New Year’s is sort of, kind of one of my favorite holidays. Though I suspect this is not a unique line of thinking, everything just feels like a new start. Tabula rasa. New Year’s resolutions and all that.
(I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions anymore–I’ve been down that road too many times before.)
When I was little, holidays always meant presents, presents, presents, materialistic little creature that I was (and still, just a little bit, am). These days, holidays are all about food, food, food, and New Year’s just so happens to serve up my favorite holiday meal.
All of my best food memories seem to involve my mother, who is still the best cook I know. Growing up with a mixed Korean-American heritage, I got to sample flavors and spices that most of my peers did not, so the most memorable dish of my mother’s that stands out to me is, naturally, a Korean one: ddeokguk, or, simply translated, “rice cake soup.”
Traditionally, ddeokguk is served on the Korean New Year’s Day and is believed to bestow upon the eater good luck for the upcoming year. My mother no longer lives in Korea and hasn’t for over 30 years since she married my father and followed him to the United States without knowing anyone but him, much less how to string together more than two words of English. Instead, she serves this to us on the U.S.’s New Year’s Day, in big white bowls with large silver spoons that have almost comically long handles.
The foundation of the soup is built on disc-like slices of glutinous rice cake that sit in a rich beef broth, dotted with vibrant cuts of green scallion and accompanied by mandu (Korean dumplings). Strips of shredded beef, egg, and seaweed top the dish like some modernist chef’s version of deconstructed sushi. It’s startlingly simple to make, but it does take some time, especially to prepare the broth.
Unfortunately, it is hard to quantify my mother’s dishes as she is an instinctive cook rather than a scientific one. She adds and mixes ingredients by look, feel, and taste, so translating these things into measurements is always an approximation. The following recipe will feed a large number of people, perhaps up to five or six, but I recommend you use the recipe I’ve listed here as a guideline only, scaling up or down, increasing and decreasing amounts based on your own tastes and what feels right to you.
Korean Rice Cake Soup
1 beef cut – this can be a roast, brisket or, my favorite for this dish, heel meat
1 pound ddeok (Korean rice cakes)
1 pound mandu (Korean dumplings – optional)
dried, toasted seaweed cut into 1/2 x 3″ strips
1 bunch of green onions, all diced except for two stalks
1/2 medium white onion, sliced
3-5 celery stalks
6 cloves garlic, 3 minced and 3 left whole
beef bullion seasoning or beef stock
4 tbs sesame oil
1/2 c sesame seeds
To prepare the stock, wash and then soak your beef in cold water overnight in a large covered stock pot to remove the blood from the meat.
The next day, drain the old water and refill pot with fresh water until meat is fully covered. Add celery, 3 whole garlic cloves, onion, and peppercorns to the pot and cover. Boil meat over medium-high heat until fully cooked and tender. The meat will float towards the top when thoroughly cooked.
Remove meat from stock and place in a large bowl to cool. Strain out the celery, onion, and garlic from the stock and throw these away. Pour stock through a strainer to filter out larger particles and fats in the stock. Return stock to heat and add beef bullion flavoring or extra beef stock, salt, and pepper to taste. After ten minutes of further simmering, take the stock off heat and set aside to cool to room temperature. Once cool, refrigerate stock for at least two hours and skim the surface of fat once more. Add two whole stalks of green onion to the beef stock when reheating.
Cut meat into small pieces with kitchen shears or a sharp knife. In a separate bowl, mix chopped green onions and minced garlic with sesame oil and sesame seeds. Marinate the meat in this mixture for 1-2 hours at room temperature.
Wash and drain sliced rice cakes to rid excess starch. In another pot, bring water to a boil and add rice cakes. If you are also including dumplings in the dish, you want to cook these first for about 3-5 minutes before adding rice cakes. Let the rice cakes cook for five minutes until they expand and float to the surface of the water.
To make the egg garnish, use approximately one egg for every two people. Traditionally, only egg yolks are used in this soup for a brighter yellow color, but if you don’t want to have to later solve the problem of what to do with all your leftover egg whites, you can just beat the whole egg in a bowl until smooth and uniform in color. Grease and heat a large frying pan before adding egg mixture. Similar to making a crepe, you want to tilt your pan to spread the egg mixture thinly over the surface of the pan, making sure there are no large pools of liquid egg. Flip the egg with a spatula and cook the other side for approximately 30 seconds. Slide your egg onto a plate and let it cool until you can handle it with your fingers comfortably. Roll the egg up like a burrito, and with a sharp knife, slice your roll into very, very thin strips – no more than a quarter of an inch thick.
To assemble the dish, add your rice cakes to a bowl and then ladle a desired amount of stock over them. Garnish with marinated beef, egg strips, and seaweed.