The majority of my close friends are Asian American, so for many years most group social gatherings began and ended with Korean food. Back in college, we feasted on fried chicken while singing poorly and loudly at the K-town karaoke bar; I was never sure the morning after whether my sore throat was from belting out 90’s pop or from shivering in the 3am cold waiting for cabs back home. Just as popular was a little bar called Soop Bin that was lax on ID and generous with snacks. The last time I went there, one of my close friends taught us Korean drinking games, the rules of which were blurred by soju but somehow always resulted in her winning and everyone else downing more liquor.
Even after graduation K-town remained the default choice. For a while we frequented an all-you-can-eat K-BBQ place, ending up there once a week for a year-long run. Undeterred by the fact that it wasn't a BYOB, the boys in the group would hide liquor wrapped in dubious paper bags under the table. We’d whisk it out whenever a waiter wasn’t nearby, but as each night progressed we'd become less subtle refilling our glasses and begin acting suspiciously rowdy for a group ordering only soda. The manager would politely remind us of the policy against outside alcohol and we’d nod dopily at him and order a reconciliatory pitcher of beer.
I’ve actually stopped drinking entirely over the past year and a half – which is a separate story in itself –but I still think of those nights with a lot of nostalgia. Firstly, it’s nice to remember the days when our metabolisms processed calories from alcohol and buffets at lightning speed. But more importantly, performing horrendously off-key renditions of Backstreet Boys classics is a sure-fire way to put friendships on the fast track.
In honor of those hazy nights I made these japchae baos. They lie somewhere between drunk food and acceptably wholesome meal, a gray area that most Asian food seems to occupy. Japchae is a Korean sweet potato noodle dish tossed with ground beef and various vegetables, typically including carrot, peppers, white onion, and spinach. It's all tied together by an irresistibly fragrant sesame oil and soy sauce blend that coats each slick noodle.
Today’s baos contain all the traditional ingredients (with the ratio of beef to noodles adjusted up); I pan-fried them to get a crispy bottom crust, then let them steam to finish cooking. What makes these baos so special is that the hefty amount of vegetable releases quite a lot of water, so each bite is incredibly juicy. They’re perfect for that unplanned fourth meal.
Japchae Bao Recipe (serves 4-5)
- 5 cups flour (I used a mix of white whole wheat / white AP flour, but feel free to use all white AP)
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 1/3 cup warm water (~110 degrees F)
- 1 tbsp + 1 tsp yeast
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 1 tbsp oil
- 1 oz sweet potato noodles cooked for 3 minutes (2 min shy of being done)
- 2/3 lb ground beef
- 3 scallions
- 1 small white onion
- 3 cloves garlic
- 4 slices ginger
- 1/2 bell pepper
- 1 carrot
- 4 oyster mushrooms, tough parts removed
- 1/2 cup wilted spinach, squeezed of excess moisture
- 1 tbsp sesame oil
- 2 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 1 tbsp rice wine
Prepare the dough: Mix together the flour and salt. In a separate bowl, add sugar and yeast to the water and let it sit until foamy and fragrant, around 5-10 min. When the yeast is done proofing, pour into the flour and salt mixture, and mix until combined. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 10 minutes, until the dough becomes smooth and tacky and doesn't stick to the surface or your hands. Additional flour should not be necessary beyond 1-2 tbsp. Oil a bowl and turn the dough ball in the oil so it's lightly coated, then cover and set aside in a warm draft-free location.
Let the dough rise: It should take about an hour, but will not fully double.
Meanwhile, prepare the filling: Roughly chop the sweet potato noodles into 1-inch long segments. Chop the scallions, white onion, garlic, ginger, pepper, mushrooms and carrot very finely. Chop the wilted spinach as well. Mix the chopped vegetables, sesame oil, soy sauce, sugar, and rice wine into the ground beef; the beef should barely hold everything together. If more binding is needed, mix in a raw egg. Set aside, refrigerated, while the dough rises.
Once the dough has risen: Punch the dough down, turn it out onto a board and knead it for another 5 minutes. This will distribute the air bubbles in the dough evenly. Divide into 16 or 32 even pieces.
Assemble: On a floured surface, roll each piece of dough into a thin circle with the center remaining slightly thicker than the edges. It's easiest to roll from the center of the dough and turn it gradually to maintain a circular shape. Place 1-2 tbsp of filling into the center of the circle, and wrap according to this video. The thinner and drier the dough is, the easier it is to wrap, but a more hydrated dough will be fluffier!
Cook in batches: Heat oil in a nonstick pan over medium high to high heat. Place the baos in the pan with 1-2 in of space between them. When the bottom of the baos becomes crispy (~1-2 min), turn down the heat to low or medium low, then add a splash of water (keep the lid tilted over the pot so nothing splashes in your face). Cover, and let steam for 8 minutes (10-12 min for larger bao).
Serve with additional soy sauce, sesame oil, + vinegar.