Way back when I lived in Berkeley, I frequented an inexpensive Korean restaurant on Telegraph St. called Berkel Berkel, which sounds like the Korean onomatopoeia for boiling water (i.e., bubble bubble). Every menu item arrived accompanied by complimentary banchan (tiny sides like kimchi, namul, and bokkeum) and refreshing iced barley tea. For vegetarians the menu offered few options. Nevertheless the two vegetarian entrees often drew me back, zombie-like. One dish was bibimbap; I plan to attempt it... later. The other, japchae, is probably the mildest dish Korea ever invented.
The joy of japchae comes from the chewy, slithery texture of the sweet potato noodles (dang-myeon), also called glass noodles. They don't have any flavor so you'll need the right sauce. Stir-fry these noodles with colorful vegetables and thick, chewy slabs of tofu then sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve steaming hot.
I used a recipe posted by Nick Kindelsperger of Serious Eats, switching out the beef for sautéed tofu. Our spinach spoiled so I omitted it. The texture was great, but Kindelsperger's simple sauce of sesame oil, soy sauce and brown sugar didn't flavor the dish enough. Also, the stir-fry swam with grease; that's my fault because I forgot to measure the canola oil.
I judge this recipe a good start toward developing a satisfying japchae dish but it needs sexing up. Ginger and rice wine vinegar show up in other japchae recipes, but Kindelsperger's flavoring actually seems kind of standard—a recipe from a Korean restaurant in the New York times practically replicated it. George and I agree that the japchae at Berkel Berkel was much better than the one I just made, so we'll just have to fool around a bit on our own. I think one thing Berkel Berkel did differently was to serve this with rice which seems counter intuitive, but just pretend it's a stir-fry with rice and you'll see why it makes sense.
Updates later, suggestions welcome!
(I'm thinking of trying Ellie Won's recipe next)
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