by Ben on March 11, 2011 · 37 comments

in Gluten Free, Index, Korean, Pescatarian, Seafood, Soups

Los Angeles seems like both a home and a theory to me. I spent the first thirteen years of my life there, and continue to visit every few months. Despite its changes, and all I read about what’s going on in the city (OK, really just what’s going on in food, but that’s admittedly a lot), I experience LA much the way I experienced it as a child. Living a relatively insular life, wandering through slightly run-down suburban neighborhoods, watching television, and eating a LOT of my mother’s cooking.

True to her stereotype, Mom is never satisfied with the amount of food I’ve eaten. She speaks wistfully of the days when I “used to eat a lot.” Yes, Mom. I did eat a lot back then. When I was eighteen. Don’t get me wrong—I can still chow down with the best of them. But I’ll put it this way: my parents live in a one-bedroom, 800 sq ft apartment. With two refrigerators. I’m convinced that one of those refrigerators is for me.

She usually starts asking about a month and a half in advance (presumably so that I have time to start stretching my stomach out): What do you think you’ll want to eat? It’s admittedly hard for me to predict exactly what I’m going to be in the mood for, but there are standbys. Spicy kimchi, of course. Yaki mandu for my wife. Bindae duk. Godeungeo gui. And there’s one dish that Mom knows I’ll want absolutely every time. She doesn’t even bother to ask.

I think of sigumchi guk as a sort of miso soup on steroids. Instead of miso, the primary flavor is doenjang, a Korean fermented soy paste. The flavor of doenjang is saltier, richer and bolder than its Japanese counterpart. The soup is made with spinach, though I also used to request a swiss chard version (kundae guk). And finally, there are small clams, which add sweetness to the soup.

This dish is dead simple, and I can’t get enough of it. I can and do eat the soup at breakfast, lunch, and dinner when I’m home with my parents. And each time I do, I’m instantly transported to our kitchen in Hawthorne, CA, circa 1979.

Sigumchi Guk (Spinach and clam soup)

1/2 T vegetable oil
1/2 round onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
5 C chicken stock*
2 – 3 T doenjang
optional: up to 1 jalapeno, sliced
about 1 lb small clams or mussels, rinsed and scrubbed
1 bunch fresh spinach (about 1/2 lb), cleaned and picked
about 1 – 2 T white vinegar
optional: 1 green onion, sliced

*If you’re dead set on making this the way my Mom does, you’ll make your own anchovy/kombu stock, as I’m sure BraveTart will. However, at Babychili Test Kitchen, we’ve found that chicken or beef stock make an equally satisfying soup. As I’ve discussed previously, I advise making your own, or very carefully selecting a palatable storebought version. (Shhh… I won’t tell Ruhlman if you don’t.)

In a medium saucepan, saute onion in oil over medium heat until barely softened. Add garlic and cook for 1 minute longer. Add stock, mixing in doenjang until dissolved. (An easy way to do this is to mash the doenjang in a small bowl with a spoon and a ladle-full of stock, then add back to the pot.)

When the stock comes to a boil, add jalapeno (if desired), clams, and spinach. Cook until the clams open, discarding any that do not. The spinach should be soft, and on the verge of becoming dull green. Add a splash or two of vinegar to correct for acid. Since the doenjang is salty, there should be no need to season further.

Serve hot, with steamed, short-grain, white rice (we prefer the Nishiki brand). Feel free to add rice directly to the soup, if you prefer to eat it that way. Optionally garnish with a sprinkle of green onion.


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36 comments… read them below or add one

Joan Nova March 11, 2011 at 4:40 am

Lovely. The narrative, the recipe, the photo.


Ben March 11, 2011 at 11:02 am

Thanks, Joan.


Tiffany March 11, 2011 at 7:25 am

Great story, beautiful soup!


Ben March 11, 2011 at 11:04 am

Thank you, Tiffany. My sister makes a version where she supplements chicken stock with the water that’s left over from rehydrating dried shittake mushrooms. She also adds the sliced mushrooms, and I think black pepper and honey. There may be a way to adapt this to be vegetarian/vegan. It will be sweeter/lighter, but I think it’s doable.


Jean March 11, 2011 at 9:29 am

This reminds me of a soup my mom often served at home growing up. It was simply called “tulya” which means clams in filipino. Lovely story about your mom. Mom’s are awesome. Though mine doesn’t like to cook very much anymore since she and my dad became empty nesters, she always has my favorite dishes waiting for me when I visit. Will have to seek out doenjang on my next trip to the Asian store.

