Not watermelon, sorry.

by Ben on March 24, 2011 · 57 comments

in American, Index, Korean, Noodles

Dad, do you know what we haven’t had in a really long time? Watermelon.

I feebly explain to my daughter that we only have watermelon in the summertime. A challenging story to sell when grocery stores here insist upon displaying those insipid “personal watermelons” year-round. Sadly, Esme will wait roughly one sixth of her life to eat it again.

You mean when I’m ten? Yes, Esme, you may certainly eat watermelon when you’re ten. Maybe even before that. Poor kid. As the parent responsible for the Korean half of her hapa, I definitely feel her pain.

Esme hails from a long line of watermelon-eating individuals. I’ll always associate watermelon with the church picnic. In particular, Korean church picnics in The Greater Los Angeles Area—though I’ve come to learn, from our stint in the midwest, that many properties of the Korean church picnic are highly conserved across states:

  1. Lots and lots of subak (watermelon).
  2. Bad volleyball.
  3. Other competitive games in which the “prizes” consist of bulk packaged sundry items (toothpaste, soap, gift-packaged socks with Playboy Bunny logos on them…).
  4. The Holy Trinity of picnic foods: kimbap, kalbi, and japchae.

It recently occurred to me that, of those foods, I had never before made my own japchae. I felt that I owed it to myself to give it a shot, and that I owed it to my daughter to deliver, in the absence of watermelon, an equally salient element of my childhood summers.

I quickly learned that japchae is not a dish that one can just bang out in an hour. At least I can’t. A mixture of cellophane noodles, vegetables, and beef, this dish comprises multiple components that are individually seasoned and require different cooking times. So if you have the luxury of a lazy weekend day, that’s the time to take this on. It’s well worth it. And it makes sense to make a lot at once, as the flavors continue to develop over time.

* * * * *

Japchae (Korean cellophane noodles with vegetables and beef)
Adapted from my sister’s recipe.

6 dried or fresh shittake mushrooms
6 dried or fresh wood ear mushrooms
8 oz dry dangmyeon (sweet potato or mung bean) noodles
8 oz lean, choice beef, cut into strips about 2 inches long (freeze slightly before slicing)
3 T grapeseed or vegetable oil
1/2 T sesame oil
1/2 T soy sauce
black pepper
1 medium yellow onion, sliced
kosher salt
1 julienned carrot
8 oz frozen leaf spinach*, thawed and drained (or a comparable amount of sigumchi namul)
1/2 tsp chopped garlic
1 chopped scallion
1 T toasted sesame seeds
optional: 1/2 crisp Asian or Korean pear, julienned

The seasoning:
3 T soy sauce
2 T sugar
1 T honey
1 T rice wine or dry vermouth1 T sherry vinegar
1 T sesame oil
1 T ground, toasted sesame seeds
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 chopped scallion
1 tsp grated fresh ginger
1 1/2 tsp chopped garlic

*I used chopped spinach this time, since it’s what I had, but I was unhappy with how it seemed to disappear. Larger pieces of spinach do lend a relevant texture, flavor, and appearance to the dish.

If using dried mushrooms, rinse briefly and soak them in warm water for about 30 minutes or until soft. Soak the noodles in lukewarm water. (A 9″ x 13″ pan is convenient for this.)

While the mushrooms and noodles are rehydrating, mix ingredients for the seasoning. Add
4 T of seasoning to the sliced beef and knead to mix flavors. Stir-fry quickly over medium-high heat in a heated, nonstick pan. Remove meat from the pan as soon as it turns brown, transfer to a very large bowl, and set aside. As long as the liquids do not burn, there is generally no need to clean the pan between uses.

Once the noodles have lost their stiffness (about 30 minutes), drain and cut them into 5-inch long pieces. Stir-fry in 5 T of seasoning, 1 T grapeseed oil, and 1/4 C of water until the noodles are slightly underdone. Do not discard the remainder of the seasoning, as you will need it to finish the dish. Add cooked noodles to the large bowl, next to the cooked beef.

