Your Fast and Easy Guide to Making Korean Soup

When I haven’t planned for a meal or don’t know what to make, I know I can always quickly make a few bowls of delicious Korean soup. All you need are some basic ingredients and then follow this guide. It should be noted that I am not Korean. I am from Ohio, yet I’ve had two different women both born in Korea tell me that I am more Korean than they are. Must be all that kimchi I’ve made. :)

This is a soup template. It is not meant to be complete. This is a starter guide.

#1 Warm up the Stock

The base for soup will likely be determined by two things. First is if you even have any stock on hand and second, what protein will be in the soup. Most of the time I make this soup, I just use water. However, I have used beef stock and fish stock. Beef stock is good for all meat and fish stock is good for all seafood.

  • Water
  • Beef Stock
  • Fish Stock

#2 Add Gochujang and Chopped Kimchi to Soup

Your aspiring Korean kitchen should always have kimchi and gochujang on hand. Gochujang is red chili paste. Add some paste to the soup. I add about 1 tablespoon per bowl. Sometime more. Different gochujangs have different spice levels, so you will need to dial in your ideal spice level. Chop up some kimchi and place that in the soup.

  • kimchi
  • gochujang

#3 Add Korean Rice Cakes

If you are unfamiliar with Korean cooking, you have probably never seen Korean rice cakes. Outside of Korean grocery stores or mail order, they are hard to find. There are many different types of Korean rice cakes, but for soup I like the ones shaped like discs. They behave in many ways like a pasta and add wonderful texture to soup. If you can’t source them, you have three options.

  • Korean rice cakes
  • Side dish of rice
  • More veggie. Seaweed and daikon are two ideas.
  • Make your own Korean rice cakes ahead of time. I’ve never done that, but here is a recipe.

I cook the rice cakes for 3-5 minutes. Check the package though, as there are different cakes that will have different cooking times.

korean rice cake package

korean rice cake

Rice cakes are sold fresh, packaged and frozen. Whatever cakes you don’t use right away can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days. A better idea is to just freeze them. This is will prevent mold. 

#4 Add the Protein and Finish Cooking

I’ve made this soup many ways. Shrimp is my favorite. You can also use sliced tofu or SPAM. I tried canned tuna once and it was awful. Don’t do that.

  • Shrimp
  • Tofu
  • SPAM
  • fish (croaker is a popular choice)

Each of these options will only take a few minutes to cook. Taste test if you aren’t sure.

#5 Garnish and Serve

I love adding sliced green onions (scallions) when serving. For additional saltiness, add fish sauce. For additional spiciness, sriracha or additional gochujang works. That is all there is. You now have a simple template for quickly making Korean soup.

  • Green onions
  • fish sauce
  • Sriracha or additional gochujang

korean soup

Korean soup with Shrimp and kimchi

Kimchi Spam Soup

Ready for a super easy Korean soup recipe. Here it is.

  1. Heat water.
  2. Add chopped kimchi.
  3. Add sliced or cubed SPAM.
  4. Serve when warm. I heated mine for 10 minutes.

You can also throw in any cooked rice if you like. Super easy, super fast and tasty.

kimchi spam soup

I didn’t measure anything. Old kimchi would be better than fresher, but all should work. In the event you need to dial up the heat more, you can add some gochujang or sriracha sauce. Add fish sauce if more salt is needed. And if you run out of kimchi, top the served soup with chopped scallions.

Commercial Gluten Free Gochujang is Now Available!

UPDATE (September 7, 2014): This product is wheat-free, not necessarily gluten free. 

Good news for my fellow gluten free peeps that wish to cook more Korean dishes at home. You no longer need to make your own gluten-free gochujang (Korean chili pepper paste). There now exists at least one option that does not have added wheat.

That is the good news.

The bad news is it will still be extremely difficult to find. Most Asian grocery stores will not carry it. And of the three Korean grocery stores I visit, I’ve only seen it at one of them. To be honest, I actually needed the help of a Korean friend to spot it.

Gluten Free Gochujang

Start your search by looking for containers that look like this one. That will narrow your search. However, MOST of the containers that look like this still have added wheat. So you’ll still need to look at the ingredients.

Red pepper paste ingredients

Not exactly the most healthy list of ingredients, but as you can see no added wheat. This is to my knowledge, the first and only brand of gochujang that is safe to eat for those trying to avoid gluten.

It tastes fine. Not as good as my homemade gochujang recipe, but far more convenient. Several years ago when I first got into kimchi, all the brands had added crap,. Things like MSG and a few unpronounceable ingredients, which are totally unnecessary for fermented vegetables. Today most brands of kimchi have a clean list of ingredients – even at the Korean grocery stores. This is an encouraging trend. My inner Korean is pleased. :)

Gluten Free Korean Bulgogi Tacos

I was reading the book The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation, which had the history of Korean tacos in the Los Angeles area. My mind started to wander. I didn’t care about the economic lesson. I just wanted to eat those tacos. :) So I put the book down and drove to the nearest Korean grocery store.

Gluten Free?