Is this the dish you shot in the evening? Looks fab! Now why can’t I use my lights like this?


Ben March 11, 2011 at 11:00 am

I’ve discovered 2 things: (1) There are several varied recipes for filipino soup with tulya, and they all sound delicious. (2) There is no search function on your site, that I can find! Actually, I already knew #2. I’d love to read the recipe for your mom’s soup. Did you post about it?

And thanks for the compliment about the photos. We did need to futz with the white balance a bit, but were pleased with the results.


Amy K. March 11, 2011 at 10:59 am

To this day my mom will also ask what i want to eat a month or two in advance of a visit. Among other dishes, this soup appears on the menu. My mom also makes the anchovy-based broth, but often makes the swiss chard version since they grow it in their garden by the bushels. I recently made this soup with collard greens which makes for a very hearty soup. The earthy bitterness of the greens complements the dwaeng jang really welll.

I have to admit that I’ve never had it with onions which I imagine would make the soup even sweeter.

Great story and beautiful photos! Is this really from your evening shoot??


Ben March 11, 2011 at 11:01 am

Thanks, Amy! Yup, we used the Ego light. It rocks. Also, I do love it with swiss chard. I think it’s the first context that I ever tasted that particular green. It has a wonderfully silky texture in this soup.


Steph @ okie dokie artichokie March 11, 2011 at 12:27 pm

It’s the same way with my family back in CA. At least two months prior, they drill me on giving them requests for meals so they can start preparing “the menu.” The ever elusive menu. :-p But, who’s to blame them — they get excited about food. I wonder where I got it from. My dad makes a pretty kick ass Chinese fried rice, which we also eat at all hours of the day. I look forward to eating it in my PJ’s. 🙂


Ben March 11, 2011 at 2:20 pm

I love asian “breakfast.” 🙂 Mmmm, fried rice…


Stella March 11, 2011 at 5:01 pm

Oh, you better believe I’ll be makin’ up some dashi. I will, however, have to find a replacement for the clams. Can’t do shellfish. Should I use a white fish?


Ben March 11, 2011 at 5:10 pm

Hm, I’d be tempted to go with a seasoned codfish roe or dried pollack. Lemme ask my mom what she would do…


Ben March 12, 2011 at 6:16 pm

Mom says she often makes it without shellfish. She tends to dry fry the dried anchovies, use them for stock, and them put them back into the soup. Tastes different, obviously, without clams. I think your idea of using white fish is a good one. Probably better than what I suggested, since the flavor’s more delicate.


Sara @CaffeIna March 11, 2011 at 5:44 pm

I don’t think any mom is ever satisfied with how much we eat…or maybe that was my problem too because of my Italian mom (and now I do the same with hubby!). But honestly I could eat this soup any time too. So simple and so perfect!


Ben March 12, 2011 at 6:19 pm

That’s probably true. As long as it’s your own mom you’re asking, you don’t eat enough. 🙂


Hester aka The Chef Doc March 12, 2011 at 11:37 pm

Aw, what a lovely post. Aren’t moms just the best?


Ben March 13, 2011 at 10:30 am

Mine is! 🙂


Damaris @KitchenCorners March 12, 2011 at 11:55 pm

lovely lovely lovely post. I got in trouble when I was dating my husband because it was MY fault he didn’t eat enough at my grandmother’s house (Brazilians are like Koreans). I obviously didn’t make him feel welcome enough. My grandma still talks about it. It’s been almost 10 years.


Ben March 13, 2011 at 10:32 am

I’ll let my wife weigh in on that. On the other hand, my mom also reads the blog… Uh, no comment!


Lael Hazan @educatedpalate March 13, 2011 at 6:33 am

Lovely pictures and post. It seems to be a cross cultural phenomenon that all “moms” want their children to eat. Ah… the comforts of home. Is there a particular type of clam that you prefer in the soup?


Ben March 13, 2011 at 10:41 am

Thanks, Lael. For the soup pictured, I used littlenecks, since they (along with manila clams), are delicious and easily available most places in the States. My mom uses all kinds, most commonly small razor clams, arc clams, or mussels. She typically uses cooked, frozen clams or clam meat (and occasionally oyster meat) from the Korean grocery. She tends to use them more to flavor the stock. I personally like to eat the clams, so I don’t want them to get tough. So I buy live clams, clean them, and don’t cook them long.


