A Late-Summer Stew with a Korean-American Story
Growing up in the suburbs of Georgia, my big brother and I would spend eight-hour stretches at the neighborhood pool when it opened for the summer, right around when school let out. We’d be emaciated after a day of swimming, our hands pruned up like raisins; it’s at this point that I learned the importance of food as fuel, and how good mere sustenance can taste when you’re at your hungriest.
Kevin and I would walk home together at sunset, wrapped in our pool towels, through the picket fence, into the two-car garage door, greeted by my mother in the kitchen — who seemed always to be cooking a spicy Korean stew called budae jjigae.
This cure-all witch potion was a melting pot of everything from the pantry: Spam, cocktail sausages, canned beans, rice cakes, packaged ramen, kimchi, American cheese — you name it. (Though, I hated when she’d add the cheese; aside from the empirical rule that American cheese should only ever be used in a grilled cheese sandwich, that plastic yellow square would melt into the otherwise pure, sovereign red pepper–flecked broth, turning it cloudy and over-unctuous.)
Regardless of what was in our pantry that week, Jean served it, we ate it. She became infamous for slipping in bulgogi (stir-fried “fire beef”) from the night before, which no one ever noticed but me. This was a secret between us. For the others, this one-pot meal was mere fuel; but for me, her use of leftovers from nights prior was an ingenious way to lend malted sweetness to this stone soup, which made all the difference in its flavor base.
It wasn’t until I got older that I learned how much our post-pool ritual meal had a military history stretching back to the 1950s and, in turn, to the American inflections of this supposedly authentic Korean dish — and to my grandmother’s elusive past.
Budae jjigae (or “army stew”) was invented after the Korean War when food was scarce in Seoul, South Korea. Using leftovers from U.S. military rations — like Spam and canned beans — the stew was an inexpensive way to use up leftover ingredients that the soldiers left behind and to feed large families in one fell swoop.
My parents, as working class Korean-American immigrants, were never home. But my grandmother was. Though she would cook for us sometimes, the one thing I remember was the aluminum pot of packaged Shin ramen — the main ingredient in budae jjigae — we would eat together on weeknights, boiled away beyond al dente during a more austere age when soft, bland food was comfort food (though I realize now that we probably did this because her teeth weren’t working).
What’s interesting to me is how this wartime workhorse has evolved, somehow, into restaurant food, a common menu special at bars and at Korean barbecue joints. Though budae jjigae is, simply put, budget food, restaurants today charge exorbitant amounts for it, even though it’s made up of cheap canned products.
It reminds me of how the great culinary renaissance of the twentieth century revived old-fashioned home food, like roast chicken and bread pudding, and adapted it within a modern, fine-dining context. This cycle might have variance, but its core is always the same: Home-cooked recipes go out of fashion, then get picked up by restaurant chefs years later.
In this origin-obsessed present that seeks desperately for cultural authenticity, it’s no wonder that foods like Korean army stew are being resuscitated by American chefs. And all for the better. The more we learn how to cook these trendy, fashionable foods in our homes, the better we’re off in our knowledge of cultural, and in this case, national history.
There is something about the act of cooking that helps us connect with the past in a way that pomp and circumstance alone never could. It’s an argument for nostalgia if ever there were one.
Eric KimFood Network FeedAugust 30, 2017