Korean food was once a rarity in Seattle, but over the past ten-ish years it has spread like wildfire, to my never-ending delight. Tofu soup and tabletop BBQ joints have popped up in neighborhoods all over the city, and with them comes, every so often, my favorite Korean dish: budae jjigae, AKA “Johnson Tang”, AKA “Army Stew”. It’s rare to find in restaurants, at least in Seattle – maybe that’s because not many people unfamiliar with Korean food even know it exists. Maybe it’s the way it looks to the uninitiated. Maybe it’s the list of things that go into it.
Spam. Hot dogs. Ground beef. Baked beans. Tofu. Kimchi. Ramen. Rice cakes. Variations are frequent, but these are the ingredients that crop up time and again. Reading an ingredient list for this dish could reasonably make someone recoil in horror. Hell, anyone with a desire to eat healthy should rightly steer clear. Budae jjigae is a calorie bomb of fatty, salty, and spicy goodness. It’s also delicious, satisfying and unlike anything else. Plus, it has a hell of a origin story.
Frankenstein’s Hot Dish
The first thing to know is that budae jjigae is a food born out of immense suffering. Like the “bread of affliction”, as we Jewish folks like to call our matzoh crackers, budae jjigae was a food of necessity in a time when options were limited. After the cessation of hostilities in the Korean War, the citizens of South Korea faced poverty and food shortages, with rationing being a fact of life. In communities around the many US Army bases that had sprung up during the war, the surplus processed foods brought for the troops presented an opportunity: canned ham, Spam, hot dogs, canned beans and the like could all be used to supplement rationed foods. Whether by theft, scavenging or black market connections, people got their hands on anthing they could.
It’s easy to see how a dish like budae jjigae came to be, in light of that. If you have a couple of hot dogs, a can of spam, some simple vegtables like onions, carrots or cabbages and you need to feed a family, you do what every cook does in this situation: you improvise. You throw everything in a pot with some water or stock, and you see what comes of it. Throw in some gochujang to beat the greasiness of the meats, some kimchi for acidity and bite, and you might just be onto something.
Stone Soup: The Allure of Humble Foods
This story bears a lot of resemblance to one of my favorite cooking fables, “stone soup”. In the story of stone soup, a community is brought together by a hungry stranger who convinces everyone in town to contribute a bit of foodstuff of some sort to make a communal dish known as stone soup. With a bit of meat from here, a few vegetables from there, and some seasonings from somewhere else, the end result is a giant pot of soup for all to share, its whole far greater than the sum of its parts. When the townsfolk taste the resulting stew, they find it to be delicious, and everyone learns a valuable lesson about sharing.
We see this play out in the real world, too, and not just in post-war South Korea. Here in the US, the same tradition is alive and well in Louisiana with gumbo, or in eastern Georgia with Brunswick stew, or in Kentucky with burgoo. All of these dishes have the same underlying DNA as budae jjigae: a spicy soup base, humble ingredients, and a mix of whatever meats can be had. These stews can contain a veritable Noah’s Ark of proteins; fish or shellfish, chicken, beef or pork sausage, and local game meats like frog, possum, rabbit or squirrel all make regular appearances in the stewpot. Folks add in a wild variety of accompaniments, depending on what they have to hand: corn, okra, lima beans and tomatoes are common, and things like potatoes, hard boiled eggs or leafy greens are not unheard of.
Budae jjigae is made the exact same way – beyond the soup base, the recipe for which is relatively stable (although everyone has their own secret technique!) – what goes into it is altogether dependent on the whims of the cook and the available ingredients. I’ve made it with eveything from leftover bulgogi, to chinese sausage, or mustard green kimchi, or frozen jiaozi, and so on. The key flavor notes one is going for are salty, spicy and a bit sour, generally achieved with the soup base (described below) and some variety of kimchi in the pot. Aside from that, you just use whatever’s on hand when you have the urge to cook!
So what’s the appeal? If I was going to sell any of these dishes to someone unfamiliar with them, I’d talk about their complexity, spicy heat and heartiness. How the assortment of ingredients ensures that every pot, hell every bite, is unique. Though the ingredients are often humble in origin, that is also their appeal. You don’t go looking for exotic ingredients from far-flung locales for these dishes. You use what you can hunt, scrounge up or have lying around.
