If there is a dish that defined the start of my passion for cooking as a young child, Kkorigomtang is the dish. Oxtail soup was and still is one of my favorite comfort foods of all time. And the secret to making a beautiful pot of this soup is the care involved in correctly preparing the oxtails for the soup. I like to joke about how my mother was a terrible cook when I was growing up, and well…even she will admit that cooking is not one of her strong suits, but like all Korean mothers, she would take the time to cook some of my favorite dishes for me when I was sick, or if I had done well in school, or when I would come back to Chicago after spending the summer months in Toronto with my aunt and cousins. Now here’s the catch…she would usually make me Kkorigomtang as a welcome home dinner, but after spending weeks eating my aunt’s version of the very same soup I realized something was up. These were not the same soups!
My aunt was notorious for being the best cook in our family. Everything she cooked was delicious, whether it was a simple bowl of rice with egg and seaweed or a fancy korean banquet for family gatherings. When she would whip up a pot of oxtail soup, the broth would be a rich creamy white, the meat sweet and tender and literally falling off the bones and she would serve it with a bowl of spicy and crisp home made kkakdugi (radish kimchi). My mother’s version was generally a murky yellowish broth and the meat, while tender, would have a slight metallic taste. So what was up? My young mind needed to know how two people could cook the same soup and have such different end results. From then on my visits to Toronto was always filled with days in the kitchen peppering my aunt with questions. Watching how she could transform simple ingredients into beautiful dishes full of fragrance and flavor. She cooked with all her love and generosity and you could taste it on the plate. I miss and think about her every time I’m in the kitchen and suspect that she would have been tickled pink to see me making kimchi and cooking up some of her best recipes. So here’s how she taught me to make oxtail soup. If you want my mom’s childhood version- buy the oxtails, throw them into a pot with some water and let it boil away…..I hope you’ll follow the directions below! (Even my mother has amended her errant ways and now cooks Kkorigomtang the “proper” way 😉 )
side note: My picture above really does no justice to this dish. What can I say, I am no photographer…I also am not a good patient blogger who takes photos in between the steps. Sorry folks! One of these days I will get my act together. 😉 But hopefully the recipe will suffice and inspire you to make what I consider one of the greatest, simplest and most delicious dishes of all time!
Kkorigomtang – Korean Oxtail Soup
firstly, let me start and say that exact measurements have never been my strong point, but this is a very forgiving soup so as long as you follow the basic instructions, you’ll be fine!
5-6 good sized oxtails*
1 onion, quartered
3-4 garlic cloves, sliced
toasted sesame seeds & minced green onions for garnish
salt & pepper
*make sure you get fresh oxtails from a younger or at least youngish animal. If the fat and collagen around the meat looks very yellow and the meat has a bluish, purply tint rather than bright red…back away from the counter…these are not the oxtails you are looking for, I repeat, back away from the counter! Believe me, after having been a little blasé about buying some oxtails that came from.. ahem..the geriatric cow set, because, why not…it’s just going into a soup. I mean soup chickens are old birds too. Just don’t do it. Get the freshest, reddest, least fattiest set of oxtails you can find.
Now you’ve got your oxtails, so to make a foolproof broth, we need to prep those puppies accordingly. First, trim away any excess fat. I find the oxtails I get in the US have considerable less fat on them than the ones I find in Berlin. Now before anyone makes any jokes about US cows getting liposuction, I am fairly certain the Korean butchers in the US take the time to butcher away all the fat and gristle because they know their customers….Angry korean ahjumas complaining about fatty oxtails is not something you want to willingly subject yourself to! (And oxtails in general are not something you will find in the normal American grocery store. Now at a hipster gourmet store…oxtails will abound- at about 3 times the cost at the Korean market!) In Berlin, I usually only find oxtails with any regularity at Turkish butchers and they are usually covered with a healthy coating of fat, but I find most cuts of meat here are more fatty in general- well, at least less trimmed away than the American equivalents. I could get into theoretical discussions about the whys and wherefores…but that will have to be for another discussion.
So oxtails! Let your gorgeous oxtails soak in a bowl of cold water for at least 1 hour to draw out some of the blood. If you’re in a hurry, 1 soak will do. If you’re hardcore, give it another soak for another hour to draw out even more blood and change the water a few times during each soaking period. The key to the creamy white broth is getting out all the blood from the meat and bones.
While the oxtails are finishing up soaking, grab your biggest stock pot and fill it midway with water and bring it to a boil. Rinse off the oxtails and drop carefully into the boiling water. Boil for 20-25 minutes to blanch away any residual blood and impurities that are still in the meat, then carefully drain the oxtails and rinse under cold water to remove any last bits of gristle. Wash out the stock pot, put in the oxtails and refill to the top with fresh COLD water. (I know cooks like to use hot water from the tap to save time for boiling, but I usually am adverse to this because hot water has higher levels of lead that leaches from the pipes, so keep it cold folks).
Now you just need to let the soup come to a boil, then cover with a lid, lower the heat and keep it on an even simmer for the next 4-6 hours. Occasionally skim off any brown scum that rises to the surface. After about 3 hours of simmering put the onion and garlic into the pot. Eventually the broth will reduce in half, and the meat will literally start to fall off the bones. This is when the soup is done. (If you find the broth is reducing too quickly, add more water and reduce the heat even more.) If you’re hungry, you can ladle yourself a bowl of soup and an oxtail and start slurping away. If you are a purist, put the stockpot into the fridge. Let the broth cool until all the fat has formed a thin disc on top. Scrape away the fat, then reheat and serve. I don’t know why, but Korean soups usually have no fat, just pure broth. Some of my German students in my cooking classes found this strange because they equated fat with flavor. While fat is flavor, I guess in Korea, we eat our fats in different forms and animal fat is not a huge component in the daily diet. Also, the different soups are usually so pure and flavorful you don’t really miss the fat!
Serve the oxtails in a large bowl with a generous amount of broth. Salt and pepper to taste.* Seasoning is something that is left to each individual, which is why most Korean soups are cooked without any salt and you will find bowls of sea salt on the dining table. Garnish each bowl with some toasted sesame and chopped spring onions and serve with a bowl of rice and some kimchi! This soup is great for nursing a hangover, or when you’re feeling blue, hungry, tired, cold…and like my other bone broth recipe, this is bone broth at it’s best!
*I would suggest you season the soup per serving. This recipe will make quite a large amount of soup and if you season the entire pot it will get saltier as you reheat it. This soup also stores extremely well. You can freeze individual servings and enjoy for later.