What Is Yukgaejang?

Dan Harkins

In Korea, some foods more than others are traditionally used to warm bodies during a rainy season, warm hearts at a funeral, or even combat heat exhaustion with spiciness. A soup called yukgaejang is a go-to recipe for these occasions. It may appear to be a simple shredded beef soup, but many chefs add a diverse amount of vegetables as well as plentiful pepper flakes, pepper oil and fresh chili peppers to give this nutritious dish a flavorful kick of lingering heat.

Chili peppers can add heat to the dish.
Chili peppers can add heat to the dish.

The protein in yukgaejang can be chicken, but it is most often shredded beef — the better the quality, the better the soup. Top round, sirloin, beef brisket and even inner parts like tripe are regularly used for adding solid flavor to these kinds of Korean soups. Common vegetables used to accompany the meat are green beans, bean sprouts, green and red peppers, onions, garlic and even fernbrake, which are boiled sections of ferns called bracken. Rice is often added to the soup or served on the side.

Tripe may be featured in yukgaejang.
Tripe may be featured in yukgaejang.

Yukgaejang is made like most stock soups. It starts by marinading pieces of beef or even chicken — for a dish called dak yukgaejang — in simple ingredients like garlic, salt, oil and some chili flakes to start embedding the spiciness in the dish. Some let the meat soak for as long as overnight in the refrigerator, but a few hours will suffice. The pieces are then boiled with chopped onions, soy sauce and more garlic in a pot with beef stock.

When the meat is nearly cooked through, chopped vegetables are blanched then quickly caramelized in a hot pan before being added to the stock. This adds color, flavor and nutrition. Final flavorings include red pepper oil and flakes as well as diced chiles and finally scallions, which take the least amount of time to cook. The final step before serving is tasting the soup and adding salt and pepper to taste.

This traditionally spicy yukgaejang is often made less intense to include those with less accommodating constitutions. All or much of the pepper oil and flakes can be struck from the recipe, leaving just green chiles and onions. Another option is to remove all spicy ingredients. Some Koreans believe that dishes like spicy soup help not only to warm the body during cold spells but also to acclimate the body during periods of hot temperatures.

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