Saturday, April 15, 2017

Recipe of the Month: Jap Chae

Jewish holidays just aren't that much fun. Passover, when you aren't allowed to eat any grain products, isn't nearly as bad as Yom Kippur, when you can't eat at all, but it's still a challenge, because it lasts eight whole days. And it's even more challenging if you're a near-vegetarian like me, who relies heavily on grain as a food source.

I have a few standard recipes I tend to rely on to get through this week every year, including matzo ball soup and matzagna, a recipe of my own invention that's basically a lasagna with sheets of matzo in place of the noodles. (It turns out I'm not the only person to have this idea; a quick Google search for "matzagna" turns up several recipes. But I did legitimately come up with it on my own.)

But I have learned that you have to be careful about including too much matzo in your diet. It can have, let us say, unpleasant digestive side effects. So I always make a point of including at least a few recipes in my weeklong menu that aren't matzo-based.

Usually, that means potatoes, potatoes, and more potatoes. But this year, I happened upon something at the H-Mart, just a few weeks before Passover, that looked like an interesting alternative. The package was labeled "Vermicelli Asian Style Starch Noodles," and when I flipped it around to see what that meant, it turned out that these noodles had only two ingredients: sweet potato starch and water. Both of which happen to be kosher for Passover.

Since I'd never made these before, I decided I'd just try following the recipe on the back of the package for jap chae, which is apparently a Korean dish of stir-fried noodles and veggies. The instructions for it were quite simple:
  1. Boil the noodles for about 10 minutes, drain them, and toss them with some sesame oil to keep them from sticking.
  2. Next, make a stir-fry of "marinated beef & various vegetables." The package suggested shredded onion, carrot, mushrooms, and green peppers; we included all of those, but left out the beef.
  3. Toss the noodles and veggies together, along with some soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, and sesame seeds. The recipe didn't specify any amounts, so Brian put in about a tablespoon of sesame oil and added soy sauce to taste. He left out the sugar, as it didn't seem to need it. The package says you can season this with "various spices," but we had no idea which ones, so we just ate it plain, and it didn't seem to suffer from their absence. 
The texture of the vermicelli was quite interesting. They're nothing at all like wheat or rice noodles; instead they have a certain chewy quality that's odd, but not unpleasant. It's more similar to sauteed bean sprouts than anything else I can put a name to. This may be because, according to the nutrition label, they contain almost no actual starch; virtually all their calories come from sugars, even though they don't taste at all sweet.

As for their flavor, it's pretty neutral, basically just forming a base for the veggies and sauce. It's pretty much just like fried rice, only with the chewy noodles in place of rice. (Actually, the package suggested serving the dish with rice on the side, but that's obviously out during Passover, and the dish hardly seemed to need more carbs.)

On the whole, Brian and I both rather liked this dish. I'm not sure it's something we'd go out of our way to make for non-Passover use, since we can always do pretty much the same thing with rice or some other kind of noodles, which we usually have on hand. But it should make a handy addition to our file of recipes we can serve to our gluten-free friends. (Pro tip, by the way: Passover is a great time to stock up on all sorts of gluten-free ingredients, such as tapioca starch, potato starch, almond and coconut flour, and various types of treats, such as jellied fruits and macaroons. All that stuff goes on sale in early April for us Jews, so anyone who needs to eat gluten-free year round can take the opportunity to load up a cart.)

So, for all you Christians out there on the Interwebs: as you break your Lenten fast tomorrow, spare a thought for us poor Jews, who have another three days left to spend munching on matzo. And for my Jewish readers, should I have any: if you can find any of these sweet potato noodles (also known as glass noodles), give this dish a try. It's not the same as real pasta, but it'll do as a substitute until the Festival of Unleavened Bread is over.

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