinary fans around the world, it is sometimes harder to immerse yourself in the complex flavors of the world when you are limited in travel. However, japchae is one of those dishes that even beginners can’t mess up! Take charge of your culinary experience and give this dish a try at home. With only a few simple ingredients, the hardest part will be hunting down elusive sweet potato noodles. If there isn’t an Asian market near you, don’t fret! Many online retailers deliver, or the original noodle-free japchae can be recreated for an authentic throwback to this crowd favorite dish.
There are many amazing recipes online along with YouTube videos galore. While you perfect your own personalized japchae recipe, take some notes from one of my favorite japchae YouTube videos where chefs from Korea guide you through how to make japchae (even though my girl Maangchi is my go-to for almost all of my other favorite Korean dishes)!
What are your favorite japchae add-ins or recipe switch-ups? Share with us in the comment section down below!