Japchae: Easy, use what you've got Korean glass noodles

By Charleen - August 05, 2023

There are some comfort foods that are so easy and adaptable that you find yourself making them over and over again, each time a little differently. Korean Japchae, with its chewy-slippery, bronzed sweet potato noodles has become one of my favorite, quick dinners. It joins the ranks of a handful of adaptable recipes that allow me to reinvigorate leftover odds and ends into satisfying, highly enjoyed dishes. And Japchae is great served either hot or at room temperature, making it perfect for potlucks and picnics.

Japchae with fried tofu strips, carrots, red onion, cremini mushrooms, orange bell pepper, spinach, sesame seeds, garlic, scallions

Japchae with zucchini and carrot sticks, wok-roasted eggplant, fresh purple, thai and sweet basil

I fell in love with Japchae after I tried making the vegetarian version in Caroline Phelps' Pickled Plum blog. I had bought these sweet potato noodles because they are packed in convenient bundles that you can grab out of a larger 1.5 pound bag, and I was thinking of trying to recreate the whimsically named Chinese dish, Ants Ascending Tree, which consists of ground pork in a spicy sauce and translucent glass or cellophane noodles. I had some gluten-sensitive friends, and was looking for a noodle dish to serve. When I got home, I discovered that the Chinese noodle is made from mung bean starch rather than sweet potato starch. 

Two brands of sweet potato noodles, and how the bundle looks in its dry and cooked forms. Be sure the package you buy has more than one bundle inside - they use the same size bag for one 8 oz bundle as they do for 3 bundles.  And you will want to make this more than once. 

The recipe in the Pickled Plum was compatible with vegetables I happened to have on hand - onion, some Cremini mushrooms that were starting to dry out in the paper bag in the fridge, bell pepper, a bit of carrot, and some cooked spinach. 

To make it a more complete meal, I sliced half of a block of extra firm tofu into bars, and quickly fried them in my wok. 

The Nature's Soy Extra Firm Tofu  has the best texture, with Trader Joe's Organic Super Firm Tofu, coming in second (but more expensive). Neither require pressing before frying or pan-frying. Simply cut up and roll in a clean dish towel to remove excess water.

Meanwhile, I boiled the noodles in a 5.5 quart pot for 5 min, drained them and tossed them back into the pot with 2 tsp of sesame oil mixed in. 

After frying the tofu, I drained the excess oil out of the wok, and began to cook the onions and garlic.

This was followed by the rehydrated, chopped mushrooms, carrot and bell pepper. 

After the veggies were tender, I added the reserved, cooked noodles to the pan, and poured the sauce over the top. Once the sauce was mixed into the noodles, I added the cooked spinach and tofu, and served the dish garnished with sesame seeds and fresh scallions (See top photo above). 

Our whole family loved this dish so much that I found myself making it again two weeks later. This time I used fresh spinach.

Japchae with red onion, green and yellow bell peppers, carrots, spinach, cilantro, scallions

Variations, each delicious.

Indeed the sauce and noodle combination is so delicious and versatile, I quickly adapted this recipe to use up whatever vegetables or meats/proteins I had.  

Japchae with a tiny bit of carrots, baby bok choy, a few stalks of garden fresh swiss chard and a few stalks of dandelion greens, five spice flavored extra firm tofu, deep fried onion, herbs

It is great for a quick meal and fits in with the no-food-waste ethos.  While it is certainly tasty with steak cut into planks or strips, it is equally delicious prepared with pan-fried tofu, mushroom or leftover sliced turkey. 
Japchae with eggplant sticks, carrots, Shanghai bok choy tips, sliced deli turkey, fresh Shiitakes

Indeed using deli turkey or precooked char siu pork cuts the preparation time down even further! In this version, I had broccoli, a small amount of red bell pepper and cilantro. I thawed 8 oz of frozen char siu Chinese barbecue pork to add to the mix. 

I have found that broccoli does best added to the pan early. After tossing for a few minutes, I add a splash of water and cover to steam the broccoli to my desired texture (just taste a piece as you go). 
Boiling off the 1-2 Tbs water used to steam the broccoli and peppers in a covered wok

Japchae with char siu pork, broccoli, red peppers, onions, mushrooms, scallions, garlic

More recently, I had some Chinese eggplant that needed to be used.  I cut it into bars with lovely purple skin on one side, discarding any soft areas, and slow roasted the eggplant in my wok in the same manner that I use to make basil eggplant.  I tossed in some white wine and soy sauce to evaporate on the hot pan, leaving lusciously flavored eggplant sticks.  This may be one of my favorite veggies in Japchae!

A bit later, I realized that my zucchini, eggplant and carrot were starting to soften and wilt in the refrigerator. I cooked up each ingredient separately, and stored them in containers.

