Gomguk or Gomtang – It Is Still Beef Bone Soup

Gomguk, also known as gomtang or beef bone soup, has been a popular dish in Korea for more than 100 years, and because of the Korean Wave or Hallyu that has spread across different countries of the world, the soup dish has now become popular outside of Korea as well. However, despite its popularity, not many people are familiar with the ingredients used to make gomguk. So, to help you know more about this popular Korean dish, we are here to provide a guide on the origins, the ingredients, and the unique characteristics of gomguk, Korea’s staple beef bone soup.

Origins and Ingredients

Before gomguk was created, it believed that Korean have enjoyed consuming soup with rice since ancient times, and it is speculated that they cooked soup as a way to make the serving of animal bones and parts bigger for their families, as boiling them allows their flavor to be infused with large amounts of water.

During several invasions by Japan in those times, Koreans would often have a hard time raising livestock, and this resulted in them not having enough food supply. So, they resorted to serving as little animal parts as they can and turn them into soup so that the food can be enjoyed by more people. In addition to soup, ancient Koreans would also eat plenty of rice as a way for them to fill up their stomachs much quicker. The rice would often be mixed with soup to also give the rice flavor.

According to several records written during the Joseon dynasty, the beef bone dish called gomguk and gomtang were only served by the elite, as the ingredients used for cooking it were quite expensive in that period. The most common gomguk recipe includes several beef parts like ribs, brisket, ox’s head, and oxtail that are boiled and slow simmered on a low flame. Herbs and special spices can also be added to the gomguk to give it a soothing aroma and rich flavor, although the most common seasoning used for the dish is the guk-ganjang, also known as soup soy sauce. The boiling of different beef parts allows the broth that it produces to have a milky color, similar to how Tonkotsu is prepared in Japan. After it is cooked, the gomguk would then be served as one of the 12 dishes on the surasang or the royal table, and the dish would complement well with the other foods on the table, such as hot pot, kimchi, rice, and other soup dishes.

Nowadays, gomguk is not only consumed by the elite but also by the middle and lower class since its ingredients are now much cheaper. In addition, because it has been easier to prepare, gomguk became one of the most popular foods you can find in smaller restaurants in Korea.

Is Gomguk Different from Seolleongtang?

Most people assume that gomguk and seolleongtang (also known as ox bone soup) are the same, but they are actually different in terms of preparation and ingredients. While gomguk is prepared by boiling different cuts of beef, seolleongtang is cooked by boiling cow bones and scraps until they turn the boiling water into a milky color. Now, both of these soups have a milky broth, but seolleongtang has a much milkier color compared to gomguk. Besides the differences in the cow parts used to prepare them, they also have different seasonings, with gomguk having guk-ganjang while the seolleongtang only has salt as its seasoning.

While a few experts believe that seolleongtang came to be as an alternative dish to gomguk, there are some claiming that seolleongtang was actually created as a celebratory dish after a ritual called “Seonnongje,” which is held each spring at a shrine called “Seonnongdan.” The ritual would often include an offering to the god of agriculture and the god of grains to give them bountiful harvest during the spring season, and a celebratory soup dish that will be prepared using a cow handpicked by the king and will be served to his people. However, there is actually still no concrete evidence to support the claim that the ox bone soup came from the ritual.

On the other hand, there are some historians speculating that both the gomguk and the seolleongtangwas brought by the Mongols to Korea. Thus, through this theory, they assume that both soup dishes became popular in the country around the same time.

Despite their differences in terms of ingredients and preparation methods, both the gomguk and the seolleongtang are considered to be two of the best dishes in Korea. But because of their similarities in appearance, they are often mistaken to be synonymous with each other. Through this simple guide, we hope that you have learned more about the characteristics and the ingredients used for gomguk, and in turn, be able to differentiate it from the other popular soup seolleongtang.