Squeeze excess water from the rehydrated mushrooms using paper (or cotton) towels. Remove stems from the shittake mushrooms and slice thinly. I love the shape and texture of wood ear mushrooms (also found in Asian markets as “black mushrooms,” or simply, “black fungus”), so I cut them rather coarsely into pieces roughly the size of a quarter.

Mix 1/2 T each of soy sauce and sesame oil with a dash of pepper, use it to coat the mushrooms, and stir-fry over medium heat until the shittakes are soft and golden brown. Remove and transfer to the large bowl.

Stir-fry sliced onion over medium heat in 1 T grapeseed oil with 1/2 tsp kosher salt until soft. Do not allow them to become overly brown. Remove and transfer to the large bowl.

Stir-fry carrot strips over medium heat in 1 T grapeseed oil with 1/2 tsp kosher salt until
al dente, adding a spoonful of water when necessary to prevent the carrot from drying out. Remove and transfer to the large bowl.

If using sigumchi namul, add directly to the large bowl. If using thawed or freshly blanched (and shocked) spinach, cut into 2-inch lengths. Sauté for a few minutes in about 1 T grapeseed oil with 1/2 tsp chopped garlic, a dash of black pepper, 1 tsp kosher salt, and a sprinkle of sugar. Remove, and add 1 chopped scallion and 1 T sesame seeds. Transfer to the large bowl.

Mix all vegetables with noodles and beef in the bowl with about 1 T of the seasoning. Adjust seasoning, if necessary.

Serve warmed or (more commonly) at room temperature, garnished with strips of fresh pear.

I know that some Asian cultures frown upon serving multiple starches simultaneously. Koreans, fortunately, are not afflicted with this condition. Serve the japchae as an entree or as a side—we’re pretty easy. But for God’s sake, serve it with steamed, white rice. Some people go so far as to serve it over rice (japchae-bap), but I’m generally not an “over rice” kind of guy.

I should note that this is not the most authentic recipe. Specifically, ginger and sherry vinegar are not typical components of the seasoning. They do, however, give this dish a brightness that I find refreshing. Garnishing with the Asian pear further lightens the dish.

* * * * *

So. Did Esme buy it? You’ll recall that my daughter is a small eater. I haven’t had the best record cooking for her lately, so I was pleased (and mildly shocked) that she ate this. It somewhat lessened the sting of not being able to give her watermelon.

Yes, honey.
Do you know what else we haven’t had in a really long time?
What’s that?

Share share

57 comments… read them below or add one

Julie @ Willow Bird Baking March 24, 2011 at 10:04 pm

Aw, poor little Esme! I’m looking forward to watermelons as well. In the meantime, what a lovely feast! Your Japchae is beautiful.


Ben March 24, 2011 at 11:23 pm

Thanks, Julie. And you are quick! 🙂


Andrea@WellnessNotes March 25, 2011 at 5:50 am

My toddler has been asking for watermelon, too. And, yes, it’s very hard to explain that they are not in season when we pass them every time we are in the grocery store…

I only made japchae once years ago, and I just did my own thing, so it wasn’t authentic at all. Making “real” japchae has been on my list for a long time. When I do, I’ll definitely consult this post!


Ben March 25, 2011 at 9:11 am

Sis’s version is an update for sure, but I think captures the spirit of the dish well. Thanks so much for visiting, Andrea!


cheryl March 25, 2011 at 8:25 am

I’ve never heard of japchae, but if it’s anywhere near as good as your photos make it seem, I’d happily give up watermelon this coming summer, next summer, and maybe the summer of 2013, too.

And I really, REALLY love watermelon.


Ben March 25, 2011 at 9:12 am

Does this mean I get to stay on your reject list?


cheryl March 25, 2011 at 4:04 pm

Talk to me after June 3rd.


