The best remedy for the fatigue that sets in during long winters is a steaming bowl of rice and a dolsot of gamja-tang, a spicy pork bone stew, thickened with potato and crushed perilla seeds, topped with sliced scallions, fresh chiles, and torn perilla leaves. It’s also a dish that showcases the flavor and utility of kkaennip, or perilla, which is a defining ingredient of Korean cuisine. Often mistranslated as “wild sesame,” perilla’s crushed seeds are nutty and slightly bitter, often used as a thickening agent in soups and stews, and its fresh leaves are used as a refreshing garnish to cut through the fatty unctuousness of meat.
Gamja-tang is classically made with pork neck bones, which are easy enough to find at supermarkets and butchers, but I choose to use pork spare ribs for my version. To make the browning process more efficient, I brown St. Louis-cut racks of ribs that have been cut into 5- or 6-rib portions and then cut them into single rib pieces after they’ve been seared and rested for a bit. Individual ribs are a little easier to maneuver while eating and, unlike neck bones, they don’t need to be blanched. If you can’t find pork ribs, boneless pork shoulder also works, however I recommend using about three-fourths as much boneless shoulder meat—1 1/2 pounds of pork shoulder, cut into 2-inch pieces, instead of the 2 pounds of spare ribs called for in the recipe.
While there are many versions of gamja-tang that call for throwing all the ingredients into a pot and simmering everything at once, my version calls for the ingredients to be added in stages, so that each component is cooked to the perfect texture while still becoming a part of a cohesive, hearty stew.
I start by browning the ribs in batches in a Dutch oven, to ensure they’re browned well. After I remove the ribs, I add ginger, garlic, onion, gochugaru, and doenjang to the pot and cook everything over low heat in the rendered pork fat. The liquid released from the aromatics hydrates the gochugaru chile flakes, which release their floral aroma and give the mixture a beautiful deep red hue.
Next, I add chicken broth, fish sauce, and potatoes to the pot, along with the seared pork ribs. It’s important to give the ribs and potatoes a half-hour head start before adding quick-cooking daikon radish and green cabbage leaves, which would otherwise turn to mush by the time the potatoes and ribs were tender. This is also why I choose to layer the green cabbage over the surface of the stew like a cover, as it will cook a little bit slower, steaming as the meat and root vegetables simmer underneath.
Once the daikon radish and potatoes are tender, I stir in crushed perilla seeds that have been soaked briefly in water. The perilla seeds add a nutty, herbal note, and thicken the stew along with the potatoes, which will begin to break down due to their extended cooking time. And because of the way the ingredients have been added, as soon as the pork is tender, it’s serving time.
I serve the stew in individual bowls and top them with torn perilla leaves, sliced scallions, thinly sliced cabbage core, and chiles to add a refreshing crunch. Alongside a bowl of hot, white rice, it’s a meal that might even make you wish winter was longer.
For the Gamja-tang: Season ribs on all sides with salt. In a large Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat until just smoking. Add half of the ribs, meat side down, and cook, turning occasionally, until browned on both sides, 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer browned ribs to a plate and set aside. Repeat browning process with remaining ribs, then let browned ribs rest for 5 minutes. Using a sharp knife, cut between ribs to separate into single-rib pieces. Return ribs to plate and set aside.
Lower heat to medium-low and add onion to pot. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is slightly softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, ginger, gochugaru, and doenjang and continue to cook until aromatic, about 1 minute. Add chicken stock, fish sauce, and potatoes, and return ribs to pot along with any accumulated juices. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to a simmer, cover, and cook until potatoes are slightly tender on the exterior but still firm at the center, so that they offer resistance when poked with a paring knife, about 30 minutes.
Remove lid, stir in daikon radish, and arrange cabbage leaves in an even layer over the surface of the stew to form a lid. Continue to cook, adjusting heat as needed to maintain a simmer, until potatoes are fully cooked through, offering little resistance when poked with a paring knife, and daikon is just tender, about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder, grind perilla seeds into a coarse powder. Set aside 2 teaspoons of the crushed perilla seeds and, once potatoes are cooked through, add the rest to the stew. Gently stir to incorporate perilla seeds and cabbage leaves into the stew.
Continue to cook until meat on ribs is fully tender, offering minimal resistance when poked with a paring knife, and potatoes have begun to break down slightly, thickening the stew, about 20 minutes longer. Season with salt to taste.
For Serving: Divide stew between individual serving bowls, topping each portion with scallions, perilla leaves, chile (if using), and sliced cabbage core. Serve immediately.
Perilla seeds can be found at Korean markets such as HMart, or can be purchased online.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The stew can be made in advance and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week. Reheat gently on stovetop.