I spent a large portion of my childhood in Hawaii, where I was lucky enough to be exposed to one of the greatest cuisines ever – Korean food. For the uninitiated, Korean food might be a bit overwhelming, especially if your first experience is Korean BBQ, with its abundance of pickled vegetables (some with quite pungent aromas) and a healthy dose of grilled meats. When I’m in Los Angeles, Korean BBQ is one of my must-have meals, as they have such a great Korean restaurants (not just in K-Town!), and when I’m visiting my family in Hawaii, I will also make a request for at least one Korean meal!
While I do love great Korean BBQ (or KBBQ as it is commonly known), I am more interested in banchan, the side dishes that often come with your meal. Koreans have traditionally incorporated an arrangement of five colors in their meals: red, yellow, green, white and black, which you can get from banchan, or, in this case, all in one dish: japchae. Japchae is a stir-fried noodle dish usually made with sliced marinated beef, various vegetables, soy sauce, sesame oil, and sugar. This vegetarian version of japchae manages to maintain the five colors and all of the flavor of traditional japchae, but loses the meat element, making the dish actually vegan and gluten-free. This can be eaten as a side dish to accompany a protein, or a larger serving can be a main dish.
Vegetarian Japchae (Korean Stir-Fried Sweet Potato Noodles)
2 large dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in warm water for 2 to 3 hours, cut into thin strips
1 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds (optional)
4 ounces spinach, washed and drained
4 ounces of dangmyeon (sweet potato starch noodles)
2 to 3 green onions, cut crosswise into 2 inch long pieces
1 medium onion (1 cup), sliced thinly
4 to 5 brown cremini mushrooms, sliced thinly
1 medium carrot (¾ cup), cut into matchsticks
½ red bell pepper, cut into thin strips (optional)
ground black pepper
In a large pot of boiling water, blanch the spinach for 30-45 seconds and then remove with a slotted spoon (save the water to boil the noodles). Rinse the spinach with cold water to stop the cooking process, and then squeeze it out to remove as much water as possible. Chop spinach, put aside into a small bowl and dress with 1 teaspoon soy sauce and 1 teaspoon sesame oil.
Next, add your noodles to the boiling water – cook according to the directions on the package, about 7 minutes. When the noodles are soft and chewy, strain them and cut them a few times with kitchen scissors. In a large mixing bowl, put the noodles and add 2 teaspoons sesame oil, 1 teaspoon of sugar, and 1 teaspoon of soy sauce and mix well, making sure that the noodles don’t stick together.
In a nonstick skillet, add a little bit of vegetable oil and stir fry the onion, green onion, and a dash of salt, just a couple of minutes over medium-high heat until the onion is translucent. Add to the bowl of noodles. In the same skillet, add the brown mushrooms and a little more oil if needed. Stir fry and add to noodle bowl. Keep skillet hot, then add the carrots and red bell pepper, and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add to noodle bowl. Slice the shiitake mushrooms thinly and saute in the same skillet, seasoning with a tablespoon of soy sauce. Once the shiitake mushrooms are tender, add them to the noodle bowl.
Just before serving, add the spinach, minced garlic, 1 tablespoon soy sauce, 1 tablespoon sugar, 2 teaspoons of sesame oil, and a few turns of a pepper mill to the mixing bowl full of ingredients. Mix all together by hand until all ingredients are combined. You can also garnish with toasted sesame seeds.