Stephanie March 25, 2011 at 8:51 am

I love this! Poor little Esme! No watermelon, no peaches…I am feeling her pain. I think I will try to make japchae…


Ben March 25, 2011 at 9:14 am

I’m not kidding: Her next request was for cherries.


Jean March 25, 2011 at 11:20 am

Poor Esme! Summer can’t come soon enough so she can enjoy her favorite fruits!

I love that you mentioned serving multiple starches. Filipinos don’t frown upon that either. Lots of stews and soups are extended with potatoes and other root veggies and yes, all eaten with rice. The bowl of noodles looks beautiful–especially since I’ve given up rice temporarily.

Have a great weekend!


Ben March 25, 2011 at 5:06 pm

One of the many things I love about Filipino food! Hawaiian, too. Give me the starch! Sorry to hear about giving up the rice. Not sure if I could do it.


Rachel March 25, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Japchae is a food made with a crazy amount of love b/c it takes so darn long to make (even longer when you’re taking pretty photos). 🙂 Yours looks amazing. Does everything you make always turn out this beautiful?

And the Holy Trinity of picnic food is the Holy Trinity of birthday food in our family: except it’s Kalbi, Japchae, and Mi-yuk gook. We always look forward to birthdays here. 🙂


Ben March 25, 2011 at 5:07 pm

Oh, I LOOOOOVE Mi-yuk gook. It’s one of the many soups I haven’t covered yet on the blog. And yes, I see the world in f/2.2, tightly cropped, and brightly lit at all times. So the food is always gorgeous! :-p


Rachel March 26, 2011 at 2:06 pm

I just started taking photos recently so I’m still new to it (I hijacked my husband’s Nikon D80). Which camera do you use?


Ben March 26, 2011 at 2:30 pm

We shoot Nikon and have several cameras, including a D80. But I honestly don’t think it matters that much what camera body you use for this kind of photography. Your photos look great!


Peggy March 25, 2011 at 1:49 pm

Aww, too cute! She’ll get her watermelons soon enough!

This japchae looks great by the way!


Ben March 25, 2011 at 5:09 pm

Thanks, Peggy!


Lisa March 25, 2011 at 4:20 pm

Ya know those personal watermelons are quite good (= your japchae sounds delish and I love hearing conversations with little ones. So pure and sweet. And glad Sweet Esme ate the japchae. Go dad!


Ben March 25, 2011 at 5:10 pm

I broke down and bought one and it was basically all white on the inside. A sphere of rind! I’ve had better ones in season, but I’m still not crazy about the texture compared to the big ones.


Sarah March 25, 2011 at 7:37 pm

Looks wonderful! I have two very rainy weekend days to fill, so I just might give this a try. Lovely post.


Ben March 25, 2011 at 10:04 pm

Love it when people cook from the blog. Let me know how it turns out!


sweetbittertart March 25, 2011 at 8:13 pm

I think this is my favorite post of yours so far (and I love them all so it’s stiff competition and okay I say that every time, but still). Perhaps it’s because I’m no stranger to bad volleyball. : ) But you write with such a beautiful combination of nostalgia and in-the-moment-ness. And the photographs are amazing as always. Plus I just want to eat that dish rightthisminute. And if I could eat that dish and be awarded a sock-prize at the end, well, all the better.

p.s. If I had you guys as parents and japchae as dinner, watermelon could go jump in lake. Just saying. : )


Ben March 25, 2011 at 10:12 pm

Aww, thanks L!


Laura March 25, 2011 at 8:54 pm

I love japchae so I love the recipe, but even more I love the post. I have had that EXACT argument/discussion countless times with my daughters. The worst was at the Indian buffet where it was out and free. I let them each have one slice each, muttering about scary winter watermelon the whole time. The other patrons stared at me like I was crazy.


Ben March 25, 2011 at 10:18 pm

I remember reading an article about melons in Saveur about a year ago. I learned that there is something called a “shipping and storage” melon that is used for precisely such buffets. It’s so sad. Esme actually likes the rinds, so these overly green melons aren’t so bad to her (yet). But she can’t eat the whole thing, and I’m certainly not going to eat the rest. She’s much pickier about strawberries. Only likes them in the height of the two seasons we get here.


