Cooking Up The Korean Equivalent of Chicken Soup
When winter makes its sudden entrance and the first person I know wakes up with that ominous throat-feels-weird sensation, I know it's time to make what I prosaically call "Korean Sick Person Soup." Which in turn reminds me of my middle school days--not the heart-scarring, social-skill-dismantling bad trip of middle school itself, but the summers I spent in the Motherland, courtesy of my numerous wealthy aunts.
They bankrolled sundry summer camps and tours aimed at cultivating my apparently inadequate Koreanness, but honestly all I remember is the food. One aunt's family operated a hospital in what was then a pretty rural area and like many well-off Koreans back then employed a lady to help with domestic responsibilities, or an "ajuma" (a generic term that can refer to any middle-aged woman). And holy crap could this woman cook.
Being an inconsiderate adolescent punk-ass, I'd wake up hours after everyone else ate breakfast (blamed on jet lag, of course) and groggily make my way to the one air-conditioned room and sit on the floor. Then, the ajuma would slide a large, low table in front of me, populated by maybe 25 banchans (the little side dishes served at Korean restaurants), and anchored by a bowl of rice. Jaw-dropping, and this was every freaking day!
But what I most fondly recall was a far simpler spread, served one morning on the big chopping block in the kitchen--a bowl of porridge, flanked by four small dishes containing shredded chicken, sea salt, black pepper, and chopped scallions. I had awoken with the scratchy throat thing (the dreaded summer vacation version no less!) and the ajuma made dahk jook for me. The steaming porridge had distinct chicken, ginger, and garlic flavors yet was immaculately white. Adding the accoutrements to that blank canvas was like ritual, and the seasonings sharp, clear, and unmuddled, were identifiable even through clogged sinuses.
Dahk jook is the Korean permutation of chicken soup, which of course has a long-standing rep as a cold remedy. I always assumed that soup in general was helpful, mainly as a means of hydration. Turns out, to quote the even more prosaic title of one published study, "chicken soup inhibits neutrophil chemotaxis in vitro." Translated from dorkinese: Chicken soup actually reduces inflammation and congestion. It's cool when scientific method catches up with centuries of trial and error.
Instead of the more familiar broth containing various solids, dahk jook utilizes porridge as the vehicle for chicken-derived anti-inflammatory . . . things. It struck me a few years ago as I was making a batch that I didn't know what porridge was exactly. I knew it was served in a bowl, so probably liquidy, eaten with a spoon, and can range in temperature from cold to hot, an image burned into my brain by cartoons (Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata still conjures images of fleeing Smurfs). Why bears like it, I do not know.
Porridge is simply cereal grain cooked with water or milk into a thick soup, like oatmeal or grits; in jook it's rice. Jook can be made with ground pine nuts or even pureed squash, but it always contains rice which is cooked a long time and/or crushed mechanically to break down individual grains, making it creamy and, more importantly for sick folks, easily digestible. The medium-grain rice Koreans normally use is pretty sticky, which unsurprisingly produces sticky jook, one reason why I remember that jook--the uber-jook as I will now call it--so vividly was perplexing; it was very smooth and not sticky at all.
Also, a very white hue is difficult to achieve with short-grain rice, which tends to become translucent and very slightly gray as it cooks down. At first (and whenever I'm being lazy), I simply forwent the aesthetics and texture, focusing merely on capturing the flavor, and presumably the therapeutic properties. This is pretty easy to do, though quite time-consuming since the rice takes at least three hours before it breaks down, and requires constant attention--one has to add liquid and stir about every 15 minutes. It's just like making risotto, wherein the creaminess results from starch being scraped off of the rice kernels as they're stirred. Eventually, the grains break down almost completely. One culinary chestnut holds that a trick to beat constant stirring is placing a teaspoon in the pot which supposedly stirs automatically, spinning about in the boiling liquid. Lies.
The result is a tasty but wan and rather chunky jook, unrefined in basically every way when compared with the uber-jook. I've tried various methods to shorten cooking time, including using cooked rice (saves like 20 minutes max), and breaking up uncooked rice in a blender (impossible, even in my fearsome 1.5 HP Vita-mix). A mortar and pestle works but is of course a total pain in the ass. Pureeing semi-cooked jook rewards you with a steaming pile of glue. The answer was in the Chinese jook analogue called congee, which uses Chinese-style long grain rice.
This type of rice is far less sticky and purees nicely, and in my recipe (available at citypaper.com/eat) I've streamlined the cooking process down to just 30 minutes! It remains a bright, opaque white color, and to preserve its impeccably clean appearance, I enclose minced garlic and ginger in a coffee filter secured with a rubber band--a teabag, really--and cook it with the jook. Also, the chicken is simmered very gently to discourage browning, the resulting broth later reduced over high heat and added right at the end for punched-up flavor. An added bonus is that long grain rice is cheap and readily available at the supermarket.
Where or why that ajuma would've procured long grain rice back then is a mystery, and I doubt she ever used a blender in her life. But my version is definitely a pretty good facsimile of that uber-jook, and pretty easy to make to boot, so earn some brownie and/or karma points this winter and have some on hand.
Makes 6 cups, about 8 servings.
1 cup long grain rice
approx. 8 ounces chicken (bone-in if possible)
3 tablespoons minced ginger
3 tablespoons minced garlic
2 teaspoons salt
Garnish: sea salt, black pepper, finely chopped scallion
Remove skin (if present) from chicken, rinse vigorously under hot water (helps reduce scum in the broth).
Place chicken in pot with 2 cups of water or just enough to cover. Add 1 teaspoon salt, 1 tablespoon garlic, 1 tablespoon ginger, bring to a boil then reduce to low simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes, skimming scum as necessary.
Rinse rice well, then place in a pot with 4 cups of water and 1 teaspoon salt. Secure remaining ginger and garlic in a large coffee filter, cheesecloth, or clean T-shirt fragment, secure with rubber band or twine, and add to pot. Bring to a boil then reduce to medium simmer and cover. Cook for 15 minutes, stirring once halfway through.
Give rice a final stir, remove ginger/garlic sachet, then either carefully transfer to a blender or processor, or use an immersion blender, and puree briefly (30 seconds in a blender/processor; until quite--but not perfectly--smooth with an immersion blender.) Then return to pot if necessary, add 1 cup water, and continue to simmer, stirring constantly, for 15 minutes.
After chicken has been cooking for 20 minutes, remove from pot and allow to cool covered.
Raise heat to high and reduce the broth by half (should take about ten minutes).
After chicken has cooled, shred, and reserve covered.
Strain the reduced chicken broth and add it to the jook, stirring to incorporate fully.
Serve jook hot with shredded chicken and garnish.
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