Japchae is a sweet and savory stir-fried noodle dish that you can make with as many or as few vegetables as you like. (The word “jap” in Korean means to gather and mix many ingredients; “chae” means vegetables.) Served at special occasions, such as weddings, birthdays and holidays, as well as for everyday meals, the dish is generally prepared in large quantities and is meant to be shared. This recipe takes no shortcuts and calls for each component to be cooked and seasoned individually so the flavors are cleaner and more distinct in the finished japchae. With a little bit of planning, though, most of the prep can be done a day ahead (see Cook’s Note).
For the beef: Cut the beef against the grain into slices about 1/4-inch thick and 2 inches long. Place in a medium bowl with the soy sauce, garlic, sesame oil, sugar and a few turns of freshly ground pepper. Mix until the meat is completely coated and set aside.
For the onions: Heat the vegetable oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring constantly, until just tender with a little bite, 4 to 5 minutes. Season with salt and set aside; reserve the skillet.
For the bell peppers: Wipe the skillet clean, add the vegetable oil and heat over medium-high heat. Add the peppers and cook, stirring constantly, until just tender and beginning to brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Season with salt and set aside; reserve the skillet.
For the carrots: Wipe the skillet clean, add the vegetable oil and heat over medium-high heat. Add the carrots and cook, stirring constantly, until just tender, but not brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Season with salt and set aside; reserve the skillet.
For the eggs: Whisk together the eggs and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a small bowl until incorporated. Wipe the skillet clean. Add the vegetable oil and heat over medium-high heat. Pour in the eggs and and swirl the pan until the mixture covers the entire surface area. Cook until the eggs are set on the bottom, about 1 minute. Flip carefully to keep the egg crepe in one piece and cook 1 minute more. Slide onto a plate or cutting board to cool, then cut the crepe into 4 equal strips horizontally. Layer all the strips together and cut into 1/4-inch strips, then set aside; reserve the skillet.
For the mushrooms: Wipe the skillet clean, add the vegetable oil and heat over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms and cook until browned, 6 to 7 minutes, stirring halfway through. Transfer the mushrooms to a medium bowl. Add the soy sauce, garlic and sesame oil, mix well and set aside; reserve the skillet.
For the spinach: Bring a large pot of water to boil over medium-high heat and prepare an ice water bath. Add the spinach to the boiling water and blanch until it turns bright green, about 30 seconds. Remove the spinach with tongs or hand-held strainer and transfer to the ice bath immediately; reserve the pot and water. Once the spinach is completely cooled, remove it and squeeze dry. Cut the spinach into 1 1/2- to 2-inch pieces. Transfer to a medium bowl, add the sesame oil, garlic and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Mix well and set aside.
For the japchae: Bring the pot of water back to the boil. Add the noodles and cook, stirring constantly to ensure the noodles don’t stick on bottom of the pot, until noodles become mostly clear but are still opaque in the center and bend over the handle of a large wooden spoon, 3 to 4 minutes. (At this point, the noodles aren’t cooked through all the way.)
Drain in a strainer and rinse under cold running water, rubbing the noodles between your fingers and gently massaging them in the water. Drain and then rinse again, repeating 2 more times to remove any excess starch. Set aside in the strainer and allow to drain well.
Wipe the skillet clean. Add the 1 teaspoon vegetable oil and heat over medium-high heat. Add the marinated beef and cook, stirring often, until browned (being careful not to burn the garlic), 5 to 6 minutes. Set aside; reserve the skillet.
Wipe the skillet clean. Add the 1 tablespoon vegetable oil and heat over medium-high heat. Add the drained noodles and cook, stirring and mixing constantly with tongs, until there is a slight cooked smell of starch, the noodles are completely coated in oil and any moisture is cooked off, 6 to 7 minutes. (You’ll hear a lot of sizzling sounds starting around the 2 minute mark; that’s fine.)
Add the soy sauce, reduce the heat to low, and loosen the noodles back up again for 1 to 2 minutes; they will turn golden brown from the soy sauce. Once all the soy sauce has absorbed, transfer the noodles to a large mixing bowl. Immediately add the sesame oil, sugar and rice syrup and toss until incorporated and the sugar has melted.
Add the cooked onions, peppers, carrots, mushrooms, spinach and beef and toss until thoroughly mixed. Add the eggs and gently toss again (try to avoid breaking the strips). Transfer the japchae to a large serving bowl and sprinkle with the sesame seeds. Serve warm, at room temperature or cold (see Cook’s Note).
You can prep and cook all the vegetables and the eggs up to a day in advance. Store separately in tightly sealed containers in the refrigerator. Before using, heat in a nonstick skillet with no oil or in the microwave. Rewarm leftover japchae, if you like, in a nonstick skillet with a small amount of vegetable oil.
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