A few days later, they formed the starting point for my fastest version of Japchae ever, along with some exceptionally fresh radish greens from a friend's garden.  

All I had to do was boil the noodles, and prepare my Szechuan-spiced master meat mix using ground chicken. I used about 1/3 of the master meat mix to top the Japchae, with the remainder available for green beans, eggplant or other dishes. 
Ingredients to add to a pound of ground chicken for Szechuan-style Master Meat Mix

Szechuan-style Master Meat Mix

Then it was a matter of heating all of the ingredients in the wok.

Reheating precooked veggies

Adding noodles sauce and fresh radish greens

Adding pre-cooked ground chicken spiced with Szechuan spices (Master Meat Mix)

To summarize, the basic steps to make Japchae are:  1) Cook the noodles, 2) Mix up the sauce, 3) Prep protein and vegetable mix-ins into bite-size pieces, 4) Cook or reheat all the mix-in ingredients in a large pan, 5) Add noodles, sauce and toss to mix well, 6) Garnish and serve. 

For me, Japchae has joined the ranks of dishes that are riffed into endless variations to use up small amounts of ingredients or leftovers. These include fried rice, quesadillas and lo mein. The resulting meals breathe new life into ingredient odds and ends, and are eagerly sought and finished by my family.  

Love2Chow Use What You've Got Japchae 

One bundle (~200-225 g) dried sweet potato noodles
2 tsp sesame or neutral oil

3 Tbs soy sauce
1 Tbs dark soy sauce
1 Tbs sesame oil
2 tsp sugar

Try to have
2 cloves garlic, sliced or minced
2-3 stalks scallions, coarsely chopped (garnish to add at end)
1/2-1 onion, sliced thinly into half-moons
1 Tbs sesame seeds (garnish to add at end)

Suggested Mix-ins (pick 3-4)
• 1 Chinese eggplant, cut into thirds lengthwise, with each segment cut vertically into 9 or more bars
• 1/2 lb extra firm tofu, cut into strips and pan-fried
• 4 oz raw ribeye steak, sliced against the grain into planks, marinated in 1 Tbs soy sauce, 1 tsp rice wine, 1/2 tsp minced garlic, 1/4 tsp black pepper, 1 tsp sesame oil, then mix in 1/2 tsp cornstarch
• 1/2 carrot, cut into sticks or shredded into long strips using a Kiwi took (do not grate as they get lost)
• 3-6 mushrooms, sliced
• 1/2 bell pepper, any color, sliced into strips
• 3 oz sliced deli turkey, cut into strips
•1 small zucchini, cut into bars
• 1-2 cups fresh greens (spinach, chinese broccoli, baby bok choy, mustard/turnip greens, chijimisai)

1. In a 5-6 quart saucepan, bring water to a boil. Add noodles, bending them into the water. Cook for 5 min, or according to package directions. Pull out a strand and taste for doneness. Drain, return to pot and toss with 2 tsp of oil. Using kitchen scissors, cut noodles into manageable lengths. 

Mix sauce ingredients in a small bowl.

2. If using ingredients that need to be cooked, heat 1 Tbs oil in a wok or skillet...
    a.  roast eggplant, tossing periodically and splashing in a bit of rice or white wine and a bit of soy sauce until softened and browned in places. Set aside. 
    b. pan-fry tofu until lightly browned on most sides. Set aside.
    c. sear ribeye until browned but not fully cooked. Set aside. 

3. Heat more oil and add garlic, cook for about 30 s, add onion and raw veggies, roughly in the order listed. Cook for 2-4 minute until tender.  Toss in precooked ingredients to warm before adding greens to wilt. 

4. Add noodles, and pour sauce over. Toss everything together until mixed and hot. I use chopsticks in one hand and a spatula in the other to toss like a salad, lifting noodles and mix-ins from the bottom.  Remove from heat and garnish with scallions and sesame seeds. 

Click here for printable recipe. 

Japchae with Szechuan-spiced ground chicken, radishes and greens, carrots, eggplant, zucchini, basil

Love2Chow tips

🐾 Try to pick one protein (tofu, beef, poultry) and different colored vegetables. Or use mushrooms and add sesame seeds or cashews for protein. 

🍃 This is a no-food waste tip for vegetables that might be sitting a bit long in the refrigerator, whether it's purple eggplant developing some softer spots, or carrots or mushrooms that are drying out. Wash and cut into small bars or sticks, then toss them into a wok or skillet over medium, medium-low heat and cook with a splash of white wine and soy sauce, or a sprinkle of salt and Penzey's smoked Spanish paprika until you like the texture and taste. This will halt the enzymes causing the veggies to soften, and you have another week to use the veggies, tossed into japchae or any other "use what you've got" dishes. 


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