Lisa { AuthenticSuburbanGourmet } March 26, 2011 at 1:35 pm

This looks and sounds so delicious! Especially with the rainy weather we have been having in the Bay Area. On my list to make. Enjoy your weekend.


Ben March 26, 2011 at 2:31 pm

Thanks, Lisa. The worst part about the weather is not being able to let my daughter go off-leash! 🙂 Have a great weekend.


Barbara | VinoLuciStyle March 26, 2011 at 7:48 pm

Doggone it Dad…now I want watermelon too! Please do not complain about the rain. We are having wildfires 3 months early because everyone else is stealing our rain!


Ben March 26, 2011 at 10:47 pm

We are not known, in the Bay Area, for being particularly tough when it comes to weather.


J3nn (Jenn's Menu and Lifestyle Blog) March 27, 2011 at 8:21 am

That looks fabulous! I wish I could find cellophane noodles. They seem to elude me! 🙂


Ben March 27, 2011 at 9:32 am

Thanks! Upstate, eh? I know there is a Korean grocery in Albany, if you ever go there. Also, here’s one on Amazon:


Ben March 28, 2011 at 10:50 am

Actually, here’s a better link ($3 instead of $10):
Amy @ recommends H Mart, generally.


Lori Lynn March 27, 2011 at 2:06 pm

She sounds like such a doll.
I’m excited to see your japchae recipe. We are recent huge fans of everything hansik.
I’m posting a non-traditional japchae recipe this week too.


Ben March 28, 2011 at 10:51 am

Great, will keep an eye out!


cindy March 28, 2011 at 11:54 am

i’m like your daughter…i long for summer fruits all year (california peaches!), but it just isn’t the same out of season. tough lesson to learn. my mom is korean and she spent half of her childhood on a watermelon farm outside of seoul. we are definitely watermelon loving koreans. the japchae looks great…i have yet to try to make it myself 🙂


Ben March 28, 2011 at 1:01 pm

The stonefruit are my favorite. It’s such a sad period after peach season and before the citrus really starts to get good. But living in CA, it’s hard to complain. Thank you for visiting the site!


Sasha (Global Table Adventure) March 29, 2011 at 11:38 am

I cannot wait for watermelon season to begin. Or peaches. The peaches here, in Oklahoma, are wonderful.


Ben March 29, 2011 at 12:01 pm

I’ve only been to Oklahoma in the winter, but I bet you’re right.

The best stone fruit I’ve had anywhere are from Kashiwase Farms in Winton, CA. Selling season begins in May for the Earli Snow white peaches. Can’t come soon enough!


Jackie April 4, 2011 at 5:42 am

Did you know, japchae is literally my favourite. My FAVOURITE. Whenever we go for Korean I always make sure to order it and then I practically finish the whole thing myself, shielding the plate from everybody else’s chopsticks, simultaneously hitting their hands with mine if they try to take my beloved noodles away from me. I just love the stickiness and the crunch – I don’t need a man, I just need some japchae.

Great post Ben, sorry it’s taken me a while to swing by! I’m rubbish.

Jax x


Ben April 4, 2011 at 10:04 am

I can only imagine what you’ve been doing this whole time. Eating cheetos and watching telly, no doubt. Sigh.


Christine April 4, 2011 at 4:47 pm

What does Esme normally eat? My son was a small eater too, but when he turned 3 (last year), he started to eat like a beast…. I love japchae, never made it myself but I have all the ingredients, might make it this weekend! And come on, with wood ear fungus, no wonder she eats it!


Ben April 4, 2011 at 5:02 pm

She’ll reliably eat yogurt, fruit, anything sweet. Beyond that, it’s just a crapshoot.


sippitysup April 7, 2011 at 4:38 pm

I am not really a watermelon fan. So I guess you can feed me til summer. GREG


Ben April 7, 2011 at 6:51 pm

It’s because I know that you’re a good eater that I would agree.


