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28 Jul 2020

A little comfort food – A few weeks ago, a friend of mine posted a BBC article about budae jjigae and asked my opinion on it—was this really a popular dish in Korea? It is, of course, and I said as much, but it was one of those moments when I realized that something I took for granted was completely unknown to a large portion of the earth’s population. Sort of like when Psy’s “Gangnam Style” blew up in the US a month or so after it had been popular here, and I had friends emailing me to ask me if I had seen this crazy “new” phenomenon.

“A little bit of comfort food is always welcome, isn’t it?”

The article provided me with an opportunity to talk with my friends about a dish that I happen to like, but which I hadn’t actually had in quite some time. Since there are probably many others out there who have not heard the gospel of budae jjigae, I thought I would talk a little about it in today’s entry. I figured some lighter fare (topically, if not calorically) might be welcome around here for a change.

Just in case you did not read the article linked above, budae jjigae is a dish that was born of necessity after the Korean War. It combines basic Korean ingredients with what at the time were exotic ingredients introduced by US soldiers in Korea, such as Spam, hot dogs, and baked beans. In fact, the name of the dish itself literally means “army base stew.”

(Side note: The BBC article has a sentence that begins by saying that budae jjigae is “sometimes called ‘Korean army base stew,’” which I thought was doubly odd. For one, as I just mentioned, that is merely the translation of the term—it is not “sometimes called” that. But I also thought it was odd because, if anything, it should be called “US army base stew,” as that is where the ingredients were from. Thinking about it later, though, I realized that the intention was probably “Korean (army base stew),” not “(Korean army base) stew.” So I guess that makes sense, even if it is a little ambiguous.)

“Stew” is a rough approximation of jjigae, as Korean cooking has quite a few different types of dishes that include a liquid component. On one end of the spectrum you have guk (the vowel is long, and rhymes with “duke” rather than “duck”), which would best be rendered in English as “soup.” This is a dish that has much more liquid than solid ingredients. Tang is another term used for certain varieties of this type of dish—it is actually a Sino-Korean character, whereas guk is a vernacular Korean term. Despite essentially meaning the same thing, they are not interchangeable; you can have kimchi guk but not kimchi tang, and you can have galbi (short ribs) tang but not galbi guk.

Also, not all dishes with a lot of liquid in them are referred to as guk or tang. If you add noodles, for example, the dish generally becomes a noodle dish rather than a soup (one exception would be seolleongtang, which is a rich beef broth usually containing noodles, although it retains the tang name because the noodles aren’t the main or defining component). If you add rice to a soup, you get gukbap, which literally means “soup rice.” Even in cases where rice is not part of the dish when it is cooked, it is common to mix cooked rice into a soup when eating it.

Next on the spectrum is jjigae, which has a lower liquid-to-solid ratio than guk/tang. It also differs in terms of its presentation and its position on the table. While each diner at a table gets their own guk, you will often see earthenware pots (ttukbaegi) of jjigae sitting in the center of the table to be eaten communally. If that sounds a little unsanitary... well, it is, buit it’s also not uncommon to see smaller, individual pots of jjigae served with restaurant meals. Common examples of jjigae are doenjang (soybean paste) jjigae and kimchi jjigae. I am personally a fan of mugeunji jjigae, which is a type of kimchi jjigae made with pungent, aged kimchi, and often includes pork.

Lowering the liquid-to-solid ratio even further, we get jeongol, which again differs in other ways besides the liquid-to-solid ratio. Jeongol is always a communal dish, but it is a much more involved production than jjigae; while jjigae is often one component out of several in a meal, jeongol is the star of the show. It is cooked in a large, shallow pot, usually on a burner at the table. Various meats and vegetables are arranged in the pot, a small amount of broth is added, and the whole lot is cooked right there in front of you until it is bubbling away. I’ve had vegetarian versions as well; usually mushrooms stand in for the meat, although mushrooms are also often a component in non-vegetarian versions. (Koreans eat a wide variety of mushrooms, which is fine by me, as I love mushrooms—except for paengi mushrooms (enoki in Japanese), which are stringy and get stuck between my teeth.)

There are quite a few other dishes that combine liquid and solids, including many that are either regional dishes or vary according to region. Jjageuri, for example, is a dish from the Chungcheong provinces that can resemble a jeongol. Duruchigi, on the other hand, is a dish found around the peninsula, but in some places it is more like a jeongol while in other places it is more like a stir fry. There are many more dishes that could be mentioned, but that is just a quick survey of some of the liquid + solid dishes you might find in Korea. For our purposes, it’s probably safe to translate guk or tang dishes as “soup” and all other dishes on the liquid-solid spectrum as “stew.”

Back to budae jjigae. One of the things that makes this dish great is that you can make it however you want, with whatever ingredients you might have on hand. There aren’t really any “rules,” per se, just some general guidelines with a whole bunch of personal preferences thrown in. The boundary between what is and what isn’t budae jjigae is very fuzzy, and I’m not sure if I would be able to judge a lot of the edge cases. I can tell you what I like in my budae jjigae, though, and how I think of the dish.

For one, I think the protein element should stay true to the origins of the dish, and if there is one ingredient that I would consider essential to budae jjigae, it would be that old Viking favorite: Spam. Spam has remained quite popular in Korea since the post-war period, so much so that there are now numerous Korean versions of the canned meat produced by local companies. To be honest, I prefer Korean spam to the “genuine” version, mainly because Korean spam tends to be less salty, but I also think it has a better flavor. In addition to the spam, hot dogs are another common protein, but here as well I like to substitute what are in Korea called “Vienna sausages.” These are short, plump link sausages that again tend to be less salty than American-style hot dogs. (As you might have guessed by now, I’m not a huge fan of overly salty food.) Finally, hamburger meat is another protein that is often added—not just ground beef, but uncooked hamburger patties that have been broken up into large chunks. I can take or leave the hamburgers, but they are one of HJ’s must-have ingredients.

In terms of vegetable matter, I think you’ve got to have kimchi. It is the combination of kimchi and pork products that lie at the heart of this dish, as far as I’m concerned. Once you’ve got the kimchi, you can kind of do whatever you want in terms of vegetables, but green onions seem to be a popular ingredient that I also like. Ramyeon (ramen) noodles and tteok (glutinous rice cakes) often make an appearance as well, but I prefer to avoid starchy ingredients like this, as budae jjigae is already served with rice on the side—I don’t think you really need that much more in the way of carbs. I do make an exception for baked beans, both because they add a subtle sweetness to the dish and because they feel “traditional,” being another food introduced by US GIs. I also like to add tofu to take the place of starchy components like tteok. One advantage of tofu over tteok or ramyeon noodles is that it doesn’t absorb moisture and become fat and soggy—you can’t really save leftover budae jjigae with ramyeon or tteok in it, or you’ll find yourself with a bowl of unappetizing sludge.

Last, but not least, you will often see sliced “American” cheese (meaning the yellow processed stuff that isn’t really cheese at all) laid on top of it all to melt. It might sound like an odd addition, but it is certainly “traditional,” and it works surprisingly well. Budae jjigae is one of the few valid uses for American cheese, as far as I am concerned.

All of these ingredients are put in the pot along with the liquid, which can be a broth prepared in advance (a dashi-style broth is common) or something as simple as the kimchi liquid and water, often fortified with the soup packet that comes with the ramyeon noodles. Like I said above, there are many ways to do budae jjigae, and I’m not going to say that any of them are wrong—but everyone has their preferences. In the end, it is a very simple dish, and it comes down to pork, kimchi, and a starch component. In fact, I like to think of it as a Korean version of choucroute garnie, as it has similar types of ingredients, is cooked in a similar way, and is also a comfort food! There are, of course, many differences between the two dishes, but I think they are kindred in spirit.

