Soonjong, the last king of Lee dynasty of Chosun (the country prior to the republic of Korea), was forced to give up his sovereign power to Japanese. Korea was colonized to Japan. (Koreans remember that day as the most humiliating day in Korean history of 5,000 years) He was the last emperor of Chosun and, as with last emperors of other nations, he spent the next 10 years of his life lonely in the royal palace with the grief and disgrace.
After he signed the treaty, he refused to eat. With a great despair and the humiliation, his mind and body got weakened dramatically. No food was satisfying to him. The royal chef in chief was sadden to see his king suffering. So he offered this beef stew called, “Yukgaejang (육개장)”.
Yukgaejang was NOT a royal food. It was the food of commoners. But the royal chef wanted to serve this spicy stew to remind his king of something that he was forgetting.
The stew was served to the king. The king saw this unusual spicy looking stew that he hardly ever had it before. He wondered first but soon understood something that he had forgotten. He saw each ingredient in the stew and realized what they meant. The king read the chef’s intention through his food and finished the entire stew with tears in his eyes.
The king wept! He was touched by the wisdom of his royal chef. So what were in it? There were 4 main ingredients in the stew and each had its own symbolism.
1) The beef: Korean cows are devotional animal to his master. From birth to death, he works diligently in the field without complaining and yield his meat to the master upon his death. The beef was representing the Korean people who works hard and royal to their king. And many were willing to give their lives for their king.
2) The chillies: the spiciness represent the strength of his people.
3) The fiddlehead: They are the young stems of wild fern. They grow fast regardless of the harsh environment and this symbolizes how much Koreans desire of independence and freedom from Japanese.
4) The taro stems: Taro stems can fight and withheld its life to many diseases. Koreans will fight to obtain their country back.
This was one of the dramatic scene in a Korean movie called “Shicgak (식객)“. There is no historical record or proof if the king Soonjong actually had this Yukgaejang during his lifetime. However history proved that the Korean kings had been trained to have some experiences in farming and also had a basic knowledge in agriculture. Therefore there is no doubt that King Soonjong would be unfamiliar with each ingredient and how they grow.
The movie projected the stew with history so well that most movie viewers went to the near restaurant to eat this stew when the movie was over or went to a grocery store to buy the ingredients to make at home. I also recommend to watch the movie if you have a chance. It was not a blockbuster success film but can give you a great insight on Korean cuisine with the different approach from the two chefs.
This is a spicy beef stew. If you are not comfortable with strong heat, think twice. However, this is NOT over the top spicy that nearly numbs your senses. If you are familiar with Korean spiciness, you will find this quite pleasant. So don’t be scared by its intensive red color.
Okay, I hear you. I will stop talking and start working on the tutorial. Here we go!
NOTE: Fresh taro stem is pretty much impossible to find outside of Korea. So I substituted with oyster mushrooms. If you are lucky enough to find even the dry kind, use it by all means. It adds great texture to the stew.
As I was straining, I suddenly remembered something terrible. ‘Wait a minute…!‘
‘Oh, shoot!‘ I forgot to add this radish in the stock… Pardon the clumsy forgetfulness of aging home-cook. Sigh!!!
Well, the broth in the stew still be good without it but it will be tastier if you add the radish.
Now, what is this? These are fiddlehead (고사리, gosari). There are the stem parts of young fern. You can find them in most Korean grocery stores in a dried form or re-hydrated.
If you can only find the dried kind, look here for how to bring them back to life.
Rinse them well. Slice them into 2″ long sticks. Set aside.
Do not discard the boiling water yet. You will need for one last ingredient.
This slimy-clear-film-like substance is common thing in Asian leeks. It is natural biological part of their breed but it can make your stew slimy. So what can we do? Rinse the leek slices thoroughly first,
Then add to the pot of boiling water with some salt. 30 seconds! Take them out and throw in a bowl of cold water to cool down. Squeeze out to remove moisture. You still might feel a little sliminess but it is okay.
Bring a large heavy pot to a medium-low heat. Combine 1 tablespoon of oil and 1/2 tablespoon of Korean chili flakes. Stir together until the chili flakes release it fragrance and infuse, about 2-3minutes. Be careful not to burn it. We are making chili oil. If you have a bottled chili oil, use it instead.
Bring to heat up to medium and add the all the good stuff in the bowl and stir fry for 1 minute. Pour the reserved the stock. Just enough to cover everything. The amount of stock you add is depends on how thin you want your Yukgaejang to be. I added about 5 cups but you might need more.
Cover with a lid and bring them to boil first, then reduce the heat to very low and simmer for 1 hour.
Crack some black pepper and your truly lovely spicy beef stew is so ready to serve. Along with any kind of stew, this will taste better on the next day.
This is a stew that made me ponder of my heritage; a very spicy one. However, I learned that “food” can remind you with a heritage but doesn’t necessarily have boundaries within no matter how different our heritages are.
My 9 year old son has two Pakistani friends. They came over to our house to hang out with my son. I was so busy with other things to do around the house, I didn’t have time to make special lunch for them. So I served them some of this leftover stew hoping they would like. (…I just had a random feeling that they might like it)
Well…, while my half Korean blooded son needed 2 glasses of milk to accompany 2 tablespoonful of this stew, his Pakistani friends had the entire bowl without a single drop of sweat. They didn’t even need to drink their water.
“Korean food is good!” That was the comment from them at the end of their lunch.
So my verdict is.., if young Pakistani boys can handle this stew, I bet you can.
- In a large pot combine beef, onion (or 1 leek), garlic cloves, peppercorn, radish and water. Bring to boil and simmer over low heat for 45 minutes. Reserve the beef and the 5-6 cups of stock. Discard the rest.
- Shred the beef and set aside.
- In a pot boil water. Blanch mung bean sprouts with a little salt for 2 minutes. Using a strainer remove the sprouts from the water and rinse in a cold water, squeeze out the excess water and set aside.
- Blanch the mushroom in a same manner. Set aside.
- Blanch the sliced leeks in a same manner and rinse in the cold water, drain. Set aside.
- In a large bowl combine shredded beef, fiddleheads, bean sprouts, mushrooms. Add the 4 tablespoon Korean chili flakes, sesame oil, Korean soy sauce for soup and minced garlic. Using a hand mix them all together until all the ingredients are well mixed with the seasoning.
- In a large heavy bottom pot, heat 1 tablespoon oil over low heat. Add the 1/2 tablespoon of Korean chili flakes and gently stir well. You will see the oil is changing its color to red. Becareful not to burn the chili flakes.
- Add the beef mixture and toss well with the oil. Pour the 5 cups of reserved stock in the pot. The stock should cover every ingredient in a pot. Add more stock if needed. Bring to gentle boil, cover with a lid and then simmer for 1 hour over low heat.
- Add the reserved blanched Asian leek in the pot and cook for additional 15 minutes. Season the stew with salt if needed and sprinkle lots of freshly grated pepper.
- Serve hot with rice.