Korean Rice Cake Soup
When I was a kid growing up in Mississippi, our New Year’s celebrations were based on the food traditions of the American South—stewed collard greens, black-eyed peas simmered with hog jowls, and a pan of crusty cornbread for good measure. Later in adulthood, as I discovered more about my mother’s Korean culture, I learned about Lunar New Year, which this year falls on January 25. For millions of people around the world, and especially in east Asia, it’s a day spent with family, where members pay homage to their ancestors. And the star of the celebration for Korean families, food-wise, is the rice cake soup.
Tteokguk (pronounced sort of like DUK-gook) is a soup of chewy-soft rice cakes cooked in steaming translucent broth. And, just like American New Year’s foods, it’s a good-luck dish that carries symbolic significance. The white color of the rice cakes signifies purity, so the soup represents a way to start the year off fresh. And traditionally, when you enjoy your New Year’s bowl of rice cake soup, your age increases by one year.
Though the soup can be made with chicken, pork, pheasant, or seafood, these days it’s typically made with beef. My version starts by simmering chunks of beef brisket in a combination of store-bought beef stock (to give the broth a head start on flavor) and water, along with onion and garlic. After a couple of hours, the brisket is perfectly chewy-tender—meaning that you can shred it, but it retains some bite. This meat is seasoned with raw garlic and sesame oil and becomes a hearty garnish for the top of the soup.
The broth is then seasoned with one of my new favorite Korean ingredients: soup soy sauce (guk-ganjang). It’s a byproduct of making doenjang, a fermented soybean paste that’s similar to miso, and it’s lighter in color and much saltier than regular soy sauce, with funky fermented notes. A small amount will season a whole pot of soup without turning it too dark. You’ll need to visit a good Asian market to find it, and it will keep indefinitely; you can use it for flavoring vegetables and stir-fries as well as soup. And, if you can’t find it or don’t want to have a bottle in your pantry, you can substitute fish sauce.
The soul of the soup, of course, is the rice cakes—flat, oval discs with an irresistibly chewy texture and mild rice flavor. You’ll find these in Asian markets, too, typically in the refrigerated section or sometimes in the freezer case. I always try to seek out a brand that’s made with just rice and salt; many options contain ethyl alcohol, which I think gives the soup an unpleasant aftertaste.
And just like those American New Year’s dishes, rice cake soup is simply too good to eat only one day of the year. It’s great any time, but especially on a chilly night when you crave a piping-hot bowl of brothy soup with alluring textures and rich, soulful flavors.