Kate April 9, 2011 at 11:00 am

Yum, looks delicious. Beautiful photos and a lovely story. Can’t wait to try the recipe.


Ben April 9, 2011 at 2:46 pm

Thanks for stopping by, Kate! Please let us know how it turns out.


Amelia from Z Tasty Life May 2, 2011 at 5:40 am

You are a good dad…a very good dad. You are giving Esme the gift of patience, the gift of longing and discovering what the seasonal taste and smell of a fruit of vegetable really is. I let my kids wait and long for the fruit and eat it only when in season. I am upset that groceries carries strawberries all year round. So unsustainable to fly them in from wherever they grow them. And so boring to see them always there. I remember as a child the excitment and awaiting for the new strawberries in May or red, plump cherries in June. It was a gift.


Ben May 2, 2011 at 10:21 am

You leave the nicest comments. We actually tried offering Esme strawberries about 2 weeks early. They looked gorgeous at the farmer’s market. “Dad, these are not good.”


Ling May 16, 2011 at 6:51 pm

Excellent story telling skills. Your daughter is absolutely precious. I love cooking and eating Korean food, and jap chae is always a staple when I order out. I will have to try making this at home! (along with some sul lang tang…mhhmhm yum)


Eva Wong May 22, 2011 at 9:02 am

Esme is too cute! My younger daughter who is a summer baby absolutely loves summer fruits. However, she is not keen on watermelon which her Italian grandmother doesn’t get since all children in Italy eat watermelon in high summer….we will be giving her some watermelon again this summer just to get her used to idea that it’s a great fruit – it quenches your thirst, washes your face and fills your stomach all at once! 🙂

I love JapChae….yours looks absolutely divine. I will making some at home soon….Need to stop off at K-mart near the Opéra where all things Korean can be found in Paris before attempting this yummy Korean dish. 🙂


brandi@BranAppetit May 24, 2011 at 8:16 am

your pictures are gorgeous! It was so great to meet you in Atlanta!


Deb of knitstamatic May 25, 2011 at 11:20 am

Japchae is one of my favorite foods. I often ate it for lunch when I was in college. I worked in a neighborhood in Queens with a very high Korean population. I don’t think I’ve had it since I left. But now I can mae it at home! Thanks for sharing. This brings back fond memories.:-)


JiSeon September 5, 2011 at 10:38 am

I just found your blog and this post took me back to our East Bay church picnics, usually at Paradise Park or Tilden where the loot consisted of tubes of Crest, Colgate, maybe some bars of Dial! Watermelon and Japchae were also my favorites growing up. Your daughter has good taste. I’m looking forward to following your blog.


Ben September 7, 2011 at 10:59 pm

Thanks for stopping by, JiSeon. There is more nostalgia and Korean food to come!


Emma October 20, 2011 at 11:33 pm

Oh wow. This looks so good. I am definately going to make it next week. Thanks!


Soo December 29, 2011 at 8:02 pm

Hi Ben,
Thanks for posting this recipe. I never really saw how my mom made japchae so I had to search the Internet to learn how to make it. I appreciate how you updated the dish from the traditional but still maintained the integrity of the dish where it counts. Question about the dakmyun noodles… I noticed that dakmyun is prepared two different ways, soaked in warm water or boiled. What is the difference? Is one method better than another for the texture?


Ben December 30, 2011 at 10:19 pm

Hi Soo,
You can boil the noodles for a few minutes and then shock them with cold water. Just make sure the noodles are underdone. The reason I soak them is that the technique is more convenient for my workflow. Since everything happens more slowly, I don’t have to time things to boil noodles at a particular time, worry about overcooking them, and then clean a stock pot and a colander. It also uses less water to soak. But yeah, the texture should be the same, as long as you don’t overcook.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: