Food and Drink

This Is the Soup That Esther Choi Swears By for Lunar New Year

Tender brisket, dumplings, and rice cakes make up this celebratory tteokguk ramen.

Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

Esther Choi is an ox, not a tiger. It’s believed that the year of your birth sign, which comes every 12 years, is particularly unlucky and challenging. Then it’s fitting that 2021-which was the Year of the Ox-felt difficult for Choi. “Honestly, last year was very hard for me and I had gone into it with this mindset that because it was the Year of the Ox, it would be amazing for me,” Choi explains. “And then I read about how you’re fighting with energy of the year and I’d have to work really, really hard.”

But as an ox, working hard comes naturally to Choi. She is a self-described workaholic and really feels aligned with her zodiac sign. She has to be-she’s the chef and restaurateur behind New York’s Mokbar, which has three locations, she runs a Korean cocktail bar named after her grandmother called Ms. Yoo, and she also has the new CBD-infused sesame oil brand Sessy. It’s a lot for a single person, ox or not.

Despite the challenges from last year, Choi loves celebrating Lunar New Year, called Seollal in Korean. It’s a time for family gatherings, games, and prayer. Every holiday, Choi gathers with her parents and grandparents, dressed in a hanbok, and does a customary bow to her elders before commencing the eating.

Esther Choi
Esther Choi
Esther Choi

“It’s a really, really important tradition that’s been instilled in us,” she says. Although the pandemic has disrupted her celebrations in the past, this year she will be spending the holiday with her parents and grandparents. “It’s very important for me to keep it as traditional as possible. I created my whole career out of traditions and love I have for my family so I always like to pay respect during the new year.”

Of course, food is a big part of the tradition. “The fondest memory that I have that we still keep is making dumplings and tteokguk on New Year’s,” she says. Choi will gather around a table folding dumplings with her family, which are steamed, fried, and added to a traditional rice cake soup. “For tteokguk, there’s rice cakes cut into a bias in the shape of a coin. It’s supposed to symbolize prosperity, money, and growth.” The soup with the addition of dumplings is called tteok mandu guk.

Choi incorporates this tradition into the menu at Mokbar. Every year that the restaurant has been open, Choi prepares a ramen version of tteok mandu guk. “Our concept at Mokbar is a noodle shop so I created this dish based on tteok,” she explains. “It’s your traditional tteokguk but made into a craft ramen.” The broth is milky white, created from beef bones boiled over the course of three days. Atop the noodles is tender fall-apart brisket that’s been braised for hours, dumplings, rice cakes, scallions, and shredded seaweed.Although it may not be the most conventional preparation of tteokguk, Choi loves making traditional dishes her own. “I think a big part of what I do at my restaurants is to educate with food,” she says. “I was born and raised in America and I feel very strongly of both my American and Korean background. I am able to create dishes that are both traditional and modern.”

The Lunar New Year ramen is an example of this reinterpretation of classics. Choi does not want to conform to anyone’s notion of what it means to be Korean or American. Her food, therefore, is uniquely her own.

The Year of the Ox has now come and gone and we anticipate the Year of the Tiger, which is said to inspire fearlessness and new adventures. Choi wants to leave the challenges of the prior year behind. “I do feel that I am very strongly an ox and have a lot of the traits and personality qualities that have to do with dedication and working hard,” she explains. “But this year, I think I want to think about myself for once.” It’s a great goal to have as we ring in the Year of the Tiger.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat!

Kat Thompson is a senior staff writer of food & drink at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn.

Food and Drink

Red Rooster Is Serving Free Chicken and Piping Hot Cash This Christmas in July

Get your early dose of festive cheer.

Red Rooster Christmas in July
Instagram / @redrooster_au

The cold weather in most parts of Australia coinciding with EOFY celebrations is the closest thing that we’ll get to snowy Christmas vibes. And if you’re in dire need of some festive cheer after the first six months of 2023, grab your ugly sweater and head to your nearest Red Rooster for Xmas in July deals.

From June 29 – July 31, 2023, Red Rooster is serving up free food items, a chance to win $10,000 or one of 10 merch packs valued at $400 and other fun prizes. All you have to do is sign up as a Red Royalty member and spend $5 on at a location near you or online.

Each week there’ll be new delicious deals and prizes to win. The week one deals have already dropped and they’re looking pretty tasty. You can get access to them via your Red Royalty account. The more you purchase, the more chances you have to win.

Spoiler alert: you can get 10 chicken nuggets for free, right now. Brb running to Red Rooster.

Terms and conditions apply. Visit Red Rooster’s Christmas in July to see all the deals.


Our Best Stories, Delivered Daily
The best decision you'll make all day.