20 May 2011

Ch-ch-changes & Substitutions

I have a problem with recipes – I don’t follow them. After years of cooking professionally and recreationally, unless it’s a recipe for a baked good, where absolute precision is required, I use recipes as a reference – a starting point; something to be adjusted, amended and tinkered with depending on what’s in the cupboard, fridge or in season. As for cookbooks, I love them, but at the risk of sounding vapid, a lot of the time, I just look at the pictures.

Plus I don’t always need recipes; I’m pretty good at CSI-ing foods. If I taste something at a friend’s, traveling or at a

Game On

restaurant, odds are I can reconstruct it in my lab (and by lab, I mean kitchen). Except for Japchae. The first time I ever had it, my friend Gwi made and served a dish that was part noodle, part vegetable, a little meat, soy and sesame and all deliciousness. When I asked her what it was she told me it was ‘Mongolian Beef’. She’d probably called the dish Japchae first, but like the good transplanted Midwesterner I am, upon hearing a term that had never, ever been used in Wisconsin, I’m sure I looked stunned, confused and/or disoriented. That’s when she translated the name of the dish into words I did understand, but unfortunately, the one time I was willing to look something up, Gwi’s terminology made recipe absolutely google-proof.

My habit of substituting and tinkering with ingredients runs the risk of changing a dish from what it was intended to be to something else: I love asparagus – the combination of beef, mushroom and asparagus is a winner. It’s also a variation my friend Gwi has never tried. She told me her Japchae is made with “Fishcake, spinach, beef, shiitake mushrooms, bell peppers”. Matt Choi of Choi’s Kimchi replied in an email, his family goes with “carrot, spinach, mushrooms, onion, bell pepper and bulgogi” – bulgogi, a term that is literally translated as ‘fire meat’, this refers to the heat source – over flame – rather than its spiciness.

Something both Gwi and Matt were quick to point out was Japchae (sometimes spelled chapchae or chopchae) is a food for special occasions, birthdays, parties that type of thing. I think I go about japchae wrong. I eat it on non-special occasions, unless random weekdays are special. I make substitutions like asparagus, I add chili sauce, I eat it cold, I cook the beef separately rather than stir-fry it plus it’s not marinated and it might be a more premium cut then traditionally used. I am almost always drink a beer when I eat my noodles, party food or not – I’m not sure how that fits into a tradition. At the end of the day, I feel a little more comfortable calling this preparation aspchae than trying to pretend it falls under the literal definition of japchae.

A Few of my Favorite Things

Notes on ingredients: Dangmyeon, is a cellophane noodle derived from sweet potato, it’s usually labeled “sweet potato noodle”. On the upside it is chewy and wonderful. On the downside it’s a little hard to locate, a trip to a store specializing in Asian foods is probably necessary. On the more downside, I find, the noodle wants to quickly revert to its natural state of pure starch. Rather than follow the instructions on the bag, I have much more success when I cook it al dante, plunge the noodles into cold water, drain and toss with a tablespoon of sesame oil.

Special thanks to Gwi Young-Ayers and Matt Choi for explaining the nuances and customs of Japchae.


½ lb. Steak (Sexton Ranches top sirloin is my favorite)

4 cloves garlic, crushed

½ c. soy sauce

1/3  cup sugar

1 Tablespoon Sesame oil

2 Tablespoons chili sauce like Sriracha

black pepper

½ lb. Sweet Potato noodle

1 Tablespoon sesame oil

1 Tablespoon sesame oil

½ lb. asparagus, cut into 2-inch segments

¼ 1 onion, thinly sliced

¼ lb. Shiitake mushrooms, sliced

1 bunch green onions, sliced

1 Tablespoon sesame seed

Pan fry of grill steak to medium rare. Cover and let steak rest for 10 minutes or longer.

Whisk together garlic, soy, sugar, chili, oil and pepper.

Bring water to a boil and add noodles. Cook about 5 minutes. Noodles are done when they are slightly chewy. Plunge cooked noodles in cold water, drain and toss with 1 T. of sesame oil.

Stir-fry the veg in sesame oil over medium-high. Add onions first and cook until they brown, follow with asparagus, when asparagus is nearly done, add mushrooms and cook for 1 minute. Turn heat off and add green onions and sesame seeds.

Slice steak thinly, toss with noodles, veg, soy mixture and eat up.

I like a side of daikon kimchi, the sweetness and crunch round out the dish, but Matt Choi recommends a Napa Cabbage or baek kimchi.