Recipe: Dak Gae Jang or Spicy Korean Chicken Stew (닭개장)

I think at one point during my childhood, winter was actually my favorite season. The pastime of playing in the snow with friends, making snowmen, going sledding/skiing and other activities- not to mention the warmth and merriness of the holiday season overall- makes it a hard case for anyone who's experienced that in the States to dislike it.

But flash forward to brutal metropolitan city winter life as an adult and man... it's no longer fun and good times. Everything just becomes a headache or nuisance from the polluted snow (which later turns to polluted slush) to the extreme wind chills that makes even simple activities (such as catching a bus) seem like God is having a chuckle at your expense. And is it just me, or does every winter seem to be getting colder and colder? I may be adjusting worse this year because of my nice and toasty vacation in Thailand recently but man, the chill factor is just messing with my productivity and overall gusto.

One of the few ways I've found to get through the barren, Arctic-like winter season have been through simple and easy comfort foods. As such, admittedly I've been making some dishes that should be called "treats" for the higher amount of sugar, salt, frying, and such involved but I've also been making Korean dishes that make me think of home and momma's cooking.

One of those dishes in that latter category is yook gae jang, a hearty and spicy beef soup that's simmered with sprouts, gosari, lots of leeks, and other goodies that's guaranteed to fill your belly and soul. When my mom used to make a big vat of it, it meant yook gae jang for a few days- if it lasted that long from my yook gae jang-ecstatic father and me. Unfortunately, yook gae jang is no simple soup to make as it involves long simmering of hunks of beef and then additional preparation of the other ingredients before the soup can even be made. A less daunting version is dak gae jang, made from chicken, which can be created even simpler with the use of a rotisserie chicken.

Dak gae jang (닭개장) is a cousin of yook gae jang which is sometimes incorrectly spelled as 닭'계'장 or dak 'gye' jang because people assume the Chinese character-derived 'gye' for 'chicken' is used here. In an interesting bit of history trivia on the etymology of the name, dak gae jang is derived from yook gae jang which itself is based off of gae jang or 개장 which is a spicy soup that was made with dog meat (hence the '개' or 'gae' for dog) and consumed long ago. As anyone familiar with Korean cuisine knows, very, very few Koreans eat dog meat now but yook gae jang, made with beef, is a very popular dish now as is dak gae jang, made with chicken, though significantly less so than yook gae jang.

But both yook gae jang and dak gae jang are favorites of Koreans for warming you up to your bone and pairs perfectly with a steaming bowl of rice and kimchi (of course). To make everything for dak gae jang from scratch, you would need to prepare and boil a chicken to make the stock but to eliminate those steps, I like to use a rotisserie chicken which is what this recipe uses. Depending on your rotisserie chicken, it may have a slightly smoky flavor, but it's still very tasty AND saves you a lot of time and steps so you can get on getting through the seemingly endless winter.

Dak Gae Jang (Spicy Chicken Soup)
Makes about 4 servings

You'll need:
- 8-10 cups of Chicken Stock (see below for simple instructions)
- Water as needed (if soup level is looking a little low during cooking)
- 3-4 cups of shredded Chicken meat (use rotisserie to make it easier)
- About 4-5 cups of Mung Bean Sprouts, uncooked (can use 3-4 cups of Soybean Sprouts as alternative)
- 1 package, or about 2-3 cups, of fernbrakes, or gosari "고사리", chopped into 2-3" pieces (there's a dried kind and a "wet" kind, please use the latter for ease)
- 1/2 cup of sliced Shiitake Mushrooms or Oyster Mushrooms
- 5-6 large Green Onions, green part sliced into 2" slices and white part for the stock making
- 4 tbsp of Red Pepper flakes
- 3 tbsp of mined Garlic
- 3.5 tbsp of Soy Sauce (I try and use 2 tbsp of the guk or "soup" soy sauce and 1.5 tbsp of the regular soy sauce but you can just use 3 tbsp of any soy sauce on hand)
- 1.5 tbsp of Sesame Oil
- Salt and Pepper

1. The soup is essential for a good dak gae jang and to do this you have to begin with a good stock. For an extra flavorful and nutritious stock, I like to make use of the blanching water for the ingredients. Bring to a boil about 11-12 cups of water in a large pot. Then add the washed and inspected mung bean (or soy bean) sprouts and mushroom slices and blanch them in the boiling water for 2-3 minutes with the lid closed. Then take out the partially cooked soybean sprouts and mushroom slices (making sure to reserve the liquid in the pot) and cool the sprouts and mushroom in a large bowl of water before draining. Set aside the cooked and drained soybean sprouts and mushroom slices in a large bowl along with the gosari (dried fernbrake)*.

*Note- As I said, there's a dried kind and a wet kind of gosari. The wet one is ready to cook and only requires rinsing. If it's the dried version, put it in a bowl with some water a few hours before and it'll plump up and be ready to cook (ie - it will turn into the "wet" kind).

Then in that same liquid we used to blanch the sprouts and mushroom, we're going to use it to make the chicken stock. Debone the cooked rotisserie chicken meat from the bones along with the skin. Set the chicken meat aside in the same bowl as your soybean sprouts and mushrooms and toss the bone and skin into a heavy-bottom pot so that everything is plenty submerged (add more water as needed if liquid levels are looking low). For good measure, I like to toss in a roughly chopped onion, green onion, and any vegetable scraps I have on hand but this is optional.

Bring the water to a boil on high and when it begins bubbling, turn the heat down to medium-low and cook with the lid on for a minimum of 15-20 minutes and up to an hour. The longer you cook, the deeper the broth's flavor will be. Be careful it doesn't overflow though!

2. While your broth is being made, turn your attention to the sprouts, mushrooms, and chicken meat sitting in the bowl together. Begin by adding the soy sauce, red pepper flakes, minced garlic, sesame oil, a few pinches of salt and pepper, and mixing everything together until it's incorporated. This will be the spicy seasoning for your soup.

3. After the boiling, your broth should take on a nice pale-golden color. Discard the chicken bones, skin, and any other ingredients you added for stock-making.

4. Put the broth back on medium-high heat and add in the seasoned sprouts, gosari, mushroom, and chicken mixture, along with the green onion slices, into the chicken broth and give it a mix. Let it cook for 15-20 more minutes. Taste and adjust with salt and red pepper flakes (if you want it more spicier) before serving by ladling into large soup bowls.

Dak gae jang practically screams to be served with rice. In fact, you can even serve it by scooping rice into the soup bowl first before ladling the dak gae jang over it.

Not only is the soup full of nutrients, it's also hearty and robust in flavor. Simple and plainer side dishes such as seasoned soybean sprouts, spinach, or a simple gyeran mari (rolled egg) will pair wonderfully with the dak gae jang. It's just the thing during the cold winter!