Transparency at the Table

Q: What do chickpeas, corn starch, soybeans, sweet potatoes, wheat, buckwheat, mung beans, konnyaku, and rice have in common?

A: They are all made into noodles.

Italy is famous for pasta, Thailand for rice noodles, Japan for noodles made from buckwheat (soba), and the vast realm of Indian cuisine includes noodles made from chickpea flour, rice flour, and corn starch. This post is about a Korean noodle made from sweet potato (dang myun or tangmyon in Korean. The hangul (Korean script) is 당면).

Put Some Spring into Your Meal
The noodle is an unappealing gray when dry, but gains a wonderful transparency when cooked. The flavor is between mild and non-existent, so the noodles act as a flavor sponge or carrier. Their elasticity is quite impressive, and they can probably be stretched to two or three times their length (something that can lead to dangers at the table: stretched noodles snapping and either flying across the table or causing a piece of vegetable to become airborne. Coveralls and safety glasses might be appropriate garb.).

The noodles are most famously used in chap chae (alt: jap chae, hangul is 잡채), a dish of noodles, beef and vegetables. Memory is a mysterious thing, and for unknown reasons one of my strongest memories of dorm food at college is of chap chae. One day, one of the lunch choices was chap chae (probably alongside such Midwestern stalwarts as tuna noodle casserole, sloppy joes, or macaroni and cheese). I was completely mystified. What is this “chap” thing? However, my memories of everything after seeing the label are a lot fuzzier. I don’t remember if I took a plate, whether I liked it, or what my dining companions thought about this international option. It wasn’t until a few years later that I learned exactly what chap chae is, and a few more before I tried cooking with the noodles.

Sweet Potato Noodle “Slumgullion”
Slumgullion. What a great word. I ran across it in the indispensable Food Lover’s Companion while looking up something in the S section. The word sounds old and rustic, from another era. And indeed it was coined by miners during the California gold rush in the mid-19th century. The cooking dictionary defines it as a stew made from leftovers.

The last few times I have used the noodles, I cook them with whatever vegetables (and tofu) were in my refrigerator: a slumgullion of sorts. Generally this means carrots, onions, napa cabbage, garlic, ginger and some greens. I’m sure my method isn’t authentic, but I like it.

I cook the noodles according to the package directions, then drain and rinse with cold water. I drain them again and toss with a little sesame oil. I stir fry the vegetables until nearly tender, then add some soy sauce, sugar, and sesame oil. In go the noodles, and I cook, tossing the mixture, until everything is hot. A garnish of sliced scallions, or perhaps some chili sauce, is a good addition.

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