If you can get oysters from a nearby bay and can catch rabbit wild, they go in the pot. And by the same token, if you live next to an Army base and need some protein to go with your rationed vegetables, then you use what the soldiers didn’t want, the surplus hot dogs and ground beef. You make the most of what is there to be had.
Perhaps the most important aspect of any of these dishes, when prepared this way, is their communal aspect. Whether or not the ingredients were sourced from the surrounding community, a big pot of gumbo, stew or jjigae is best enjoyed when shared with a group. There is no better feeling than sitting and eating with friends and family, and when you are all sitting around a pot of stew that everyone contributed to, that feeling just grows stronger.
How Do I Make This…Hotdog Soup
If you feel inspired to try making budae jjigae, it’s pretty easy. You can apply some serious technique to it if you’re of a mind to, but it isn’t required. It can be as simple as putting everything in a pot with some chicken stock. I recommend using actual Korean-style anchovie and konbu (kelp) stock, for which there are plenty of recipes on the internet, so don’t feel intimidated by the notion. Of course, it is up to your personal preference, and if you’re going for speed and ease, chicken stock is likely to be readily available.
To do this the easy way, prep your ingredients first – slice your hot dogs, Spam, or processed meats of choice into thin slices. Slice up some green and white onions and any sort of mushrooms as well. Get a package of your favorite ramen, and a handful of sliced korean rice cakes if you can. Cut some firm tofu into 1-inch cubes, so you have about equal parts meat and tofu, and get about a cup of napa cabbage kimchi (get some of the brine in there too). Then, arrange these ingredients in a shallow pot, reserving your ramen, rice cakes and the green parts of the green onion. Arrange your meat, vegetables and kimchi to cover the bottom of the pot. Don’t stack. Add stock to just cover the ingredients. For bonus points, add the powdered spice packet from your ramen at this time as well.
For your soup base, mix together crushed garlic, gochujang (AKA Korean fermented chili paste), gochugaru (AKA Korean dried red pepper flakes), rice wine (mirin), soy sauce and sugar. and pour this in as well. Cover and bring to a boil at medium-high heat. When it is boiling, add the rice cakes, ramen and green onion. Add a couple slices of American cheese to melt over the top if you are brave. Cook uncovered until the ramen is fully soft and the cheese (if used) is melty. Serve immediately to any hungry people in the vicinity, with rice and maybe some extra kimchi. All told, you can make this dish in about 20 minutes if you hustle. Yes, really.
4 cups stock, either chicken or anchovy
1-2 hotdogs or 6 oz. kielbasa, sliced thin
6 oz Spam, cut into thin slices
6 oz ground beef, pork or chicken
8 oz. extra firm tofu, in 1” cubes
1 cup thinly sliced onion
3 green onions, whites seperated from greens; slice whites thinly, greens into long, diagonal strips
1 packed cup napa cabbage kimchi (mustard green kimchi is also good)
1 tbs. Kimchi brine
6 oz. sliced mushrooms (I like cremini, trumpet and enoki mushrooms, personally)
1 package ramen
½ cup sliced korean rice cakes
¼ cup canned baked beans (optional, but recommended)
2 slices american cheese (optional)
4-6 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tbs. Gochujang
1-2 tbs. Gochugaru (depending on how spicy you like it)
1 tsp. Soy sauce
1 tsp. Mirin (rice wine)
1 tsp. Sugar, honey or agave syrup
1 tbs. water
1 instant ramen seasoning packet (optionall)
- Place meat, tofu and vegetables (excluding the green part of the green onions) in the pot, arranged to cover the bottom.
- Add soup base, kimchi brine and stock to pot, turn heat to medium high and cover.
- Once the broth is boiling, remove cover, reduce to medium and simmer for 6-7 minutes.
- Add ramen, rice cakes, reserved green onion and optionally cheese, and simmer uncovered for 5 minutes, or until ramen is fully cooked.
- Serve immediately with rice on the side, and extra kimchi if desired.