These days, culinary transparency is a definite virtueIt turns out my mother was right: Any food you can’t see inside is suspicious. It’s a lesson we’ve learned from the dumpling scandal, in which manufacturers were caught using spoiled pickled radishes in their stuffing. Rule of thumb: If you can’t see inside it, poke it with the tip of a chopstick, or call the cook over to your table and watch him eat it first.
You might also be cautious of restaurant dishes whose preparation seems to have involved excessive crushing, or which have been processed so extensively that you can’t identify the original ingredients. When I lived in Vancouver, there were gruesome rumors all over town that one of the city’s Chinese buffet restaurants was using cat meat in its wonton soup. Maybe because of that rumor, many Chinese restaurants in Vancouver started adding windows onto the kitchen so guests could watch the chef knead the dumplings.
This brings us to another theory: that any food that’s transparent is good, such as, for instance, japchae, clear noodles sauteed with mixed vegetables and beef.
Originally, in the Joseon Dynasty, japchae didn’t involve noodles at all. It began as a blend of vegetables and meat, invented by a statesman who used it to try to win the emperor’s favor. It was only after the 1930s that Koreans began adding clear noodles made from potato paste (called dang-myeon).
Japchae is a foreigner-friendly food. If you are a Korean who has ever lived abroad, you’ve probably pondered what to bring to a potluck dinner and wound up going with japchae. It’s not extravagant, but there’s nothing about it that looks suspicious.
There are a few Korean dishes that are almost always served at special occasions like wedding banquets or housewarming parties. Japchae is one. Fish patties, spicy squid and gimbap are others.
Frankly, I find japchae rather boring. To me, it’s one of those entrees that don’t impress anyone, but people eat it anyway, because it’s filling and it’s something more than just rice. But there is also something tempting about japchae that convinces many hosts to put it on the menu.
For one thing, it boasts an elaborate presentation, with colorful ingredients like carrots, spinach, eggs and mushrooms. It’s also nutritious, fitting into a low-calorie, high-protein diet.
It also lends itself to adaptation. In Chinese restaurants, they serve buchu japchae, stir-fried leeks and minced pork, eaten with white buns.
When I was reporting a story about a shantytown last year, one of the ladies there invited me into her house, the roof of which was almost collapsing, and made me bean sprout japchae, which literally was clear noodles mixed with bean sprouts and sesame oil. It was surprisingly good.
It’s interesting to note that japchae is almost never served in traditional Korean restaurants. Perhaps it’s about time that it got more respect. The dumpling companies have certainly done their part to improve its image.
How to Cook
Ingredients: 120g sirloin beef, 3 Chinese mushrooms, 100g carrots, 1/2 onion, 100g spinach, salt and pepper, sesame seeds, 1 egg, 30g dried dangmyeon (clear noodles). Sauce: 2 teaspoons soy sauce, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1 teaspoon sesame oil.
1. Soak Chinese mushrooms in water for about an hour. Remove the stems and slice them. Cut the beef into bite-size pieces and slice the onions.
2. On a pan coated with sesame oil, saute mushrooms, onions and beef over low heat for 5 to 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper and let cool.
4. Slice carrots into thin, 4-centimeter strips. In a separate pan, stir-fry them in oil and let them cool.
5. Cut the roots off the spinach leaves, boil them for a minute or two and squeeze them to remove excess moisture.
6. Boil clear noodles for 20 minutes.
7. Mix all the ingredients above with the sauce.
8. Separate the egg, fry the yolk and the white in separate pans and cut them into bite-size pieces. Serve japchae with the egg on top.
― Adapted from “Korea Traditional Food,” recipes collected by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture (Changjo Munwha, 2000).
by Park Soo-mee