Japchae is a traditional Korean dish that you can find in any cookbook that features Korean cuisine. Many people are familiar with it from the Korean restaurants they go to, but often the japchae they get there is mostly glass noodles soaked in sesame oil, soy sauce, and sugar, and served piping hot.
The japchae that I grew up with, however, was usually warm or at room temperature, and it had more balance between the noodles and the finely seasoned sautéed vegetables and meat. That’s what japchae means: a mix of finely cut ingredients. It takes some extra work and time, but making a japchae with a rich variety of ingredients is rewarding. The outcome is more elegant and more subtle, and, in my opinion, much tastier than those heavy restaurant versions.
Every ingredient in japchae has a purpose. You can see that in the dish’s diverse flavors and textures: chewy sweet potato noodles, savory meat, hearty mushrooms, tender vegetables, and soft egg.
If you are not familiar with Korean cuisine, you may not know that color is a key factor in choosing what goes into japchae. The word to remember is obangsaek, which means the five traditional colors in Korean culture, which match the five elements: red (fire), blue (wood), yellow (earth), white (metal), and black (water).
Obangsaek is a significant concept in Korean aesthetics in general, and it also applies to the Korean table. So, your japchae will look better with a mix of black/brown, red, blue/green, white, and yellow ingredients. That translates to ingredients like meat and mushrooms (for black and brown), carrot or red bell pepper (for red), spinach or another green vegetable (for blue/green), sliced cooked egg whites (for white), and sliced cooked egg yolks (for yellow).
Exactly what you use will depend on your preferences and the seasons. You can use hamcho (samphire) instead of the spinach in the summer, or even skip the noodles and replace them with soy sauce–braised burdock root in the fall.
Japchae requires a lot of prep work—there’s no way around that, given the many components and the different ways to cook them—but the good news is that it can all be done ahead of time. The japchae can then be stored in the fridge for a day or two and reheated in a skillet before serving.
The first step is to soak dried mogi (wood ear) mushrooms in room-temperature water for about an hour, until they become soft and plump. Believe me—these grow a lot. The small amount of dried wood ear mushrooms in my recipe may look like an error, but it’s not; it’ll produce plenty.
After the wood ear mushrooms have soaked, you can rip them into smaller pieces, then combine them with sliced pyogo (shiitake) caps and thin strips of raw pork shoulder. The meat and mushrooms are seasoned with a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, garlic, ginger, soju, and a touch of sesame oil. I suggest using a wheat-based soy sauce (yangjo ganjang) for this recipe, which has a sweeter taste than purely soy-based Joseon ganjang; that sweeter taste works well in meat marinades. (To learn more about the main types of Korean soy sauce, including product suggestions, see our article on the essential Korean pantry.)
While the meat and mushrooms marinate, you’ll want to make your jidan, an egg garnish in Korean cooking that requires a special method. To make jidan, egg yolks and whites are separated, strained to remove the chalazae and any other unwanted bits, and gently beaten to avoid adding air bubbles. Each is then softly cooked in a lightly oiled nonstick pan to form a perfectly round disk, one yellow and one white, with no browning or coloring on them.
The key is to keep the colors vivid, so you really have to stay close to the pan, watching it like a hawk. When each disk is mostly done, it’s time to flip it, which I like to do by very gently sliding a chopstick underneath, lifting, and then laying the egg back down on the other side to cook it all the way through.
Once it’s cooled down, you can cut each round into very thin strips. If you’re curious why the yolks and whites are cooked separately, just remember obangsaek—we want the bright-yellow yolks and pure whites to stand out. Combining the ingredients results in the familiar pale yellow hue commonly seen in scrambled eggs and omelettes, which is neither a vibrant yellow nor a pure white
Once the jidan is ready, you can start preparing the carrots and onions by slicing them into thin matchsticks and sautéing them in a small amount of oil until they are slightly tender. Be careful not to overcook them to the point where they become too soft and mushy. Next, boil the spinach, drain it, and squeeze out any excess water. Season the spinach with minced garlic and sesame oil, then let it marinate.
Finally, cook the marinated pork and mushrooms until they are tender and lightly browned.
For the noodles, you want dangmyeon (Korean sweet potato glass noodles). Cooking the noodles is as easy as boiling them until they’re soft but chewy, then rinsing them under cold water before that pleasant chewiness goes away.
Keep in mind that the noodles are sometimes sold as uncut, extra-long strands rolled up. If this is what you have, use kitchen scissors to make a few crosscuts in the pile of cooked noodles to shorten them. They are easier to cut when cooked, but be careful not to cut them too short or your japchae will resemble a broken-noodle salad.
When everything is ready, it’s time to combine all the ingredients. In a large mixing or serving bowl, mix the cooked noodles with wheat-based soy sauce and either brown or white sugar until well coated. Subsequently, incorporate the remaining ingredients and thoroughly toss everything together. Add the greens last to prevent them from losing their color by cooking in the heated noodle mixture. The ratio of soy sauce to sugar I’ve provided is my preference, but feel free to adjust it to your taste
Japchae is not typically a noodle dish that is eaten alone in a large bowl, like naengmyeon. Instead, it is often served warm as part of a Korean meal, accompanied by other banchan (side dishes), soup, and rice. It is commonly presented in a large shared bowl or platter as the main dish on the table, with smaller banchan on the side. However, it can also be served as one of the smaller banchan alongside other featured platters.
Regardless of whether it is served in a large or small portion, the key to japchae lies in its rich variety of ingredients and the diverse colors and flavors each brings to the dish.
For the Mushrooms and Pork:
- 6 dried wood ear mushrooms (about 5g)
- 3 1/2 ounces (100g) of shiitake mushrooms, approximately 5 medium-sized, with stems removed and caps sliced 1/4 inch thick
- 3 1/2 ounces (100g) of lean, boneless, skinless pork shoulder, cut into 2- by 1/4-inch strips
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) of yangjo ganjang (Korean wheat-based soy sauce; see notes)
- 2 medium-sized garlic cloves, finely diced.
- 1 tablespoon of granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons (10ml) of soju
- A generous pinch of minced, peeled fresh ginger
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) vegetable oil
For the Jidan (Egg Garnish):
- 2 large eggs
- Vegetable oil for greasing the pan
For the Carrot and Onion:
- 2 teaspoons vegetable oil (10ml).
- 1 small (5-ounce; 140g) yellow onion, thinly sliced from top to bottom
- 1 small (3-ounce; 90g) carrot, cut into thin strips
- Kosher salt
For the Spinach:
- 3 ounces (90g) of curly spinach, approximately 3 loosely packed cups
- 1 small clove of garlic, minced
- 1/2 teaspoon of toasted sesame oil
- 1/2 teaspoon of ground roasted sesame seeds
For the Noodles:
- 5 1/4 ounces (150g) of dangmyeon (Korean sweet potato glass noodles; see notes)
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) of yangjo ganjang (Korean wheat-based soy sauce; see notes)
- 1 teaspoon of brown or granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons of ground roasted sesame seeds
- For drizzling, use toasted sesame oil
For the Mushrooms and Pork: In a medium bowl, soak wood ear mushrooms in enough cold water to cover them and let stand until fully soft and plump, about 1 hour. Drain, then rip wood ear mushrooms into smaller pieces.
In a small bowl, combine wood ear mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms, pork, soy sauce, garlic, sugar, soju, ginger, and a few grinds of black pepper. Mix well and let it marinate for 20 minutes.
Marinate the pork and mushrooms for japchae by adding soy sauce in a mixing bowl. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the pork and mushrooms, stirring until the pork is cooked and the mushrooms start to lightly brown. Transfer to a plate..
Meanwhile, for the Jidan (Egg Garnish): Separate egg yolks and whites, passing each part separately through a clean fine-mesh strainer into its own small bowl. (You can use the same strainer for whites and yolks, but wash it between uses.) Very gently mix the contents of each bowl until combined, but avoid beating, as you don’t want to add air.
straining egg whites and yolks separately Heat a mint-condition 8-inch nonstick skillet over medium-low heat. Using an oiled paper towel, lightly wipe oil all over the surface of the skillet. Scrape yolk into skillet, spreading it around to form a thin, even round. Gently cook until yolk is mostly done, about 1 minute, making sure to control the heat so that the yolk cooks without browning on the bottom.
Using a flexible rubber spatula, gently lift yolk round and slide a chopstick underneath until you can pick the round up. Lay yolk round down on its other side and continue cooking until fully done but not browned, about 30 seconds. Transfer yolk round to a work surface to cool.
Wipe out skillet, then repeat procedure with egg whites, lightly oiling the pan first with the towel, then making a round of egg whites, being careful to avoid browning.
When the yolk and egg-white rounds have cooled, carefully cut into thin strips using a very sharp knife. Set aside.
After slicing the egg garnish for japchae into thin strips, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the onion and carrot, season with salt, and cook while stirring frequently until they are just soft, which should take about 4 minutes. Transfer the vegetables to a plate.
After sautéing the carrot and onion for japchae, cook the spinach in a large pot of salted boiling water until it is soft, which should take about 1 minute. Use a spider or wire strainer to remove the spinach from the water, allowing any excess water to drain off, and transfer it to a bowl. Keep the boiling water for cooking the noodles. Squeeze out any remaining water from the spinach and toss it with minced garlic, sesame oil, and ground sesame seeds until evenly coated. Set aside.
After blanching the spinach for japchae, add the noodles to boiling water and cook until they are soft but still chewy, which should take about 6 minutes depending on the brand of noodles you use. Drain the noodles in a colander and rinse them with cold running water until they are well drained.
Transfer the noodles to a large serving or mixing bowl. If the noodle strands are very long, use kitchen shears to snip them a few times and shorten them to a more manageable length. Be careful not to cut them too short.
After cutting the cooked dangmyeon noodles, mix the soy sauce and sugar together in a small bowl. Add this mixture to the noodles and toss well to coat. Add the pork and mushrooms, carrot and onion, and slivered eggs. Sprinkle with ground sesame seeds and drizzle with sesame oil. Gently toss all the elements until they are thoroughly mixed. Sample and modify the seasoning if required.
Seasoning the cooked noodles with soy sauce and sugar in a large mixing bowl and adding the other ingredients to japchae Add spinach and toss once more to combine. Japchae can be served either warm or at room temperature.