What is more American than Budae Jjigae?
Okay, well, much. But hear me out.
Budae Jjigae 부대찌개. It’s a melodic name for what is, in essence, a concoction birthed in desperation and survival but evolved into a culinary celebration of resilience. It’s more than spam and hot dog stew. It’s a story. In English, it loosely translates to “Army Base Stew.”
From what I’ve gathered from different sources, it was created during and soon after the Korean War, where the locals used U.S. Army surplus meats (notably spam and hot dogs) in their traditional stews. It sounds disgusting, but in the twisted culinary alchemy of survival and necessity, it has to be the best recipe for spam in the world.
Another story is that it was created as a cheap familiar-tasting food for American and Korean soldiers off-base. This is likely why the Uijeongbu area near the U.S. Army base in Seoul is known for having the best Budae Jjigae. And it tastes very American. Very, very American, in the way that only an outsider’s perspective can capture America. It’s comfort food.
Think about it. It was one of the first East-West fusion dishes. It was created from America’s involvement in its first Asian land war. How can it not be included in Independence Day, Memorial Day, or Veteran’s Day festivities?
Imagine the Korean military base workers, weary from their work, gathering around this cauldron of flavors, mingling the familiar taste of hot dogs and spam with the exotic zest of gochujang and garlic. It’s as if they were crafting a new identity for themselves, a blend of East and West that would be a testament to a shared history.
Making it is pretty simple. It’s a dish born from limitations, so it doesn’t ask for much, but it gives back in abundance.
Start with a base of gochujang (Korean red chile paste) mixed with minced garlic and onion. Feel the intensity of the chili as you stir the paste, almost like you’re awakening the spirit of the dish.
Add water, but not too much. Turn the heat to high. The heat should be as intense as the memories this dish conjures.
Add chopped onion, garlic, and chiles, and bring the fiery hell broth to a boil. Include some sliced leeks if you have some. Let the flavors marry and fight, let them argue and then come to a peaceful understanding.
At this point, add the meats in bite sized pieces. The tradition is hot dogs and spam. Yet who says you can’t throw in some more premium items like kielbasa, bratwurst, and smoked Virginia ham? Any store bought meats. Really, a few sites and forums say that you need spam in it to make it taste authentic. But we’re not aiming for mere authenticity here; we’re aiming for soul.
Keep boiling. Now it’s time to add the vegetables. I think these are chrysanthemum greens in the picture, but throw in any hearty dark green veggies like kale, turnip greens, or collards. You can also do the traditional thing and toss in some baked beans and tofu. Watch them float and dance, a playful medley of East and West.
At the end of cooking, toss in some noodles. Ramen noodles (Korean: Ramyeon 라면) are popular, as are clear Korean japchae noodles and Korean rice cakes (ddeok 떡). If the water is low, add more. Throw in a dash of soju if the mood strikes you. The noodles absorb the essence of the dish, each strand soaking up years of history and struggle.
Serve the stew bubbling with plenty of rice to counter the intense heat and flavors. The bubbling is like the whispers of the past, telling tales of hardship and camaraderie.
Wash it down with a good beer and soju. Feel the heat and the chill play on your tongue, a game of contrasts that reflects the very soul of this dish.
Watch some fireworks. They are like the sparks that ignited this dish, the flares of inspiration in a time of darkness.
Enjoy your Fourth. You’ve earned it. You’ve tasted history. You’ve communed with a culture. You’ve embraced what it means to make something out of nothing, to create magic from the mundane. And you’ve done it with a dish that is as humble as it is proud, as unique as it is universal.
Budae Jjigae. It’s more than a stew. It’s a culinary adventure. A taste of history. A tribute to resilience. A celebration of fusion. It’s a dish that tells a story, one that resonates across borders and time. It’s a story of people, a story of war, a story of survival, and ultimately, a story of triumph.
It’s a dish that invites you to explore, to understand, and to celebrate. It’s a dish that says, “Come, sit, eat. Let me tell you a story. Our story.” And like a good story, it lingers long after the last bite, leaving you richer for the experience.