If you have ever been to a Korean restaurant, chances are you probably have had chopchae/japchae(잡채), either as a menu item or as a side dish. And if side dish was the only way you had it – then I’m afraid you probably had a very poorly made chopchae. It sometimes makes me mad when I see restaurants serve this most delicious noodle dish as a side dish that’s missing most of its ingredients (98% noodles and then maybe some little specks of vegetables once in a blue moon and no evidence of beef anywhere). Either that or it’s been reheated so many times that it has just morphed into something else.
There’s also a phrase that always comes to mind when I think about chopchae: the ‘Execute Mr. Chae’ dish… So here’s the story. My father was a diplomat and he had a very good friend who was the US Ambassador to Korea in the early 80s. We had dinner together at a Korean restaurant in DC one time, and the ambassador said that he loved chopchae and wanted to order it. And then he said “Do you know how I memorized the name of this dish? It’s the “execute” = “chop” Mr. Chae dish!” I thought it was a bit bizarre but also hilarious and very ingenious of him…and so this phrase has always stuck with me ever since.
The recipe I introduce here is the way my mom used to make at home for the holidays and big parties. I believe it’s the way many moms of the past generation used to make it — in the old days when mothers spent many hours if not days cooking for big families and guests. All the ingredients are sauteed separately and then mixed together at the end. Because this can be quite time-consuming, many recipes you see today may tell you to saute the ingredients altogether at the same time. This may be easier to make but it’s not the authentic way of making it. And in my opinion, it produces almost a different kind of dish-one that is more wet and with the vegetables that are kind of mushy. The authentic recipe below takes a bit of work and that’s probably why it’s known to be a janchi eumshik(잔치음식) = party food. But I think it’s well worth the effort. One simply could not have a true janchi (party) without chopchae.
Servings: 6 Prep Time: 30 min Cooking Time: 30 min Difficulty: Medium
- 4 T canola oil or vegetable oil
- 5-6 oz beef stew meat, cut into thin strips
- 1 large or 2 small carrot, julienned (approx 1 C)
- 1 onion, sliced thin
- 1 bunch spinach
- 10 oz Korean glass noodles/cellophane noodles (당면 Dangmyeon)
- about 2/3 of a 500 g/17 oz package
- 1 C fresh or 1/2 dried wood ear mushroom (목이버섯 mokibeoseot)
- substitution/addition – dried shitake or oyster mushrooms
- 2 1/2 tsp soy sauce
- 1 1/2 ~ 2 tsp sugar
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 1 tsp rice cooking wine
- 1/2 tsp garlic powder (or 1/4 tsp fresh chopped garlic)
Seasoning for the Dangmyeon (Glass Noodles) – for 8 C cooked
- 4 T soy sauce
- 2 T sugar
- 3 T sesame oil
1. Cut beef into thin strips, against the grain. If you want an easy way out, you can also use bulgogi meat cut into smaller pieces.
2. Mix the beef marinade in a bowl big enough to hold the beef. Add the beef, massage it with your hands and let it sit for a few minutes while you prepare the vegetables. I used garlic powder here because the garlic flavor doesn’t need to be very strong in this dish but you can certainly use fresh garlic if you prefer.
3. Boil 8-10 C of water in a pot and cook the dangmyeon according to package instructions(e.g.6 min) or until the noodles become clear and is soft all the way to the center of the noodle. More water is better than too little since the glass noodles soak quite a bit of water.
4. Once the noodles are cooked, rinse in cold water and drain. While noodles are still warm, season them with soy sauce, sugar and sesame oil. Cut the noodles with scissors a few times so they are easier to eat. Coating the noodles with oil will keep the noodles from sticking together.
5.Wash the spinach. Boil another pot of salted water (6 C or so + 1 tsp salt) and quickly blanch them. Do not cook the spinach more than 1 minute. Spinach should be still a bit chewy and not too mushy. Shock the cooked spinach in cold or ice water to stop the cooking process.
Drain the water and squeeze out any excess water from the spinach by squeezing them gently in your hand.
6.Season the blanched spinach with some salt (1 tsp) and sesame oil (1 tsp). Set aside.
7. If using dried mushrooms: soak them in some warm water for 10 min or so until they are fully hydrated.
8. Clean the fresh or rehydrated mushrooms by rubbing each mushroom under cold running water. Sometimes dirt/sand are buried in the mushroom (especially the part that’s a bit bumpy like a towel) so make sure all the dirt is washed off. You can also cut off the ends that has the dirt.
Cut mushrooms into 1/3 to 1/2 in wide strips. If using shitake mushrooms, slice them into 1/4 in thick slices. Set aside.
9. Julienne carrots and onions and set aside.
10. Saute each of the ingredients separately and let them cool. You can save yourself the trouble of washing more pans by using one frying pan and sauteing ingredients one by one in the following order: onions -> carrots -> mushrooms -> beef. Just wipe off any excess oil and crumbs with a paper towel after cooking each ingredient and you should be good to go!
10.1 Add 1 T oil in frying pan on medium heat. Add onions and sprinkle a pinch of salt. Saute until onions become transparent but not brown.
10.2 Add 1 T oil in frying pan on medium heat. Add carrots and a pinch of salt. Saute carrots until they are soft and tender.
10.3 Add 1 T oil in frying pan on medium heat. Add mushrooms and a pinch of salt. Saute for 3 mins or so and the mushrooms should be done.
10.4 Add 1/2 T oil in frying pan on medium-high heat. Saute the beef until they are fully cooked. If there are any extra juices in the pan, cook a little more until it’s evaporated.
11. Transfer each of the onions, carrots, mushrooms and beef to a plate and let them cool.
12. It’s time to put everything together! Add all the cooked vegetables and beef to the noodles and mix them altogether. Sprinkle some toasted sesame seeds. Taste some noodles with the vegetables and the beef. Adjust the seasoning with more soy sauce and sugar as needed. Unless you like things less salty and sweet, it will taste better if you add more soy sauce, (2 tsp ~ 1 T), sugar (2 tsp ~ 1 T) and a dash of sesame oil and black pepper as the final finishing touch.
That’s it! Enjoy it with some rice and other main dishes. Because chopchae is very mildly flavored, it goes well with a lot of things but it goes particularly well with other party dishes like kalbijjim, ddukguk and mandoo (dumplings). Because this is a lot of work, when we make it for ourselves, we usually have this as our main dish with some rice and maybe some soup or jjigae.
- What is Dangmyeon and what brand should I buy? Dangmyeon is a dried noodle made from 100% sweet potato so it’s a great gluten free food. It is quite chewy and is also low in calories (90 calories per 1 oz). I have not found a lot of difference between the brands so just buy a reputable brand and that should be fine.
- How to serve, store and reheat chopchae– Chopchae is mostly served at room temperature. It can be served warm too. Chopchae can be stored at cool room temperature for up to a day. But chopchae will spoil if left out longer than half a day in the summer. It can be stored in the fridge up to a few days. Best way to reheat is to heat in a non-stick frying pan over medium-low heat, stirring often.
- Variations – Pork or imitation crab meat can be used instead of beef. In addition, you can add sauteed green bell peppers (julienned), Chinese chives or even some green chili peppers. Eggs are also sometimes added on top as a garnish. If cooking all the ingredients separately is just too much work for you, you can choose to sautee all of the vegetables together and then the beef. And then mix with the noodles. You will just end up with a more soggy chopchae. Some people actually like it this way and this version works well when served on top of a bowl of rice which is called chap chae bap (잡채밥).