My Chuseok Celebration Wouldn't Be Complete Without Japchae
When I was a kid, on every Chuseok—a fall festival celebrated in Korea that's also known as Hangawi—I'd find my mother sitting in front of a giant plastic tub in the kitchen. She'd call me over, but I would already be headed that way. I knew she was making japchae. She'd extend her hand my way with the first taste of japchae for the holiday. Her fingers would be glistening, the noodles glistening, dotted with sesame seeds and colorful vegetables. The whole kitchen was heady with the aroma of sesame oil. Then she'd ask me, then just a child, what I thought of the seasoning—did I need more soy sauce or sesame seeds? With that first bite of japchae, I knew the holiday feasts were starting. For hours after that, I'd hang around my aunts and mom in the kitchen, taking a morsel of food here and there.
Chuseok is the celebration of the harvest moon and falls right in the middle of the autumn harvest. Neighbors share food with each other, families sit around and make trays of songpyun (steamed rice cakes stuffed with sweet sesame mix or savory beans), women and kids hold hands in a circle, singing and dancing under the big harvest moon, and men watch ssireum (Korean folk wrestling) on TV. Families also visit their ancestors in their burial ground, bringing food and alcohol. The whole extended family on my mother's side would go pull weeds and cut grass where my great-grandparents and great-uncles were buried. It was on rolling hills off winding paths, so my uncles used sickles to cut the grass. We did not have lawn mowers anyway.
Visiting the ancestral burial ground was my favorite, precisely because of the lunch break that always turned into a big picnic. Each married woman in the family brought stacks of doshirak happan, sort of layered to-go boxes of homemade food. My mother had a stack of five boxes. As she opened each layer, all of my favorite Chuseok holiday food would be revealed. The usual suspects were jeon (savory egg-battered vegetables or pancakes), nubiani steak (soy-marinated beefsteak typical of Gyeunggi-do Province) and a colorful layer of namul, which are seasoned seasonal vegetables. Plus the obligatory layer of rice. And japchae, of course! I'd eat ours first, then taste this auntie's and that auntie's food, secretly agreeing with my mother's pride that she was indeed the best cook in the family.
Properly made japchae requires many ingredients and a lot of care. The vegetables are chosen carefully with color and balance in mind. They are chopped by hand in uniform thickness, then seasoned and sautéed separately. They are set aside and cooled separately. The noodles are cooked, cooled quickly under running water and used right away, for they tend to clump together into a big lumpy mess as they sit. Everything comes together in that giant plastic tub with my mother mixing all the ingredients together, with what Koreans call sohn mat or flavor of hand. It's the idea that you may be making the same dish using the exact same recipe, but for some reason when your mother or grandmother makes it, it is so much better. It's the technique of their hands, a twist of a wrist with so much experience and love. It's the final secret, unique ingredient.
This dish shows up in the records of palace life from the Joseon Dynasty in the 17th century, in the story of a high-ranking minister named Lee Chung. The story is that Chung won the favor of King Gwanghaegun with his japchae. Even Chung's nickname was Japchae Minister. (I find this little historical tidbit hilarious, would the modern American equivalent be Senator Spaghetti or Vice President Mac and Cheese? What if all politicians were lobbied with homemade food? Would politics be much more wholesome?) Anyway, Japchae Minister's secret was that he created one of the first hothouses for growing vegetables out of season, so he was able to make japchae even in the winter, not just in the fall harvest season.
Nowadays, in most major Korean cities, you can find ready-made japchae in containers in the salad and banchan section of Korean grocery stores. Sometimes you'll see it at restaurants as part of an array of banchan (side dishes served with Korean meals). Because it requires a lot of prep and care, my mother only made japchae on major holidays, namely Chuseok and New Year's Day. So when I first encountered japchae out in the wild like that, it baffled me. It tastes like a quick stir-fry with all the vegetables and noodles cooked together, all the flavors blended in, and often not enough vegetables for my liking. Definitely not the japchae my mother would approve of.
My mother never really wanted to teach me how to cook, deducing that I'd end up laboring away in the kitchen when I grew up and became a married woman with my own children to feed. But she'd give me first tastes of things, ask for my opinion and take my feedback seriously. This trust and practice of tasting food seriously played a big role when I was developing as a cook. My life did not turn out the way she expected it to be, as I do labor away in a kitchen but not a home kitchen. And even in Michigan, away from my extended family, I make a small celebration of Chuseok—a couple of types of jeon, nubiani and always japchae. When I make my version of japchae noodles, while I add my own touches to it, I still think about all the care my mother and my ancestors put into this dish and make it like they would. All the vegetables are cut, seasoned and cooked separately, with attention to color and texture. Just like my mother, I prefer my japchae noodles just dressed after being cooked, rather than stir-fried in oil. When I taste it, I just hope that my sohn mat, flavor of hand, is as good as hers, and that I'll please my guests as much as Japchae Minister Lee Chung pleased his king.