Tteok-guk, comfort food for kings

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I almost forgot about the rice cake soup on Sunday night.

I had decided to reprise the fried chicken, in honor of my friend Sharon’s visit from New Haven, and given how long it takes to fry 5 pounds of fried chicken plus the amount of food we’d already eaten, it wasn’t surprising I forgot about the beef broth just simmering at the back of the stove.

Scallion-seafood pancakes, also in Sharon's honor

Scallion-seafood pancakes, also in Sharon's honor

When I finally did get around to serving it, it was warmly appreciated it, the way it always is.  떡국, tteok-guk, or rice cake soup, is one of the milder Korean soups.  There’s no fiery red pepper or fermented soybean paste in it.  It’s just a beef broth in which ovals of sliced rice cakes are simmered until soft but still chewy, often along with some dumplings.  On fancy occasions, it gets garnished with thinly fried eggs cut in elaborate diamonds or strips, shredded meat, and strips of roasted seaweed, for a very colorful presentation.  But growing up, it was also what my mom made when she was pressed for time.  She’d worked out an everyday version, in which she would sautee strips of beef in soy sauce and pour in some water for a surprisingly tasty broth.  When the rice cakes were tender, she would break the eggs straight into the pot and stir it up into ribbons of white and yellow.  I found tteok-guk boring and tiresome until I left home and realized there was nothing I would rather eat when I am tired or sad.

Greens waiting to be tossed in a spicy-soy sauce-sesame oil dressing.

Greens waiting to be tossed in a spicy-soy sauce-sesame oil dressing.

Given how everyday it was in our house, though, I’d always wondered why rice cake soup is a celebratory food.  It’s always served on New Year’s Day, and given that traditionally, Koreans celebrated turning one year older collectively on New Year’s as well, it’s a birthday soup, too.

King oyster mushrooms tossed with shredded scallions--a big hit with the Koreans!

King oyster mushrooms tossed with shredded scallions--a big hit with the Koreans!

It turns out, it’s all about rice.  Even though rice is a central part of the Korean diet, it’s only recently that it’s become so common as to be a background food, something to eat with everything else on the table.  For most of Korean history, it was too expensive to eat everyday.  Most people ate barley or millet, sometimes mixed with rice, but often without even a grain of rice.  In the north, noodles made out of buckwheat, arrowroot, or sweet potatoes were the common starch.  So to take that precious rice, grind it into rice flour, and then make rice cakes out of it, which is no easy thing itself, that was the height of luxurious living.  To eat like a king one day out of the year—what could be more celebratory?

Now, it takes nothing to go to the store and buy a bag of pre-sliced rice cakes.  We’ve lost something in not knowing what kind of labor it takes to grow rice and to pound it into chewy cakes.  I wonder how it must have felt, to sit at a table on New Year’s waiting for your wonderful bowl of tteok-guk to appear.  But I like to think that for those who appreciate good food, no matter how simple and easy and everyday, we will always recognize when we are eating like kings.

This is a very simple write-up, as the amounts are still estimates and the final version will have some more detailed explanations.  But if you get a chance, it’s a nice soup to eat in these last cool nights of spring.

Serves 6-8

4 quarts of water
1 lb. of beef brisket
5 cups of sliced rice cakes, rinsed in water and drained
3 tablespoons Korean soup soy sauce
1 tablespoon Korean dark soy sauce (you can use Kikkoman for both but it’s saltier so be careful and taste as you go along)
1 teaspoon ground red pepper
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
4 tablespoons chopped green onions.
4 eggs
freshly ground pepper
1 sheet of roasted seaweed for garnish

1.  Put the brisket in a large pot with four quarts of water.  Bring it to a boil and skim off the foam and fat at the top.  Simmer for at least two hours, skimming off the foam occasionally, until the beef is tender.  (Last night, I added some oxtail and more water, ending up with an incredibly rich and golden broth, complete with globules of fat floating on the surface.  The beef broth experimentation continues…)

2.  Take the brisket out and let it cool.  When it’s cool enough to touch, shred it into thin pieces about 2-3 inches long.  Toss the shredded brisket with the dark soy sauce, ground red pepper, chopped garlic and chopped green onions.  Set aside.

3.  Bring the broth back to a boil and then let it simmer.  Season the broth with soup soy sauce.  Taste as you go along, as the saltiness of soy sauces can vary a lot by brand.

4.  Add the rice cakes.  Simmer for 10 minutes.  Taste and make sure that it’s soft.  It should be tender but still chewy.

5.  Add the shredded beef.  Break the eggs into the pot and swirl with a pair of chopsticks.  Let it simmer just a minute more for the eggs to set.

6.  Ladle the soup into bowls.  Garnish with thin strips of roasted seaweed and add freshly ground pepper before serving.

(Is it totally confusing to have pictures of food we ate, but I don’t describe in the post?  Let me know.)

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3 Responses to “Tteok-guk, comfort food for kings”

  1. Dave Says:

    Hi Grace, nice blog you have here and best of luck with the cookbook.

    When I’ve made this I’ve used a soup bone for the broth, which gives it that great milky quality after it’s been boiled for ages.

    You’ve inspired me a bit to get more organised. I’ve been meaning to collect my mom’s wisdom, even more since I’ve been living in the UK and have no easy/cheap access to prepared Korean food. Whenever I do cook, it’s a weekend marathon type thing and I’m too tired and hungry to do anything but eat and wash up. But I must start taking notes so that I can keep refining my mom’s vague recipes.

  2. Grace Says:

    Thanks, Dave! My mom never used bones very much in making beef stock, but so many of my friends have told me their mothers do that I’ve been trying it out with great results. My mom says that northerners tend to use bones more in their soup, and some southerners, especially from coastal areas, prefer an anchovy stock for their tteok-guk. It’s fascinating all the variations I’m seeing as I do research for this book.

  3. SHARON Says:

    Thank you again for a fabulous dinner on Sunday. The soup was a
    wonderful surprise. I particularly liked the chicken again on Monday
    (I think I had been too full of pajun to really appreciate it on
    Sunday.)

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