The perfect solution for combating the fatigue that often accompanies long winters is a comforting bowl of rice and a dolsot (stone pot) filled with gamja-tang, a spicy pork bone stew thickened with potato and crushed perilla seeds. It’s garnished with sliced scallions, fresh chiles, and torn perilla leaves. This dish not only highlights the flavor and versatility of kkaennip (perilla), a distinctive ingredient in Korean cuisine, but also showcases its role as a thickening agent in soups and stews, as well as a refreshing garnish that balances the richness of the meat.
Selecting the Pork Cut for Gamja-Tang
Traditionally, gamja-tang is prepared with pork neck bones, which are readily available at supermarkets and butchers. However, I prefer using pork spare ribs in my version. To enhance the browning process, I brown St. Louis-cut racks of ribs that have been cut into smaller portions of 5 or 6 ribs. After searing and resting, I further cut them into individual rib pieces. This makes it easier to handle while eating and eliminates the need for blanching, unlike neck bones. If pork ribs are not accessible, boneless pork shoulder can be used as an alternative. However, I recommend using approximately three-fourths of the weight of boneless shoulder meat, which would be 1 1/2 pounds of pork shoulder cut into 2-inch pieces, instead of the 2 pounds of spare ribs specified in the recipe.
While there are various methods of preparing gamja-tang, with some recipes combining all the ingredients in a pot and simmering them together, my version involves adding the ingredients in stages. This ensures that each component is cooked to the perfect texture while contributing to the overall heartiness of the stew.
I begin by browning the ribs in batches in a Dutch oven to ensure they develop a deep, rich color. Once the ribs are removed, I add ginger, garlic, onion, gochugaru (Korean red pepper flakes), and doenjang (fermented soybean paste) to the pot, cooking them over low heat in the rendered pork fat. The natural moisture released from the aromatics hydrates the gochugaru, imparting its floral aroma and creating a beautiful deep red hue.
Next, I introduce chicken broth, fish sauce, and potatoes to the pot, along with the seared pork ribs. It’s crucial to allow the ribs and potatoes to cook for about 30 minutes before adding quick-cooking daikon radish and green cabbage leaves. Otherwise, these ingredients would become overly soft by the time the ribs and potatoes are tender. To control the cooking time, I place the green cabbage leaves over the surface of the stew like a cover, allowing them to steam while the meat and root vegetables simmer below.
Once the daikon radish and potatoes reach a tender consistency, I stir in soaked crushed perilla seeds. These seeds contribute a nutty and herbal note to the stew while further thickening it alongside the potatoes, which naturally break down during the extended cooking time. Since the ingredients were added in a specific order, the stew is ready to be served as soon as the pork becomes tender.
I serve the gamja-tang in individual bowls, topping each with torn perilla leaves, sliced scallions, thinly sliced cabbage core, and chiles for a refreshing crunch. Accompanied by a steaming bowl of white rice, it’s a meal that might even make you wish winter lasted a little longer.
- 2 pounds (900g) of St. Louis-cut pork ribs, divided into two pieces with 5 to 6 ribs each.
- 1 1/2 teaspoons (5g) of Diamond Crystal kosher salt (if using table salt, use half the volume or the same weight).
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) of vegetable oil.
- 1 small white onion (about 5 1/4 ounces; 150g), quartered.
- 9 medium garlic cloves (45g), finely chopped.
- A 2-inch piece of fresh ginger (about 1 ounce; 25g), peeled and finely chopped.
- 3 tablespoons (45g) of doenjang (Korean fermented soybean paste).
- 2 tablespoons (15g) of coarse ground gochugaru (Korean chili powder).
- 1 quart (950ml) of homemade chicken stock or store-bought low sodium chicken broth.
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) of fish sauce.
- 1 1/2 pounds (680g) of Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and approximately 2 to 3 inches in diameter.
- 12 ounces (340g) of daikon radish, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces.
- 1/4 head of green cabbage (about 10 1/2 ounces; 300g), with the core reserved for garnish, and the leaves separated.
- 1/4 cup (40g) of perilla seeds.
- 5 scallions (about 60g), sliced 1/4-inch-thick on a steep bias
- 10 to 12 perilla leaves (about 20g), stemmed and torn into quarters
- 1 hot Korean long pepper or serrano chili, stemmed and thinly sliced (optional)
- Thinly sliced green cabbage core
- To prepare the Gamja-tang:Sprinkle salt on all sides of the ribs.Heat oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat until it starts smoking.Place half of the ribs in the pot with the meat side down. Cook and turn occasionally until both sides are browned, which should take about 6 to 8 minutes.Transfer the browned ribs to a plate and keep them aside.Repeat the browning process with the remaining ribs. Afterward, allow the browned ribs to rest for 5 minutes.Using a sharp knife, cut between the ribs to separate them into individual rib pieces.Place the ribs back on the plate and set them aside.
- Lower the heat to medium-low and introduce the onion to the pot. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is slightly softened, which should take about 5 minutes. Next, add the garlic, ginger, gochugaru, and doenjang, and continue cooking until they release their aromas, approximately 1 minute. Pour in the chicken stock, fish sauce, and add the potatoes. Return the ribs to the pot along with any juices that have accumulated. Bring the mixture to a boiling point and subsequently adjust the heat to a simmer. Cover the pot and cook for about 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are slightly tender on the outside but still firm in the center. You can check by poking them with a paring knife; they should offer resistance.
- Remove the lid and add daikon radish to the stew. Stir it in gently. Then, arrange cabbage leaves in an even layer on top of the stew, effectively forming a lid. Continue cooking, making adjustments to the heat as necessary to maintain a simmer. Cook until the potatoes are completely cooked and offer little resistance when pierced with a paring knife. Additionally, ensure that the daikon radish is just tender. The process should typically require around 30 minutes.
- While the stew is cooking, take a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder and grind the perilla seeds into a coarse powder. Set aside 2 teaspoons of the crushed perilla seeds. Once the potatoes are fully cooked, add the remaining crushed perilla seeds to the stew. Gently stir to incorporate the perilla seeds and cabbage leaves into the stew.
- Continue cooking until the meat on the ribs becomes completely tender, and when poked with a paring knife, it offers minimal resistance. Additionally, the potatoes should have started to break down slightly, which helps thicken the stew. This process will take approximately another 20 minutes. Lastly, taste the stew and season with salt according to your preference.
- For serving: Divide the stew evenly into individual serving bowls. Top each portion with scallions, perilla leaves, chile (if desired), and sliced cabbage core. Serve immediately.