The Intricate Behind-the-Scenes of a Korean American Classic
The best food writers, including most of our regular contributors, have one thing in common: they’re the type to tear up a pizza or smash a spam can with the same enthusiasm and appreciation when they sit down to a tasting of 12 dishes. menu. They are aware that culinary hierarchies are wrong and that comfort food and quick home cooking are just as expensive as the most opulent meals prepared by a chef.
New York Times personal writer Eric Kim is cut from this same fabric, as seen in her wonderful new cookbook, Korean American: cuisine that tastes like home. In it, he explores traditional, time-consuming Korean dishes, including ganjang gejang and seolleongtang, as well as his own weekday fusion inventions — think meatloaf-glazed kalbi and buttered gochugaru shrimp with oatmeal — inspired by his upbringing in Atlanta, Georgia.
I have a particular affection for this book because, before the Times ripped it off, Kim was an editor at FLAVOR and one of my favorite people to work with. He’s also a hell of a cook, so when he asked me to test recipes for this project, I jumped at the chance to spend a few months eating his wonderful, unpretentious, and truly delicious food. My favorite meal of the group? Its belly-warming budae jjigae, a so-called “army staple stew,” loaded with Korean and American staples like spam, Vienna sausages, gochujang, kimchi, instant noodles and (yes) American cheese. I begged him to let me share the dish with our readers as soon as the book was launched.
Well, it comes out on Tuesday, and you’re in luck. Learn more about Kim’s personal connection to this legendary dish and find her recipe in the excerpt below.
One way to think of budae jjigae, or “army base stew”, is like amped up kimchi jjigae – a bubbling mishmash of ingredients like kimchi, spam, hot dogs, noodles and American cheese, a cultural byproduct of leftover military rations after the Korean War. In fact, every time I make kimchi jjigae, the leftovers inevitably turn into a more delicious and complex budae jjigae over the course of the week, as I slowly add ingredients to it, refreshing it each time with a fresh onion. minced and a few “fresh” spam. I love how the old Spam soaked up all the kimchi juices (while making the fiery broth tastier with its fat and salt) and how the new Spam breathes life back into the jjigae. For me, budae jjigae is kimchi jjigae in its ninth life.
But with its rich and complicated war history dating back to the 1950s, budae jjigae is not celebrated by everyone. It’s no wonder that some older generations of Koreans dislike this dish, seeing it as a stain on the nation’s history, a remnant of war trauma, or a recurring reminder of times difficult places where food was scarce. In 1940, Bangseop Kim, my paternal grandfather, fled what would become North Korea for Seoul in South Korea. He lived his whole life recognizing that he had just circumvented a national divide that would forever define Korean identity. According to my dad, Bangseop never ate canned meats like spam, wieners, or even instant ramyun noodles, let alone the sum of those parts, budae jjigae. Maybe because it reminded him too much of a world he thought he’d escaped.
Years later, my mother and father, less directly affected by the trauma of this war, went to university and ordered budae jjigae at the restaurant, where it was quite expensive. Even today, they consider it a luxury meal. Because here’s the thing: despite its thrifty allure, making this stew requires buying a slew of the most expensive canned meats from the supermarket. People don’t realize that spam can cost up to $4-5 depending on where you shop. In America especially, spam has a falsely downgraded reputation, which was difficult for me as a Korean-American who grew up seeing it as a great solace, a link between two countries I straddle. For context, in Korea people deliver huge spam packages. But for every bad thing, there’s a good thing: For my grandmother Hyunseok, who lived through the Korean War and married early to avoid becoming a comfort woman for the Japanese military, budae jjigae recounts the story not only of hardship and pain, but of resourcefulness as well. It tells the story of my grandmother’s survival.
Ultimately, therefore, budae jjigae is, for me and my family, a party stew.
Republished from korean american. Copyright © 2022 Eric Kim. Photographs copyright © 2022 Jenny Huang. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Random House.