[one_half][L]os 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.