Do you really want to know how to make seolleongtang?

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At this point, I have to confess, if I had not already told the whole world I was writing a cookbook, I might just quietly slink away.

But since I have, and we must finish, I thought I’d share some of the difficult questions that have been paralyzing us.

Seolleongtang is one of my favorite Korean foods. To put it most simply, it is a soup made of ox parts, including bones, boiled until the stock takes on a milky-white color. Koreans eat it for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, because it is so soothing. When it comes to the table, you might dismiss its weak flavor. But once you add lots of scallions, coarse salt, fresh pepper, and the sour intensity of radish kimchi, the soup comes alive.

That said, the first time I made it, I wondered, “Is this worth it?”

I’m not the kind of cook that likes to make life difficult for herself for the fun of it. I like to cook more than the person who’s popping a frozen dinner into the microwave, but that’s mainly because that frozen dinner tastes terrible. I’m impressed by friends who make their own jam or bacon or croquembouche. But I am lazy, and my cost-benefit analysis is as strict as an economist’s. Unless my homemade version tastes a lot better or costs a lot less than a version I pay someone else to make, I’m generally not interested, especially if making it at home takes an enormous amount of effort. There are exceptions for foods that give me a great warm–and beneficial–feeling of nostalgia, goodwill, and righteousness. (The converse is also true, which means I generally don’t like paying for food that I think I could make myself.)

Seolleongtang in Korea is cheap. My mom occasionally made it at home on a whim, but it was so easy to go out and buy a hot bowl for $5, there was no reason to make it at home. You don’t even have to go out of your way to eat a fantastic version. I have a strong memory of being 8 years old, going to Seoul for the summer, and escaping the hotel’s overpriced and yucky Western breakfast to eat seolleongtang in an alley, and thinking it was one of the best breakfasts I’d ever had.

In New York, there is a famous restaurant on 32nd Street that specializes in seolleongtang. Gahm Mi Oak is good, not great, like most food on that street.

So the question for me was, is my homemade seolleongtang so much better than Gahm Mi Oak‘s that it’s worth making at home? Or given that this cookbook is meant for an audience of someone than than me, how good would homemade seolleongtang have to be for you to make it at home?

Don’t answer until you hear what it takes.

My cookbook on royal palace food lists these ingredients for a proper seolleongtang: half a cow’s head, 1 cow’s foot, 1 set of mixed beef bones, 2 knee bones, 1 beef tongue, 1 pound brisket, 1 beef shank, 1 spleen, and 1 quantity of some ingredient that is such an obscure cut of meat that neither my mother nor her friend, a professional dumpling maker, knew what was. Another cookbook called for a shorter list of meats, though still rich in offal: ox-knee bone, “gristle” (can you imagine asking the guy at Whole Foods for 600 grams of gristle?), ox-tongue, beef brisket and beef shank. This cookbook, published in English, had the awesome tip, “Ox-head meat, ox-hooves and/or breast meat may be added.”

My mother, on the other hand, said all we needed was brisket and a beef shank bone cut into pieces.

So we bought a giant bag of beef bones. We soaked the bones for an hour or so to drain the blood, which makes the broth clearer and cleaner. Then we put the soup bones in the pot with water, brought it to a boil, and let it simmer. After two hours, we removed the bones from the pot, trimmed the meat and tendon off the bones, set aside the broth, and then put the bones back in the pot with more water. After another two hours, we removed the bones, poured out the broth, combined it with the earlier broth, and put the bones back in the pot again with more water. After yet another two hours, we did it again. We also made a separate broth at some point with a good cut of brisket, which we combined with the bone broth at the end.

The end-result was a pale, milky color, though not as opaquely white as I’m used to. My mother said, “I think the restaurants color their soups.” Hmm. It was tasty, but not earth-shattering. I would rather take the subway to 32nd Street.

I wondered if it were possible to make it in a less complicated way. It’s one thing to boil a pot for hours, another to have to watch it constantly. So the next time, instead of following my mom’s careful boil and drain, boil and drain instructions, I just boiled the bones for 8 straight hours. It tasted pretty good, but the soup didn’t turn white at all.

Then Diane took over. She tried boiling bones and brisket separately, she tried boiling them together, and she tried combining them in complicated stages. She noticed that as she boiled the bones in stages, per my mother’s instructions, the broth got whiter and whiter. She wrote in her notes, “We wondered whether are truly no short cuts to this soup as was preached in Dae Jang Geum.”

And now, I am sitting here wondering if I should go try to find some ox knee bones and gristle and try yet again. But even if I found ox knee bones and gristle, and made an absolutely delicious and perfectly white seolleongtang that had to be soaked and/or boiled for 10 hours, would you be interested in that recipe? Or would you rather be provided a simpler recipe with more easily sourced cuts of meat that’s tasty but not really the right traditional color? And even in that case, would you be willing to boil the damn bones, shifting them in and out of the pot, every two hours for 8 hours? That’s practically like feeding a newborn.

You know that saying, “Too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth?” That’s what writing a cookbook is like, sitting in a kitchen with hundreds of invisible cooks whose minds you are desperately trying to read.

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5 Responses to “Do you really want to know how to make seolleongtang?”

  1. Leslie Says:

    Glad to see you back! Seollungtang sounds good but I would agree that it’s not really worth making it at home, unless you have a huge freezer. But it’s nice to have a few recipes in a cookbook that you might try when you’re really in the mood to spend all day on a recipe (or are in a place where there is no 32nd street!) I tend to prefer practical recipes as well, but if the shortcut way is not going to taste even close to the real thing, I’d probably not make it at all.

  2. Emily Phan Says:

    No one in their right mind would make this. FIAGO!

  3. Grace Says:

    Emily, you kill me. Just like the old days!

  4. Yunsuk Kim Calhoun Says:

    Your friend Emily doesn’t know what she’s missing. Stay in the suburbs, I guess, Emily?

    This is one of the most delicious soups ever. I make it all the time. It’s wonderful.

  5. dory Says:

    it’s been two years since you wrote this. how’s the cook book going? i just made some, and it was a lot more work than most cantonese soups i grew up with. and a lot more bland. we had to add so much salt it was all i could taste. it simply has no umami and no layers of flavors, only its warmth and silky smooth texture to recommend it. i am unsure if i will just dump the rest of it down the drain. the only thing stopping me is the hours i put in.

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