For those that are strict gluten free, Korean food can present a problem. Bulgogi is the thinly sliced marinated meat used for grilling and fast cooking. It can be beef, pork or chicken.

The problem comes in the marinade. If the meat is spicy, then it likely has been marinaded in gochujang or red chili paste. I’ve been to almost every Asian market in Seattle, including four Korean grocery stores. I’ve looked at every single brand of gochujang. They all have gluten in them. This means you need to make your own gochujang if you wish your dining experience to be gluten free. I seriously doubt those food trucks are hand making gluten free gochujang. Have no fear, I have made my own gochujang without gluten. See Making Gluten Free Korean Chili Paste (Gochujang) for the recipe. You’ll need it to continue. If gluten doesn’t bother you, buy any brand. You’ll save some time.

In addition to gochujang, most restaurant and food cart marinades will use soy sauce, which also has wheat. Making your own will allow you to swap out soy sauce for Gluten Free Tamari.

gluten free gochujang

Homemade Gluten Free Gochujang

Heading to the Korean Grocery Store

I’m no expert in Korean cooking, so I decided the best place to get the bulgogi would be from a Korean grocery store. They are more likely to have the paper-thin sliced meat than your average grocery store. I also trust their butchers are selecting the cuts that work best for what their customers are cooking. If you don’t have access to a Korean grocery store, the post Bulgogi: Korean Fire Meat has a good discussion on the best cuts for the beef variety. For pork, you can use shoulder. Just have the butcher slice it thin.

Pork Bulgogi

Pork Bulgogi – Perfectly sliced

Marinade

Here is what I used for my marinade. I had about 2.5 pounds of pork. Adjust accordingly.

  • 1/2 cup of Gluten Free Tamari
  • 2 Tablespoons of gochujang (red chili paste)
  • 1 medium sized onion chopped
  • 2 Tablespoons of ginger finely chopped or grated
  • 3 cloves of garlic finely chopped or grated
  • 2 Tablespoons of sesame oil*
  • 0.5 – 1 Tablespoon of Korean red chili powder
  • toasted sesame seeds (optional)

 * Yeah, I know seed oils are evil, but the taste of sesame oil is so unique and important to Korean cuisine. If you know a way to get that awesome flavor with a healthy fat, please leave a comment below. 

After mixing the bulgogi in the marinade, I put it into the refrigerator for a few hours, but I’m guessing an hour would be fine as well.

Cook It and Serve

For the taco, I used the broiler to heat up some corn tortillas. Keep an eye on them, so they don’t burn. The meat will only need 1-2 minutes per side on a grill or medium-hot on the stove. Place the meat on the taco and then add your toppings. I used cilantro, kimchi and Sriracha sauce. You could use sliced cucumbers or lettuce as well.

Korean tacos

Gluten Free Korean Bulgogi Tacos 

As you can see from the photos above, I didn’t use tiny food truck portions on the meat. 8-)

Korean Yellow Croaker Soup

One of the most impressive sections of Korean grocery stores is the seafood section. Lots of care and attention is placed on the seafood options. Up until recently, I hadn’t purchased any fish and instead focused on the beef and pork dishes. Last week I bought some salted yellow croakers. I had no idea what to do with them, but I quickly learned that they are used for soups. The croakers I bought already had their fin removed and were ready for cooking. And unlike fish served at American grocery stores, the heads were still attached. Eyeballs and all!

I kind of followed the recipe posted in the description of this YouTube video. I didn’t have the cooking wine or hot pepper oil. I also was out of anchovies used to make the Korean Anchovy Kelp Stock. It didn’t matter, as the soup tasted awesome. My fish had lots of little bones, but it didn’t bother me to remove them as I ate the soup. I also made some rice which I added to the soup.

Korean Yellow Croaker Soup

The Kimchi Chronicles is an Excellent Cookbook

I read a lot of cookbooks. For the past four years, I have checked out numerous cookbooks from the library. Most have some merit, but rarely are there any that really stand out as excellent. The Kimchi Chronicles is one of the best.

The Kimchi Chronicles: Korean Cooking for an American Kitchen
The Kimchi Chronicles: Korean Cooking for an American Kitchen by Marja Vongerichten

What makes an excellent cookbook? I have a few criteria that are important to me.

  1. Core traditional recipes need to be included.
  2. Excellent photos.
  3. Minimal ingredients.
  4. Minimal steps.
  5. An overview of ingredients.
  6. Minimal blabber from the writer about themselves.
  7. A comprehensive glossary.
  8. Are you learning how to assemble ingredients or are you learning how to cook? A good cookbook will leave your feeling more confident and empowered. A poor one won’t.

The Kimchi Chronicles is almost perfect. The author goes through the important ingredients to Korea cooking and their different names. Traditional recipes are included in the book along with some new fusion ones. The steps and ingredients are not overwhelming. I made 4 dishes from the book that all turned out great.

Other than the occasional mention of vegetable oil as an ingredient, which annoys me, the only issue I had with this book was the glossary could have been better edited. Bibimbap was not listed under “B”, it was listed under “Main Dishes”. I found that odd. If you are going to use that method at least add “Bibimbap (see Main Dishes > Bibimbap)”.

