Korean food

Chuseok time is japchae time

by Liz on September 10, 2011

in Food

This is japchae. You eat it.

I’ve been Korean for as long as I can remember, and for as long as I can remember I have never been a big fan of japchae, a lightly stir-fried dish of glass noodles embellished with various vegetables and proteins. Which, to me, is ironic, because I love stir-fries and noodles, and japchae has both these bases covered.

Japchae has counterparts in other Asian cuisines, but I’ve always been secretly dismayed that it has neither the sweet and sour fragrance of Pad Thai, or the greasy but good sated feel of American Chinese chow mein. The appeal isn’t immediate, which probably explains why it’s taken me this long to finally come around. Yes, I now love japchae, and here’s why.

I love japchae because it’s a stir-fried dish that keeps grease to a minimum. It’s also one of few, perhaps the one and only stir-fried noodle recipe that uses mushrooms to incorporate an aromatic, earthy flavor to what’s already a color and taste-rich dish.

Japchae is also a taste of home. My mother always made it on special occasions, and though I’ve never understood why, we always ate it with rice, a seemingly incompatible accompaniment to the noodleliness of japchae. But now, when I eat japchae as a standalone item, my palate knows something’s not quite right, unless, of course, I take a bite of rice.

So this Chuseok, a celebration of harvest and gathering in South Korea, why not make a plate of japchae? I’m providing a variation of a recipe I used this weekend from one of my favorite Korean food blogs, a translation if you will, so you can try this at home.

A quick glance and the recipe is a bit intimidating, because there’s many small steps to master. But, take heart. If I can make this, so can you.

Stir-frying the pork. Yum.

Chuseok Japchae (adapted from here, serves 5 to 6)
9 oz. sweet potato noodles (called ‘dangmyeon’ in Korean)
1/2 bunch of spinach
7 oz. of oyster mushrooms (here I just used an assortment of mushrooms)
1 large onion
1 carrot
3 eggs, yolks separated from whites
5 oz. pork cutlet

Seasoning for pork
1/2 ts of salt
1 tb of Chinese cooking wine
Pepper to taste

Seasoning for noodles
4 tb of Jin Ganjang, thick Korean soy sauce (available in Korean grocery stores)
1 tb sugar

Seasoning for vegetables
1 tb of Jin Ganjang
2 tb of sesame oil
Crushed sesame seeds, to your liking (I crushed mine with a mortar and pestle)

(FYI: instructions to stir-fry below usually requires adding a tablespoon of canola oil or equivalent to the pan prior to pouring ingredients to cook)

1. Wash the mushrooms, and boil quickly in hot water, no more than 10 seconds. Drain and squeeze water out completely, then lightly sprinkle with salt.
2. Wash the spinach, also boil in hot water for approximately 10 seconds. Again, drain water and squeeze out excess moisture. Sprinkle lightly with salt.
3. Peel and slice the onion into semi-circles and stir-fry in a non-stick pan on medium-high heat until partially cooked.
4. Peel and slice the carrot into thin strips. Stir-fry until partially but not completely cooked.
5. Pour the egg white into an omelet pan, flip, and cook on both sides. Repeat for the yolk. Slice both omelets into thin strips. Set aside.
6. Slice the pork cutlet into thin strips, and marinate thoroughly with the seasoning for pork. In a non-stick pan, stir fry until fully cooked.
7. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add the dangmyeon (noodles). Cook for no more than 10 minutes, drain, place quickly in a bowl of cold water to chill. Cut into bite sized pieces (best done with scissors).
8. Now for the home stretch: add 1 to 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil to a large, non-stick pan or wok, set at medium-high heat. Pour the noodles and add the seasoning for noodles. (Note: do taste frequently as you cook, and feel free to add additional doses of the noodle seasoning sauce as you see fit.)
9. You’ll notice the noodles change color as you add the sauce. Make sure the sauce is absorbed evenly.
10. Next, add the pork and vegetables, stirring all ingredients thoroughly.
11. Lastly, add the seasoning for vegetables. Stir once more and mix thoroughly.


