When I grab my container of cabbage kimchi out of the fridge, and serve myself a little out of the container, I get excited when I take a bite of the kimchi and realize it’s a bit too sour to eat on its own. The reason I get excited, is because I’ve caught the kimchi at a point past its “eating as a side” peak, but before the kimchi becomes a soft, spoiled, mess. When kimchi reaches the sour but not spoiled point, it’s perfect for one of my favorite Korean dishes, kimchi soup.
One of the few things I learned while growing up, is that kimchi soup must, must be made from sour kimchi. Why? When the kimchi hasn’t reached the sourness it needs, kimchi soup is bland. The best way to compare, would be with an incredibly bland chicken noodle soup. We’ve all had chicken noodle soup where you are left unsatisfied. You’re not quite sure why, but there’s a disappointment in the calories you’ve just consumed (and remember kids, when you get older, those calories count!).
No matter how many ingredients you put in, unless your kimchi is sour, the ingredients are not going to make your soup much better. On the other hand, when you have a kimchi that has reached perfect sourness, the number of ingredients you need is minimal to make a satisfying soup. In fact, most of the time I just scrounge up what I have in my kitchen to make kimchi soup. My recipes are never exactly the same, nor the ingredients that I use.
How can you tell if your kimchi is just right for kimchi soup? Take a bite of kimchi. Is there still a little crisp in the kimchi, and has a sharp sourness? That’s what you’re going for. If your kimchi is soft and mushy, there’s slime or mold, don’t even taste it, just throw it out. Some grocery stores will sell “old fermented” kimchi. That will tend to work too. Cabbage kimchi is used for the kimchi soup; radish or turnip kimchi just gets mushy in the soup.
Here’s what I used for my kimchi soup I ate today; just ingredients I already had at hand in my kitchen (yes, seriously, these are ingredients I had at hand). In general, when I’m making kimchi soup, I use ingredients that are quick to cook. Also, the ingredients I have either pair well with kimchi or have neutral flavors.
I like to garnish with Korean Chile pepper threads. Serve with a side of rice.
Quick and simple kimchi soup
1 tsp vegetable oil
2 oz pork belly, cut into thin 1-inch slices
¼ cup onion (yellow, white, or red works; I used red this time), sliced
1 tsp garlic, minced
1 thai chile (red if possible), minced
1 tsp gochujang (Korean chile paste)
1 tsp gochugaru (Korean chile flakes)
2 cups of sour cabbage kimchi with its liquid
1 cup chicken stock
½ tsp sugar
¼ tsp fish sauce
4 oz firm tofu, in ½ inch slices
1 cup bean sprouts
1 green onion, thinly sliced
Korean chile pepper threads
- Heat up the vegetable oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add in the pork belly and onion. Sautee the pork belly and onion for a minute or two, until fragrant and the pork belly starts rendering. Add in the garlic and stir for another minute; making sure the garlic does not burn.
- Once the pork belly has browned slightly, add in the thai chile, gochujang, and gochugaru. Stir to combine and cook for a minute to let the ingredients combine.
- Turn the heat to high, and add in the kimchi with liquid, stock, sugar, and fish sauce. Stir to combine. Let the soup come to a boil, then turn down and simmer for 3-5 minutes.
- After the soup has simmered for 3-5 minutes, add the tofu and bean sprouts. Simmer for another couple minutes, until the bean sprouts become slightly limp. Taste and add additional salt if needed.
- Turn off heat and add the green onion. Ladle into bowls and garnish with the chile pepper threads and a small drizzle of sesame oil.