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BBC – Travel – How a South Korean comfort food went global


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Framed newspaper clippings and family photos hung on the faded yellow wallpaper of Odeng Sikdang restaurant in Uijeongbu, a city 30km north of Seoul. A cloud of steam engulfed 22-year-old Grace Moon’s face as she lifted the lid from a pot of budae-jjigae (army stew), and even before the fog dissipated, she and I were greeted by the savoury aroma of cheongyang chilli peppers and slightly fermented kimchi. The cauldron brimmed with generous portions of ham, sausage, minced meat, bacon, dumplings, rice cakes and ramen noodles sardined in a bubbling red soup.

Slurping up the ramen first, Moon, nodded with approval: “This is definitely different from the franchise stuff.”

Over lunch, Moon told me how her grandmother had first come across army stew after fleeing North Korea as a 12-year-old girl, and how she used to ask her grandmother to make it for her as a child. Moon said she would always oblige, even though it brought back traumatic memories of her journey escaping Pyongyang.

My recipe was copied and spread throughout Korea

Sometimes called “Korean army base stew”, budae-jjigae is a spicy sausage concoction marrying Korean flavours with processed American meats like Spam and hot dogs. It was created during the years of food scarcity immediately following the Korean War (1950-53), and today, some older Koreans – like Moon’s grandmother, who still refers to the dish as “garbage stew” – have painful associations with the dish.

There are a handful of theories as to exactly how this first Korean-American fusion meal originated, but the most widely acknowledged one harks back to here in Uijeongbu, and this very restaurant’s founder: Heo Gi-Suk.

Heo, who passed away in 2014, told her story at every opportunity. She used to stir-fry leftover meat from the nearby US Army base at a small odeng (fish cake) stand when a regular customer suggested she make the meats into a spicy soup with rice.

“Back then there wasn’t a lot to eat, but I acquired some ham and sausages. The only way to get meat in those days was to smuggle it from the army base,” Heo told the BBC in 2013. “We had to make do with whatever the soldiers had left over. We’d make a stew with whatever came out of the base, and my recipe was copied and spread throughout Korea.”

With the dish’s success, Heo turned her humble stand into a restaurant and opened Odeng Sikdang in 1960. Soon, restaurants serving the dish began to pop up near US military bases across the country. After US president Lyndon B Johnson visited South Korea in 1966, rumours circulated that he was a fan of the stew – giving budae-jjigae the nickname “Johnson-tang” (“Johnson soup”).

As more restaurants served army stew, more families started making the dish at home. To this day, each region has a slightly different take on budae-jjigae and fierce debates are had over which type of broth (kelp and anchovy or slow-cooked beef bone) is best, and if the ingredients should be stir-fried beforehand or not. In addition to the ingredients found at Odeng Sikdang, popular toppings include bacon, spring onions, mushrooms, baked beans, American yellow cheese and Spam. In fact, today South Koreans produce and consume more Spam than anywhere outside the US, and in many ways, this is due to budae-jjigae’s popularity in the decades after the Korean War.

Budae-jjigae largely evolved from a survival stew to one of the nation’s favourite comfort foods

Under President Park Chung-hee’s rule (1963-1979), South Korea went through a period of rapid economic development that resulted in less food scarcity but also high tariffs on imported meat. One of the reasons for this unlikely fusion food’s success was that Spam became viewed as a rare and expensive treat that enhanced the dish’s overall meaty flavour. According to anthropologist Sangmee Bak, the increasing globalisation in South Korea spurred by the 1986 Asian Games and 1988 Olympics held in Seoul also caused attitudes about food to change, and during this time, the image of budae-jjigae largely evolved from a survival stew to one of the nation’s favourite comfort foods.

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These days, army stew can be found practically everywhere in South Korea. Nolboo, a budae-jjigae franchise, opened its first location in 1987 and now manages approximately 1,000 locations across the country. The street where Odeng Sikdang is located, Hoguk-ro, has a handful of other budae-jjigae restaurants and was officially renamed Uijeongbu Budaejjigae Street in 1999. In 2011, K-pop superstar Hwangbo, formerly of the group Chakra, opened Shimsontang, which boasts a budae-jjigae made with 12-hour beef bone broth and has two locations in Seoul. And last year, the Michelin Guide named the food one of “the must-eat dishes in South Korea” for visitors.