Sarah March 13, 2011 at 8:14 am

Lovely post and photos. We just snatched up a bag of clams at the Farmer’s Market yesterday and my husband is going to L-O-V-E this recipe. Thanks for sharing.


Ben March 13, 2011 at 10:45 am

Thanks. Wonderful writing on your site, Sarah.


Jackie March 14, 2011 at 11:44 am

What a beautiful post, Ben. Food is so central to Asian families, isn’t it? Every time I’m feeling down or have just come home from a long trip, Momma Lee always makes me one of my “favourite” dishes. I just got back from the East Coast and tonight she’s put on a chicken curry.

Beautiful dish and photography as always, but that I wouldn’t doubt for a second 😉

Jax x


Ben March 15, 2011 at 12:14 am

Oh, I know it must be bittersweet to return home after such a trip, but I’m sure that curry makes everything seem right for at least a moment. It was so lovely to meet you in person, Jackie. Thanks for including us on your tour of SF!


Rachel March 17, 2011 at 9:00 am

I love this soup and how simple it is to make! And your mom sounds a lot like my mom (maybe a Korean mother thing) – everything has to be made from scratch. I miss sitting with her on the kitchen floor cutting up radish and cabbage and plucking off anchovy heads. That and drying hot peppers in the backyard for all the neighbors to see and smell. Ahh, the good ol’ days.

I love your posts.


Ben March 17, 2011 at 11:34 am

No joke—my mom’s first comment upon reading the post was: “It doesn’t look like there’s much soup in that bowl.” 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing.


Danielle March 20, 2011 at 12:08 pm

This looks perfect for the weather we’ve been having – and are going to have – at the moment. Bought a load of littleneck clams yesterday which we steamed with creme fraiche, white wine and fennel, but I could always do with more variety, like yours!


Ben March 20, 2011 at 10:47 pm

I think it’s perfect for any kind of weather. But if you want cold, come visit us in the Sunset. 🙂


Stella March 21, 2011 at 3:16 pm

Okay. I’ve got the white fish. I’ve got my dashi. But can you please provide your doejang recipe? 😉 Having this tomorrow!! And, after you brought up the mandu on Twitter, I sent my husband back to the store for chicken. It’s gonna be Rhau-dy (or, Rhau-DIY?) at my house tomorrow night for dinner. So excited.


Ben March 21, 2011 at 3:38 pm

O, nice. I know my Mom’s made doenjang before, but now she buys it. I would have provided guidance for that, but couldn’t get the most info out of her. I have two kinds. One that’s labeled only in Korean, and another that my Mom brought in a mason jar. When I asked her what kind it was, she mumbled something about it being made by Korean nuns. Do you want me to send u a pic of the first container? I know they’ve got Korean grocery stories in Lex, but I don’t know how many choices you’ll have.


Stella March 22, 2011 at 5:58 am

Wow, I want the Korean nuns brand! Actually, I have a good jar from my last trip to LA, my brother lives in K-town. He always wants to take me to see famous people and do fancy stuff, he works at Warner, but he can’t pull me out of the Zion market.


sippitysup March 23, 2011 at 8:48 am

The foods from our youth have so much power over us. Mother’s know this! GREG


Mariko March 26, 2011 at 10:01 pm

My mom has never had this problem. She usually puts a pre-set amount on my plate. And then I ask for 2nds. And 3rds. I think she usually tells me I’ve had enough already.

Love this post. I’m not a huge clam fan but I think your description makes me want it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner as well.


Sarah C. December 20, 2011 at 7:41 am

Yay! Hawthorne, CA! California is a theory for me as well. A theory I am still trying to decide is worth making a rality once again. Thanks for the great story and the walk down memory lane. My mother, too, asks me about a month in advance what I will want to eat. Being that I am now in a land-locked state full of feed corn and affordable house prices, my answer is always the same – seafood and farmer’s market produce (and pupusas, of course).


Barbara March 16, 2012 at 7:26 am

Oh, that looks fantastic.

I discovered nghêu hấp xả (steamed clams with lemongrass) in Vietnam. I’m not sure you could eat that for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but it is one of my favourite dishes of all time.
You’ve inspired me to find out how to cook nghêu hấp xả. Thank you, Ben.

On a side note, my Mum was and is a terrible cook. She starts stressing about feeding me about a month and a half before I visit. She gets so worked up that 85% of her cooking turn into disasters. I used to cook when I went home to visit, but my husband has now taken over the duties.


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