It is rare for me to recommend a cookbook for purchase. The Kimchi Chronicles is one of them. It feels like more than a cookbook. It is like a took a course in Korean cooking. I am also aware there was a TV show for this book on PBS. I didn’t see it, but if it ever shows up on Netflix Instant, I will watch it for sure.

Octopus Take 2

Back in August I had my first attempt cooking octopus. The result was a little on the chewy side.

I followed this advice for the first few octopus and 3 minutes was too much. Way too chewy. The remaining ones took about half that time. The chewiness was far less, but still not absent. Even though my marinade was 6 hours, it seemed the flavors never soaked in to the octopus. The Korean spices tasted like more like a topping.

I got a few comments suggesting that the 6 hour marinade wasn’t enough. I would also need to massage the little guys. How much? 40-50 minutes. Well, there was never a chance that was going to happen. So a friend of mine and my cooking mentor told me about a Chinese hack. Add baking soda to the marinade. I used about half a teaspoon of baking soda and reduced the marinade time down to 3 hours. The result was my dish wasn’t chewy. Still not awesome, but much better.

Korean Octopus

Making Gluten Free Korean Chili Paste (Gochujang)

Recently I started teaching myself Korean cooking and I noticed that one of the core ingredients – Gochujnag – has gluten in it. Gochujang is the Korean chili paste used in several dishes including Bibimbop. I went to many different Asian markets, including the Korean H Mart, and read the labels of every brand. Every single gochujang I saw sold in Seattle has gluten in it. It is very likely that you will be getting gluten exposure when ordering any dish at a Korean restaurant that uses chili paste. Sneaky gluten filler is exactly what I discovered when I researched commercial gyro meat.

For this post, I want to thank Gluten-Free Veg-heads UNITE for their post Gluten-Free Victory!! Spicy Korean Bean Paste. They spotted in the Wikipedia how commercial production of gochujang took over in the 1970s and this was likely when gluten became a staple ingredient. Probably because it is cheap and acts as a preservative. Why it is there is of no concern to me. The important thing is that I am able to make my own gluten-free version. Using the recipe from Shizouka Gourmet converted by Veg-Heads and then adjusted my me, I made my own.

Ingredients

  • 1 1/8 cup water
  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup Korean chili powder
  • 1 cup miso paste with no MSG or Gluten
  • 1 Tablespoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon rice vinegar

Directions

The directions are posted with photos on Korean Cuisine: Home-Made Gochujang. Here is the summary.

  1. Add water and brown sugar into pan. Heat until sugar is dissolved.
  2. Add Miso and keep heating until dissolved. Use a wooden spatula. Keep going until everything is smooth.
  3. After most of the water has dissolved, add the Korean chili powder and stir.
  4. When big bubbles start appearing, turn off heat.
  5. Let the paste cool and little and then stir in salt and rice vinegar.
  6. Jar paste. Shizouka Gourmet says it should keep for a year.

I avoid soy, unless it has gone through a fermentation such as miso or natto.

Korean red pepper flakes.

Making the Gochujang.

Finished Gochujang.

I’ve made 3 clay pot dishes using my gochujang. They tasted great and without gluten. My gochujang was a little more on the sweet side than spicy. When I make this again next time, I will increase the amount of of chili powder. At some point if I continue to be interested in Korean cooking, I may ferment my own gochujang. Note that the Maangchi tutorial is not gluten free, so the recipe would need to adjusted.

UPDATE November 2013: There now exists a commercially available GF gochujang.

Anchovy Kelp Stock

Making beef stock is something I’ve been doing regularly for a few years now. As wonderful as that magic elixir is, I have been meaning to make a fish based stock for a long time. My motivation came recently when I started teaching myself Korean cooking. One of the base stocks for Korean recipes is the anchovy kelp stock. If you have access to a Korean grocery store this stock will be super easy make. If you aren’t sure, do a search for H Mart in your city.

I averaged several recipes online and then threw out their measurements and just winged it. All you need for this recipe is a container of dried anchovies and a package of DashimaDashima is a large seaweed kelp. My guess is that if your Asian market doesn’t carry this, you can substitute with another packaged seaweed. Then again I’m from Ohio and my entire Korean cultural experience was from a layover in Seoul three years ago.

My photo of the Dried Anchovies didn’t turn out well. This photo is by Kevin Chan. 

To make the Anchovy Kelp Stock, I dumped a container of dried anchovies and several pieces of broken up Dashima into a stock pot. Then I covered it all with cold water and let it soak for 2 hours. After the soak, I slowly brought the water up to a very light boil for 7 minutes. Then I turned off the heat and let it cool for a while. At that point, I removed the fish and seaweed and jarred the stock. That is it. I threw away the used fish and kelp, because I couldn’t find anyone online that had a use for them. Please add a comment if you know of a second use.

If you desire measurements or more detailed instructions, check out this page or this page. I didn’t measure anything. In the spirit of stock, I just guessed and to no surprise it turned out great.

Anchovy Kelp stock is often added to Korean dishes prepared inside clay pots. Guess who bought his first Korean clay pot this weekend? :)