What is japchae? I’ll tell you what it is. It’s one of the main reasons I will never lose any weight in Korea, that’s what it is.
I can eat japchae until it’s coming out of my ears and my stomach is screaming “Stop!! For the love of HUMANITY, stop!!!!”. Today at lunch time I groaned miserably and picked up another (erm… what would be the chopsticks equivalent of ‘forkful’?! Think of it, and insert here. I am too full of japchae to care.) from the bowl in the centre of the table. Sarky Teacher looked at me and shook her head, not so much at the fact that I was forcing myself to eat more (for this is normal behaviour in Korea), but more because I was moaning about it. Oh, shut up and eat, she mumbled impatiently in Korean, before realising nervously that I might understand that. (I did, as it happened. Choog-olay? I retorted grimly, placing the unnecessary japchae in my mouth and shutting up. Choog-olay? means “Wanna die?”, and we got it from a Korean comedy movie where the ‘sassy girl’ character used it in response to absolutely anything she didn’t approve of. It is a very useful phrase when dealing with Sarky Teacher!) Yes, japchae is the kind of food that has you eating more even while feeling so full that your groaning starts to get on your colleagues’ nerves.
It’s often served on special occasions in Korea, and I always make a beeline for it at wedding buffets. Our cooking lady also makes it fairly regularly, placing huge piles of it in bowls strewn across the table. It’s a cold noodle dish, something I couldn’t quite cope with the idea of when I first moved to Korea. Noodles aren’t supposed to be cold! I whimpered, chewing with a confused expression on my face and pushing the bowl away. Nowadays, I can honestly say that although I’ve tasted the dish served hot once, I didn’t enjoy it half as much.
The japchae noodles are called dangmyeon, and they’re more… hmm… transparent and sticky than the more spaghetti-like noodles I’ve had anywhere else. They’re stir-fried in sesame oil (which I only started using in my cooking when I came to Korea, and I have to say I’m a huge fan) with loads of spinach, some soy sauce, garlic, onions, carrots, and mushrooms, and served at room temperature with a sesame seed garnish. It’s a delicious dish, although it’s also the reason I now keep emergency dental floss in my desk drawer.
Japchae is one of the Korean banchan (side dishes) that I would happily eat as a main meal. It is comfort food. The type of food you could pile into a big bowl and binge on with your glass of wine or nice bottle of beer in front of Saturday night TV. At lunch time, however, it is served as an accompaniment to the main meal of rice and soup (it is always rice and soup), along with various other banchan like kimchi, pickled radish, black beans…
And so you see why I am bloated and uncomfortable yet again. In the olden days, pre-Korea, I used to eat a sandwich for lunch. Now I eat a meal larger than any meal I would’ve had at dinner time, and also have to teach 3 or 4 classes afterwards, too!
To think I thought I was going to starve when I first got here…