In the past decade, budae-jjigae has spilled over from a Korean comfort food to a trendy international recipe. In a 2015 episode of Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain described budae-jjigae to television journalist Anderson Cooper as “a classic example of necessity being the mother of deliciousness”. Bourdain featured the dish again in his 2016 book Appetites. And Irish DJ and chef Marcus O’Laoire published his take on the “straight up Korean goodness” for The Irish Times last year.

Budae-jjigae is an honest portrayal of where our country was and how far our country has come

But does budae-jjigae’s modern mainstream appeal and newfound international popularity mean perceptions about the dish have changed in Koreans who remember the dish’s painful, war-torn origins? Chef Hooni Kim, whose New York restaurant Danji became the first South Korean eatery to earn a Michelin star in 2012 and who features a budae-jjigae recipe in his cookbook My Korea, sees a generational divide with the dish.

When Kim first started serving DMZ Stew (his take on budae-jjigae) at Danji nine years ago, he said there was backlash from what he now realises is “a very small minority of Koreans that want to portray only the good parts of Korean history”. While he empathises with the fact that some war survivors find budae-jjigae hard to reconcile, he chooses to see the dish as a reflection of South Korea’s success: how it has gone from being one of the world’s poorest countries in the 1950s to a global economic powerhouse today.

“I don’t think Korea’s younger generation considers the country having been poor as something to be ashamed of. Budae-jjigae is an honest portrayal of where our country was and how far our country has come,” he said.

These days, instant noodle giants Nongshim, Ottogi, Paldo and Samyang each have their own version of budae-jjigae ramen – with many shipping boxes of army stew-flavoured ramen to the US and elsewhere. During autumn 2016, Nongshim’s budae-jjigae flavoured ramen called Bogle Bogle Budae-jjigae was so in demand that it grossed 10 billion won (£6.53m) in its first 50 days on the market.

Angela Kim, food director at the popular site Tasty Korea credits budae-jjigae’s modern popularity to its “easy-to-make” nature, and over the years, the rise of at-home kits and budae-jjigae-flavoured ramens have made the dish even more accessible. “Once you have great broth and ingredients, all you need to do is put in everything and boil,” she said. “You don’t need any special equipment like charcoal or a commercial oven, so anyone can cook it. It is Korean soul food.”

Amid the ongoing pandemic, budae-jjigae has once again become a topic of conversation. Its humble origins are a pertinent example of making lemonade out of lemons, but the dish is also a practical solution for many Koreans and Korean food fans cooking at home during social-distancing measures.

It represents the creativity that emerged from devastation

Popular Korean-American food blogger Hyosun Ro recently posted a picture of budae-jjigae on Instagram and linked to her recipe for the dish, saying, “You can make this at home with a few pantry ingredients and kimchi.” Chef Peter Cho, a two-time James Beard Award semi-finalist who regularly serves budae-jjigae at his restaurant Han Oak in Portland, Oregon, said budae-jjigae is a fitting food for the pandemic because, “the dish comes from using all the shelf staples you might find in most grocery store aisles: Spam, canned sausage and canned beans”.

For those quarantined in South Korea, ready-made budae-jjigae packages, as well as packaged kimchi, ramen and spam, have been common items in quarantine meal kits delivered by local government offices. Jaimin Yoon, a Korean-American who was quarantined in South Korea recently, received packaged gamja-tang (spicy pork-back stew), doenjang-jiggae (soybean paste stew) and budae-jjigae alongside a box full of vegetables from a local farmer’s collective from the regional government office outside Seoul. Yoon, who isn’t a huge fan of the dish, said, “the positive is that it’s greasy and hearty” and called it the “perfect” hangover food.

Still, according to sociologist Grace M Cho, this simple “comfort food” is layered, loaded and symbolic of many things for many people. In her article Eating Military Base Stew, she wrote, “It is a reminder of a brutal ‘Forgotten War’ that has not yet ended. It represents the creativity that emerged from devastation, a legacy of the complicated relationship between Koreans and Americans.”

Today, Odeng Sikdang remains a cultural icon. Sixty years after the restaurant first opened, each pot of budae-jjigae here is still served with a bowl of rice and a side of odeng fish cakes, and it still transports some diners back to their pasts.

Leaving the restaurant on a full stomach, Grace Moon promised Kim Gab-seok, Odeng Sikdang’s hospitality manager, that she would be back. A loyal customer of 20 years himself, Kim said the restaurant’s recipe has remained almost exactly the same, except that Heo added a few more cheongyang chilli peppers in her day.

“I work here, but I don’t get tired of the food,” he said. “I have it 10 times a week.”

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www.bbc.com 2020-06-10 13:33:03

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