As luck would have it, about a week after I was discussing budae jjigae with my friends, my sister-in-law said she was going to come by on the weekend with budae jjigae from a place near her that she claimed made the best version of it. I was looking forward to this, but unfortunately the jjigae ended up being extremely spicy—so much so that it got in the way of the other flavors. It relied mainly on chili peppers for the spice element and, surprisingly enough, didn’t even have any kimchi in it. The meat was also cut into matchstick-shaped pieces, which I thought was an odd thing to do; both HJ and I prefer hefty chunks of meat. Finally, it had the dreaded combination of both ramyeon noodles and tteok, so by the time we had finished eating it had already turned to sludge.

Needless to say, I was disappointed, and my budae jjigae itch had by no means been scratched. In fact, it had gotten worse. So, last Friday, I decided to remedy that. I’ve been doing a lot of cooking lately—actually, I’ve been doing all the cooking lately, as HJ is recovering from knee surgery (she’s doing fine, no worries)—so I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking of dishes that I want to make. Budae jjigae was a no-brainer. Besides, you didn’t think I was going to write an entry about it without showing you my version, did you?

Here is the budae jjigae boiling on the stove. I prepared it in a jeongol-style pot, and arranged the ingredients more in keeping with a jeongol presentation than a jjigae, but that was just for show. I started off with the last of some kimchi we had, along with the liquid from that kimchi (which is what gives it the red color). For a poor-man’s budae jjigae, you can just add water and ramyeon soup mix to this, but that’s not how I roll. Instead, I used some vegetable broth I had boiled up earlier in the week. For years now, we have saved all of our vegetable scraps, storing them in Ziploc bags in the freezer. When a bag is full, we put the scraps in a pot and boil some vegetable broth to use in whatever strikes our fancy. This broth had the usual ingredients—onion peels and other onion bits, green onion rooty bits, carrot tops, mushroom stems, garlic bits, etc.—with the addition of some cheese rinds. These are much scarcer than vegetable scraps, and wouldn’t work well in most Korean dishes anyway, but I thought for budae jjigae they would be perfect.

For the remainder of the solid ingredients that you can see above, the tofu is most prominent, as I added that last. You can also see four meatballs in the mix. These were a mixture of beef and pork and were also made earlier in the week (and then frozen). The dark spots in the meatballs are bits of fresh basil—not really a standard ingredient in budae jjigae, but it didn’t seem to hurt. You can probably also see a few slices of spam sticking out from beneath the tofu. I only added 120 grams of spam, because that’s how big the cans were and I thought 240 grams might be a bit much, given the other meat ingredients. The last of those meat ingredients, which aren’t too visible here (although you can see the end of one at about ten o’clock), were sliced up Vienna sausages. There was plenty of meat to go around.

The only ingredient you can’t really see here is some baked beans that I added as well. It wasn’t much, just a small container of beans we had in the freezer left over from something else. Also not seen here are the green onions, because I didn’t add them until the end.

This is what it looked like when it was done, with green onions and all. I must admit that I would normally not do budae jjigae in the jeongol style like this—I’d probably just stir everything together in a taller pot—but I figured it would be more photogenic this way. As you can see, we did not have any sliced American cheese to melt over the top, but at least we had that flavor from the cheese rinds in the broth.

Here is my first helping of the budae jjigae; the baked beans and Vienna sausage slices are visible now. Since the only spiciness came from the kimchi, it wasn’t too spicy—just the right amount of heat, I think, to let all the flavors shine through. Some people like it hotter, but we are not such people. This budae jjigae was much more to our liking, and at long last I had finally scratched that itch. (We did have leftovers, which we cooked up with some ramyeon noodles for lunch the next day.)

After a dish like budae jjigae, I thought something sweet was in order for dessert, so the night before I had baked cardamom-and-cinnamon custards. After dinner I topped one with sugar and torched it for a chai-style creme brulee. I would normally make my custards for creme brulee with half milk and half heavy cream, but in the interest of cutting a few calories, I did all milk. The spices added enough of a warm, deep flavor, though, that I didn’t miss the cream.

So that’s my budae jjigae. A little bit of comfort food is always welcome, isn’t it?

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