There is a Korean phrase that translates literally to “hand taste.” It is used to describe the special taste of food so delicious and comforting that someone must have made it with their loving hands, like a meal your mother would make for you.
One of my teachers at language school taught me that phrase at my first lunar new year celebration while she was teaching us how to fold dumplings. That day she also told me I was sure to have adorable babies because I made beautiful dumplings, and I like to think she was right. She used to mother me quite a bit and with every firm pat on the back or hot mug of barley tea to soothe my anxious stomach I could feel the love flowing from her hands.
One drizzly October morning she cried with me under the fluorescent lights in her office while her coffee brewed. I didn’t grow up with Korean food, but it is now my comfort food because of my wonderful teaching team, and especially her. Every time I make this dish, I think of her and the love she showed me that morning when she squeezed my hands in hers.
Japchae is a stir-fried Korean vegetable and noodle dish that is delectable hot, cold and everywhere in between, making it the queen of parties and potlucks. My version is also gluten free and vegan so it will be safe to eat even after a few hours on a picnic table.
I bought everything you need for this recipe at the Kenai Safeway.
3 packages Korean sweet potato starch noodles (find them in the international aisle near the rice noodles)
1 white onion
1 large carrot
5 stalks green onion
2 cups sliced shiitake mushrooms (sometimes you can find them fresh, but if not, you can find bags of dehydrated ones in the same aisle as the noodles. Just soak them in warm water for 30 minutes and squeeze the water out before using. Use two bags for this recipe.)
1 red bell pepper
1 bunch fresh spinach (not baby spinach unless you must)
2 teaspoons minced garlic
¼ cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon honey (I know it’s not technically vegan so use an equal amount of agave or sugar if you prefer.)
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ tablespoon sesame seeds
Salt to taste
Boil your noodles for 7 minutes or until soft and springy, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. Strain and put into a large mixing bowl. Drizzle 1 tablespoon sesame oil over the noodles and toss to coat so they don’t stick together.
Blanch the spinach in boiling water for 1 minute then cool under cold, running water. Squeeze the excess water out and toss into the oiled noodles.
Prep your vegetables by cutting them all into 2-inch-long, ¼-inch-thick strips, keeping everything separated.
Mix the soy sauce, garlic, honey, pepper, sesame seeds and remaining sesame oil together and set aside.
Saute the vegetables just until soft in a little vegetable oil, one ingredient at a time, in this order: onion, carrot, red bell pepper, mushrooms. Lightly salt each batch and make sure to wipe out the pan with a damp paper towel in between each ingredient. The order and the clean pan are important to keep all the colors and flavors bright.
Put all the ingredients into the large mixing bowl, drizzle the sauce over everything and get to mixing. It’s best to use your clean hands to do this so everything gets thoroughly mixed without being crushed. If you’re sharing with a group, I suggest wearing gloves.
Taste and season with extra salt and pepper if you wish.
This recipe makes enough to bring to a party so cut the recipe in half for a family serving.
Tressa Dale is a U.S. Navy veteran and culinary and pastry school graduate from Anchorage. She currently lives in Nikiski with her husband, 1-year-old son and two black cats.