It’s chilly, spicy, and North Korean

by Liz on August 6, 2011

in Food

Hwe Naengmyeon, cold and spicy noodles with fermented, raw fish on top

Some of you may remember ‘My Favorite Things,’ a song from the hit movie musical Sound of Music. Trying to coax the children back to bed, Maria von Trapp sings a laundry list of her favorite things, the small but precious glimpses of life that make her happy. Slowly the children are no longer afraid of the thunderstorm, and Maria’s singing works like a charm.

It’s sobering to think there’s not much going on in the world these days that would make it on Maria’s list of favorite things. A debt downgrade, the worst Congress ever, Murdoch madness. I could go on, but I won’t. Today, I’d rather focus on one of my favorite things: spicy, cold sweet potato noodles, or naengmyeon, a Korean specialty I’ve been eating for as long as I can remember. Financial crises come, and financial crises go, but for me, it’s important to remember that this, too, shall pass. No matter what the Dow Jones, I can always go for a bowl of naengmyeon, refrigerator cold and spicy goodness that’s best with fermented, raw fish on top.

It’s been bit of a challenge finding a decent restaurant that serves authentic naengmyeon in New York. In Manhattan, I’ve encountered expensive varieties that tasted suspiciously like the packaged kind sold in the Korean supermarket two doors down. I’ve searched high and low for the real deal, the kind you’ll encounter in the Ojang-dong neighborhood of Seoul, a Hamheung naengmyeon enclave. Hamheung is a city in present-day North Korea where the idea of placing raw, fermented fish was born. Pyongyang, the North Korean city you hear a great deal about, has a naengmyeon tradition too, but theirs is more about a cold, umami-flavored broth and the rich, grainy texture of their buckwheat noodles. My mother’s side of the family hails from Hamheung, so that’s the naengmyeon I know.

My on-again, off-again search for the Holy Grail of good naengmyeon was finally rewarded this year, when a handy guide by the Korean Cultural Service NY pointed to a restaurant in northern New Jersey that specialized in Hamheung naengmyeon. Specialization is a good sign. You don’t want to try naengmyeon at a place that serves basically everything under the Korean culinary roof. Specialization implies focus, which in the case of naengmyeon is the noodles themselves: homemade and completely original. And that’s what I got at Homung Nangmyun: chilled to perfection potato flour noodles, balanced by fermented skatefish, marinated in a sweet and spicy gochujang sauce. The noodles were delectably chewy, and naturally I couldn’t ask for anything more.

Steamed meat dumplings, a common complement to Naengmyeon meals

The nice thing about Homung Nangmyun is they have other great menu items. I tried the Goki Mandoo, or steamed meat dumplings, and was pleasantly surprised. Another hit item that I saw going around to virtually every table was the Haemul Pajeon, a Korean seafood scallion pancake. The Pajeon is a perennial favorite among casual diners in Seoul, and although I never figured out why, for some reason people prefer eating it on rainy days. With makgeolli, no less.

I remember eating naengmyeon with my family in Seoul and the conversation would inevitably touch upon North Korea, a place probably best summarized by a quote in the 2005 film Capote, as he referred to Perry Smith, a convicted killer with whom he develops a special relationship: “We were brothers. But one day he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front.”

Most Koreans feel similarly about their brethren in the North. South Korea elected to go out the front door and prospered, while the North went out back, or backwards, and languished. It’s sobering to think a specialty like Hamheung Naengmyeon could be a rare treat in the city of Hamheung itself. But that’s a story for another day.

Homung Nangmyun
570 Piermont Road
Closter, NJ 07624
Recommendations: Hwe Nangmyun ($11.95), Mool Nangmyun ($9.95), Haemul Pajun ($16.95), and Goki Mandoo ($7.95) – Prices subject to change