Tracing The Rise of the Korean Japchae

Journey from Vegetable Dish to Noodles and Beef

A colorful dish, the japchae (or chapch’ae), is an ever-present classic in many Korean celebrations. One cannot miss its eye-catching appeal on the dinner table. The dish is not just noodles and vegetables, but an experience in a travesty of flavors and aromas so unique to Korean cooking.

Japchae means “mixture of vegetables,” and it describes the dish and its method of preparation. Generally, the term refers to vegetables (namul) stir-fried with meat. To prepare the dish, glass noodles made from sweet potato starch (dangmyeon) are stir-fried in sesame oil together with beef and thinly sliced veggies. Soy sauce and a touch of sugar season the dish. But the japchae we know now wasn’t like this when it first began.

In the 17th century, during the Joseon dynasty, the japchae didn’t have noodles or meat. It was invented by one of the king’s subjects for a royal celebration. Nonetheless, the king enjoyed it, but what ingredients were used weren’t mentioned. At the time, noodles or beef were not part of the Korean diet. But vegetables were. Vegetables were central to Korean cooking owing to the influence of Buddhism. Killing cattle for food was prohibited in accordance with Buddhist beliefs which were the beliefs of the dynasty preceding Joseon.

Buddhism also reflected the food tradition of Koreans which involves combining different vegetables in a single dish to balance tastes, textures, and colors. The five elements of East Asian cosmology features five colors – green, red, yellow, white and black. The japchae satisfies all the colors with Korean ingredients, with spinach, carrots, mushrooms, and egg and egg white.

Beef, which was rare in Korean cuisine and only consumed by the royals and aristocracy, became an added delicacy only much, much later, towards the 20th century. Today, beef is an integral part of the cuisine and very much Korean, especially grilled marinated beef. It is otherwise known now as Korean BBQ.

And where did the noodles come from? It was the Mongols who brought both noodles and beef to Korea. Noodles were of wheat and buckwheat at first, and later, when tubers came from Japan in the 1760s, noodles were made out of sweet potatoes. Noodles stayed to become a main ingredient for japchae, signifying long life.

Celebrating with Japchae at UW Seattle

We serve the famous japchae here in UW Seattle. Try out this delicacy with our own pork, noodles and veggies rendition.