Once upon a time, a poor widow answered a knock on her cottage door and found a wanderer begging for a bite to eat. Despite having little food left for herself, she scraped up what was left in her pantry and made a soup with the last of her butter. The wanderer, only pretending to be destitute, was so touched by the woman’s generosity that he awarded her one gold coin for every speck of butter floating on the surface of the soup. The widow received so much gold that she lived happily ever after.¹
I must have been a foodie even when I was young, because the vision of a layer of tiny golden dots on soup enchanted me. No wonder then that one of my favorite comfort foods is yookgaejang—shredded beef, scallion, and fiddlehead soup—a soup instantly recognizable by its distinctive smattering of red dots floating on a clear, beefy broth. The color comes kochu karu, a coarse Korean chili powder, which stains the floating beef fat and roasted sesame oil bright red. It’s easy to make, amazingly flavorful for so few ingredients, and warmly filling with bowl of sticky white rice. Koreans often eat it in the summer to induce sweating and cooling, but it’s a fine cold-weather soup too.
A friend brought us a big pot of yookgaejang yesterday. It had been such a long time since I’d tasted it that her gift gave me not just sustenance but memories, comfort, and persistent sniffles (it’s a spicy soup). I’d post a recipe, but I have a confession to make: I rarely cook Korean. Food from other countries gets more attention than the cuisine of my own heritage. It’s a matter of efficiency. When people give you all the Korean food you want, you might as well make curry, paella, and pound cake. I last made yookgaejang ten years ago and can’t remember the exact proportions. But I do remember that it was easy.
If you’re hankering to try it (and I hope you hanker), there are many recipes online that look about right. Whichever one you try, I would make the following suggestions. First, don’t brown the beef. While I always brown beef in western soups, browning muddies an Asian soup and makes it, well, unAsian. Use a whole cut of meat, not sliced, so that you can shred it after it’s cooked to get that distinct look and beefy chew. Chewy texture is part of the soup’s appeal, so the meat does not need to be cooked for hours to tenderize it. Try to find kosari if you can. The brown dried or water-packed fiddlehead ferns and attached stems add a slippery chewy texture that complements the beef well. Don’t skimp on the kochu karu, make sure to add a glug of roasted sesame oil, and add sufficient salt to taste. If you have time, a gelatinous stock made from unbrowned beef bones will make a truly amazing soup with rich mouthfeel. I prefer to thinly bias-cut my scallions and add them at the last minute, but the version pictured here with thick cooked scallions is common too. It’s a hard soup to screw up.
By the way, there’s a second part to that story. A wicked rich girl in town heard about the widow’s gold and hunted down the wanderer. She dragged him to her kitchen and made him a soup into which she dumped all the butter she had. Then she demanded her fortune. The wanderer, amused, handed her one gold coin. She had put so much butter in the soup that it floated in one big yellow blob.
The moral of the story should be obvious. Don’t use a fatty cut of beef. Stick to a lean, long-grained cut like flank. Chuck is a more economical choice, but make sure to trim as much fat off the beef as possible and skim the fat off the broth well before adding the koch’u karu.
Like most soups, this one reheats well. Grab a box of tissues, don’t wear white, and slurp away.
¹ If anyone knows the title of this story, please let me know; I couldn’t find it.
- Link du jour
- Koreans aren’t the only people who eat hot soup in summer to cool down. Melissa notes that Russians and Jamaicans do it too . . . and it works! Read Soup Days of Summer from the wonderful Traveler’s Lunchbox.