Why I love japchae

Ready to nosh on japchae I made with my mom.


For Mother’s Day, an homage to my mother’s japchae, with a recipe:

In my book, no celebration is complete without japchae, a Korean stir-fried noodle and vegetable dish. According to Korean tradition, you’re supposed to eat noodles on your birthday because the long, continuous shape is associated with a long life.  My mom’s japchae is extraordinarily tasty, so it has become my family’s noodle of choice for birthdays and special occasions. Famous for their length, japchae noodles have extended into all my life’s formative stages, and they continue to connect me back to my Korean heritage, even as I feel myself becoming more and more American.

The first vivid memory I have of japchae is from my younger sister Christina’s doljanchi (an elaborate traditional first birthday celebration). For a brief moment, she looked elegant and regal in her colorful striped hanbok (traditional Korean dress), sitting behind a table of delicately stacked rice cakes, fruits, and side dishes. But within seconds of being seated, Christina proceeded to roll up her sleeves, crawl onto the table, grab fistfuls of japchae, and stuff her face. As the noodles slid down her chin and onto her hanbok, the guests roared with laughter. Even at the age of one, Christina understood that it was worth looking ridiculous in order to enjoy my mom’s japchae.

Fast forward a few years, and my pimply twelve-year-old self was in the kitchen with omma (my mom), watching her make japchae. She used seven main ingredients: dangmyeon (sweet potato noodles), green bell peppers, onions, garlic, carrots, shiitake mushrooms, and beef, cutting out the spinach and excess sugar that ruins restaurant japchae. Once each ingredient was properly cooked and seasoned, she’d mix them together by hand, wearing loose plastic gloves to protect her soft skin from the smelly onions and garlic. To save time, she conducted all taste tests by scooping up some of the japchae with her gloved hand and holding it in the air expectantly. “Try this, and tell me if you think it needs more soy sauce,” she’d say. If I scrambled to find chopsticks, she’d get impatient. “Just eat it out of my hand!” I’d do so begrudgingly, getting sesame oil all over my blemished chin and realizing that I’d be in for another fresh crop of chin acne the next morning. It was worth it though. The japchae was irresistible: chewy noodles, flavorful mushrooms, tender vegetables, and fragrant sesame. Like Christina at her doljanchi, I was willing to look ridiculous (acne is pretty traumatic for a seventh grader) after I’d had the privilege of tasting a handful of omma’s japchae.

Japchae continues to make me look ridiculous to this day. When I set out to make japchae for this blog post, I found myself with no plastic gloves for proper hand-mixing; heck, I didn’t even own a single set of chopsticks. What kind of Korean was I? Who did I think I was, trying to cook japchae out of my decidedly gringo kitchen? It wasn’t easy, but I did it. Chopping the bell peppers, onions, and mushrooms took forever. Even with the expertise of instructional videos from YouTube, my vegetable pieces ended up clumsy and inconsistent (thank goodness the grocery store sold pre-shredded carrots). Mindful of vegans (in actuality, feeling lazy and exhausted), I skipped the beef. Mixing the noodles and vegetables with a fork was like torture: it took all my upper and lower body strength to evenly incorporate the soy sauce and sesame oil-based marinade into the noodle and vegetable mixture. As I struggled to stir, I tried to compensate for my lack of upper-body muscle with exaggerated arm movements a la David Brent’s fusion of Flashdance and MC Hammer from the BBC’s The Office. Again, I looked ridiculous.

Japchae I made on my own. Note the pitifully chopped vegetables.

I started thinking: how does omma make this look so easy? Well, she’s been doing this for longer than I’ve been alive, and per her own words, “Korean housewifery is my major.” Of course, this is a figure of speech: she graduated from Ewha University in South Korea with a degree in mathematics and had aspirations of teaching. But when my father’s software engineering career brought her to the United States, she found herself faced with an enormous language barrier and refocused her efforts to homemaking. My birth solidified her position in the family as the master of all things home-related. In the kitchen, she barely even needs a cutting board anymore, and she can cook anything from the familiar japchae to lasagna, which bears zero resemblance to anything remotely Korean.

Unlike omma, I fully intend to stay in the country of my native tongue and pursue a career outside the home. This is what she wants for me as well: as much as she’s enjoyed taking care of her home and her family, she often speaks wistfully of how nice it would be to have more independence and a source of income outside of my dad’s. I look forward to having a degree of independence that my mother doesn’t have, but I know that my japchae (or anything else that I cook, for that matter) will never be as good as hers.

Or maybe it will be, if I can just position myself in the right industry, per the history of japchae. A liege named Yi Chung first created japchae in the early 17th century at a party for King Gwanghaegun. The king liked the dish so much that he promoted Yi Chung to the position of Secretary of the Treasury. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work like that anymore; no matter how delectable my japchae becomes, it probably won’t get me promoted in my current Silicon Valley tech job. But that’s not going to stop me from trying to live up to omma’s japchae greatness, no matter how ridiculous I look in the process.


Omma’s Japchae

Ingredients:

  • Starch noodles (“dangmyun”)
  • 150 grams of beef
  • 1 medium size carrot
  • 1 medium green pepper
  • 1 medium size onion
  • 5 dried shiitake mushrooms
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • soy sauce, salt, sesame oil, sugar

Makes 4 servings.

How to prepare your ingredients before stir frying:

  1. Soak 5 dried shiitake mushrooms in warm water for a few hours until they become soft. Squeeze the water out of them and slice thinly.
  2. Cut the carrot and bell pepper into thin matchstick-shaped pieces 5 cm long.
  3. Slice one onion thinly.
  4. Slice 150 grams of beef into thin strips.

How to stir-fry:

  1. Boil 2 bunches of noodles in boiling water in a big pot for about 3 minutes. When the noodles are soft, drain them and put in a large bowl.
  2. Cut the noodles several times by using scissors and add 1 tbs of soy sauce and 1 tbs of sesame oil. Mix it up and set aside.
  3. Add ½ tbs soy sauce and ½ tbs sesame oil and mix it and place it onto the large bowl.
  4. On a heated pan, put a few drops of vegetable oil, a few shakes of salt, and your carrot strips. Stir with a spatula for 30 seconds. Put it into the large bowl.
  5. Place a few drops of vegetable oil on the pan and add your sliced onion. Add a few shakes of salt. Stir it until the onion looks translucent. Put it into the large bowl with your carrots.
  6. Place a few drops of vegetable oil on the pan and add your beef strips and your sliced shiitake mushrooms. Stir it until it’s cooked well, then add 3 cloves of minced garlic, ½ tbs soy sauce, and a pinch of sugar. Stir for another 30 seconds and then put it into the large bowl.
  7. Add 2 tbs of soy sauce and 2 tbs of sesame oil to the large bowl. Mix all ingredients.

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