(As told to Sonja Swanson.)
When I was growing up in Korea, right around the time when the fields turned golden yellow and people began to prepare for the cold winter, we’d harvest a big, old, wrinkled pumpkins the color of dusty orange clay. We’d always have several of these pumpkins in the storage room for winter, and one pumpkin was enough to feed a family of eight. My grandmother would make a huge pot of hobak beombeok (호박범벅, rustic pumpkin porridge), which is loaded with beans, chestnuts, jujubes, sweet potatoes, and little rice-size bits of dough. It’s chunky and hearty, all bound together with the cooked-down squash. It doesn’t quite have the silkiness of juk (a type of porridge) or the density of plain rice, but something in-between.
Growing up, we often ate hobak beombeok (pronounced “bum-buck”) as a snack, or sometimes as a simple meal with a side of kimchi, but I think it makes a great breakfast since most people like something a little sweet in the morning.
In Korea, we usually use neulgeun hobak (늙은 호박, old pumpkin), a large and not-too-sweet pumpkin that used to grow on the stone walls and straw roofs of people’s houses back in the day. These days, you can find them at traditional markets, though they’re not often sold in chain grocery stores anymore. A single neulgeun hobak is pretty big (I recently bought one that was five kilograms), so I just freeze my leftovers and pull them out for breakfast with my husband. If you can’t find neulgeun hobak, try butternut squash or a winter squash with a similar level of sweetness. My recipe also calls for two kinds of beans—adzuki beans (a small, round red bean) and gangnang beans (강낭콩), which are basically kidney beans. The adzuki can be cooked without soaking them first, but the dried gangnang/kidney beans should be soaked in salted lukewarm water overnight.
Beombeok is usually thickened with a starchy base. You can use wheat flour to make a kind of fine, shaggy dough that both thickens the broth and gives you tiny dumpling-like grains, or you can use sweet rice flour (for a stickier, more velvety base), which is what most people use. I find that the sweet rice flour gets a little gooey, and my grandmother used wheat flour, so that’s what I call for here. Plus, the wheat flour gives you those fun chewy dough bits!
My grandmother lived through hungrier times, and so she made a beombeok that was almost half flour and half mashed pumpkin, to which she'd then add beans and whatever other root vegetables she had on hand. Today we can make beombeok with a ratio of ingredients that we find most appealing, not just the ratio that's most filling. With winter here, it's the perfect time to share this recipe for hobak beombeok, in memory of my grandmother's cooking. Here’s how to make it.
Step 1: Prep the Adzuki and Kidney Beans
Red adzuki beans are usually sold dried. I par-boil them for two minutes, drain the water, refill the pot, and cook them until they’re just shy of being fully tender. If you start to see cracks developing on the outside, you’ve overcooked the beans, so keep an eye on them!
In Korea, I soak the gangnang (kidney) beans overnight, then cook them with the pumpkin until the pumpkin breaks down into a mash and the beans are tender. When cross-testing this recipe using dried kidney beans sold in the United States, I wasn’t able to get them tender enough by cooking them with the squash. To account for this, the recipe I’m sharing here has you boil them separately, also until they’re just shy of being fully tender.
Step 2: Peel and Boil the Pumpkin
Exactly how much water you need will depend on the squash you use. The big, old Korean pumpkins can release a lot of water during cooking; I only add enough water to cover half the level of the pumpkin in the pot when using it. Butternut squash releases less water and often needs quite a bit more water to cook fully without drying out. The best approach is to start with the same level of water—halfway up the pumpkin—but add more as needed if things get too dry (this is true throughout the cooking process for beombeok; you can always add more water if it’s too dry).
Step 3: Prep Sweet Potato and Chestnuts
Meanwhile, wash and cut the sweet potatoes into roughly bite-sized pieces (keep those skins, they add great texture). If you can, try to find small Korean sweet potatoes, which have a purplish skin and very light yellow flesh. If you can’t find them, the sweet potatoes more commonly sold in US stores will work.
Peel and clean the chestnuts, too. If you find this task overly tedious, you can always buy pre-peeled chestnuts.
Step 4: Make the Jujube Garnish
Jujubes are round, reddish fruit that are native to Asia, and they’re sold dried at Korean markets. To prepare the dried jujubes, press your paring knife into the long side of the fruit and rotate, carving out the hard seed in the center using the same motion you’d use to peel an apple. You’ll end up with a “sheet” of jujube fruit that you’ll then cut into slivers for a garnish.
Step 5: Mash Pumpkin and Add Ingredients
When the pumpkin flesh begins to give a little when you press it gently, it’s ready. The old pumpkins I use in Korea break down quickly on their own, but butternut squash sometimes needs some help; if it does, simply mash it with a potato masher or whisk to make a chunky, wet purée. Then add the sweet potatoes, boiled adzuki and kidney beans, and chestnuts. Continue to cook until the potatoes and beans are fully tender; add water at any point if the vegetables and beans need to cook more but the porridge has become too dry.
Step 6: Make and Incorporate the Doughy Bits, Then Add the Jujubes
Prepare the shaggy dough by drizzling water into a bowl of flour while mixing everything around with the other hand. You’ll want a dry shaggy dough made up of small, separate bits; go slowly because if you add too much water, you can easily slip past the right stage and end up with a more cohesive dough ball. It’s better to err on the side of too little water, even if that means some of the flour remains powdery: the chunks of dough that do form will be fun to chew, and the extra flour will help create a thicker consistency for the porridge. Add the dough base to the pot and stir constantly as the porridge thickens. Add the sliced jujubes. When the dough is cooked, your beombeok is ready.
Beombeok can be served hot or cold, but on these chilly winter days, eating it hot is sure to warm your stomach, just like it used to warm mine when my grandmother made it for me.