On the Table—Japchae: A Korean History Lesson

Food Sovereignty Tours | 06.26.2014

By Sofia Salazar-Rubio, Movements Editor

No Korean feast is complete without a colorful plate of japchae (or chapch’ae), a stir-fry of glass noodles and vegetables. Tracing the long history of this beloved dish provides a fascinating study of Korean culinary and cultural history.

Meaning “mixture of vegetables,” japchae describes both the dish as well as the method with which it is prepared. Generally, the term refers to vegetables (namul) stir-fried with meat. To make the dish, glass noodles made from sweet potato starch (dangmyeon) are stir-fried in sesame oil with beef and thinly sliced vegetables and seasoned with soy sauce and a touch of sugar.

Curiously, the original version of japchae contained neither meat nor noodles. Dating back to the seventeenth-century Joseon (or Choson) dynasty, japchae was invented by one of King Gwangaegun’s subjects, who concocted the dish for a royal celebration. As the story goes, the king enjoyed the new dish so much that he promoted the humble servant to a position equivalent to Secretary of the Treasury!

At the time of its creation, the signature characteristics of japchae—beef and noodles—were not prevalent in the Korean diet. Rather, vegetables dominated Korean cooking. Even today, no meal is complete without an array of side dishes (banchan or panch’an) showcasing different vegetables in a variety of preparations.

The lasting influence of Buddhism is a significant factor in the centrality of vegetables to Korean cuisine. During the Koryo (or Goryeo) dynasty (which preceded the Joseon), the slaughter of cattle for food was prohibited in accordance with Buddhist beliefs. Buddhism is further reflected in the food tradition of combining numerous vegetables in a single dish to balance tastes, textures, and colors (Pettid 2008). Based on the five elements or phases (ohaeng) of East Asian cosmology, many Korean foods feature five colors: green (onion, squash, cucumber), red (chili peppers, carrots or jujubes), yellow and white (usually a separated egg fried and cut into strips) and black (dark-colored mushrooms or laver) (Pettid 2008). The spinach, carrots and mushrooms typically used in japchae, plus the garnish of a fried egg, satisfy these color requirements.

Until fairly recently, beef was a rare delicacy on Korean tables outside of the aristocracy and royal court. In addition to the legacy of Buddhism, cattle ranching was not practiced on a large scale throughout most of Korean history because of its intensive land and resource requirements. It wasn’t until the Mongols invaded the peninsula in the late thirteenth-century, establishing pastureland and breeding cattle, that beef consumption became more common (Ye 2012). However, beef eating was slow to take hold in Korea until well into the twentieth century, when the country’s growing affluence and the modernization of cattle raising made beef more affordable (Pettid 2008). Today, beef dishes are typical in Korean cooking. In the West, offerings such as bulgogi (grilled marinated beef) have become synonymous with Korean cuisine. A robust market for native Korean beef, known as Hanwoo (or Hanu), has emerged.  Korean consumers prize Hanwoo over cheaper imports for its quality and freshness (Jo, et al. 2012).

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Along with their penchant for beef, the Mongols also brought noodles to the Korean peninsula. Originally made from wheat and buckwheat, noodles were later made with sweet potatoes after the tubers arrived from Japan in the 1760s. Sweet potatoes became essential in areas with steep or rocky soils, unsuitable for rice and other crops. Consequently, sweet potatoes became an important famine-relief food. Eventually, japchae changed to accommodate this shift in tastes and availability. Noodles persist as an essential ingredient in japchae, a popular dish for celebrations and parties, probably because of the noodle’s symbolic significance as a wish for long life (Pettid 2008).

The transformation of japchae from vegetable dish to today’s popular noodle and beef iteration demonstrates how traditions adapt new ingredients to accommodate shifting tastes and preferences.

Works Cited:

  1. C. Jo, S.H. Cho, J. Chang & K.C. Nam, “Keys to production and processing of Hanwoo beef: A perspective of tradition and science,” Animal Frontiers 2 (2012): 32–38.
  2. Michael J. Pettid, Korean Cuisine: An Illustrated Guide (London: Reaktion Books, 2008).
  3. Ye Jung-suk, “Culinary Traditions: What should be preserved and how?,” Koreana 26 (2012): 52.

 

Ingredients prepared for japchae. Photo from Korean Bapsang.

Stir-Fried Sweet Potato Noodles & Vegetables (Japchae)
Adapted from Epicurious
Makes 4 -5 servings

Ingredients
8 oz. sweet potato noodles (available at most Asian markets)
½ bunch spinach (about 4 oz.), rinsed and trimmed
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon plus 1½ teaspoons sesame oil
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
6–8 oz of your choice of protein (white mushrooms, tofu or beef rib-eye can be used)
¼ cup plus 1 teaspoon soy sauce
¼ medium onion, sliced
3 to 4 dried shiitake mushrooms (or other locally-available mushroom), rehydrated and sliced
1 carrot, shredded or cut into thin strips
3 green onions, cut into 1-inch pieces
¼ cup sugar
Toasted sesame seeds for garnish

Preparation
Bring a pot of water to boil and blanch the spinach. Rinse immediately under cold water, squeeze the water out of the leaves and form them into a ball. Cut the spinach ball in half and combine with half the garlic, ½ teaspoon of sesame oil, and ¼ teaspoon salt in a small bowl. Set aside to let the flavors soak in.

Bring a large pot of water to boil and cook noodles for 4 to 5 minutes. Drain immediately and rinse thoroughly with cold water. Make sure not to overcook the noodles, or they will lose their chewy texture. The noodles may be cut with scissors into 6 to 7-inch lengths for easier eating.

Heat the vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add your choice of protein, the remaining garlic, 1 teaspoon of soy sauce, and 1 teaspoon of sesame oil. Stir-fry until protein is cooked. Add the onion, mushrooms, and carrot and cook until the onion is translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the green onions and stir-fry for another minute. Remove from heat.

In a large bowl, thoroughly combine the noodles, protein mixture, spinach, remaining ¼ cup soy sauce, 1 tablespoon sesame oil and the sugar. Serve warm, sprinkled with sesame seeds.

Experience South Korea’s cultural and culinary history on our upcoming tour South Korea: Land, Food and Democracy, May 9–17, 2015.