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Cooking Korean food: Budaejjigae

cooking korean | February 13, 2015 | By

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A couple of weeks back, the subject of Korean food came up with my foreign co-workers and I mentioned budaejjigae, only to get a blank look. So I explained the story that most longer-term expats here will know: how US Army rations were repurposed by resourceful Koreans to make them more palatable; the tinned franks, beans and Spam cooked up with red pepper sauce, kimchi and noodles to make the now-famous “army base stew” acceptable to the Korean palate. If you want the full history, check out Wikipedia.

Well, after that obviously we had to go and try it, so off we went to a branch of Sinuiju Budaejjigae (신의주 부대찌개) at Samgakji, within sight of the War Memorial, where we had a splendid feast, complete with lashings of soju and beer, for a ludicrously cheap price. But I was too busy enjoying the food to take any photos, so this isn’t a restaurant review (but do go: it’s great, and there are branches all over the city, though I’m still not clear why it appears to be named after a town in North Korea. Any ideas?).

Some Koreans look down on budaejjigae, but many regard it as the ultimate comfort food; unsophisticated, but deeply satisfying. Isn’t that the definition of comfort food, anyway – something that food critics (or bloggers) might sniff at, but which everyone secretly loves? For Brits of my age it might be Angel Delight: for you, it’ll be something different, I’m sure.

Anyway, when I had some time on my hands recently, I thought it might be worth trying to recreate this dish, or at least a version of it, in my own kitchen. The beauty of budaejjigae (부대찌개) is that all the ingredients are easily found in any local mart: indeed, half of them are probably in the nearest convenience store. This was pretty much the most Korean bag of shopping I’ve come home with in months.

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It’s also worth pointing out that there are as many recipes for this stuff as there are grandmothers in Korea, but I make no claims for authenticity. For example, I left out the traditional cabbage, since I’m not a big fan (though of course I didn’t leave out the kimchi: some things are sacred, even on a foreign food blog). And where most proper budaejjigae recipes call for a dashi stock, made with dried anchovies and shiitake mushrooms, I cheated and used a stock cube. Yeah, shoot me. My kitchen, my rules. No emails, please.

Budaejjigae (Korean ‘army stew’)

Ingredients:

For the sauce:

  • 6 cups of stock (home made or commercial)
  • 5 or 6 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 tbsp gochujang (red pepper paste)
  • 1-2 tbsp gochugaru (red pepper powder), to taste
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp Chinese rice wine (optional) or water
  • a pinch of black pepper

For the stew:

  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1/2 cup chopped kimchi
  • 1 cup cabbage, chopped (optional)
  • 4 oz Spam, sliced
  • 4 oz of hot dog sausages, sliced
  • 1/2 lb ground beef or pork belly
  • a packet or two of ramyeon
  • 2 spring onions (scallions), chopped
  • 1 cup sliced Korean ddok rice cakes (optional)
  • 1/4 cup baked beans (optional)
  • 4 oz tofu, cubed (optional)
  • 1/4 cup mushrooms, sliced (optional)
  • processed cheese slices, bag of grated mozzarella or other cheese to garnish
  • red chilli, sliced, to garnish (optional)

Directions:

1. Mix together the sauce ingredients (garlic, gochujang, gochugaru, sesame oil, soy sauce, sugar, rice wine/water, and pepper) in a bowl.

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2. Prepare the meats and vegetables, slicing them and getting them ready to put in the pot.

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3. Put the cabbage, onion and spring onion, pork, and mushrooms (if using), in the bottom of your pot. On top of that, put the kimchi and the sauce ingredients.

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4. Add the Spam, sausage, rice cake, tofu, and baked beans in whatever combination and proportions you are using them.

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5. Add about half the stock and simmer. Korean cooks would probably boil this at a high heat for 10 minutes before eating: I prefer to simmer it more slowly for 20 minutes or so, but your mileage will vary. If you have one of those table-top gas burners, you can cook it at the table on that, in authentic fashion.

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6. 5 minutes from the end of your cooking time, add the ramyeon noodles, stir in well, and then some cheese and sliced chilli (if you want). If it gets dry, add more stock – it shouldn’t be too thick.

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Once the noodles are soft and the cheese melted, the budaejjigae is ready to eat.

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7. If you like, you can transfer it to a nice serving bowl or clay cooking pot at this point. Serve with a bit of boiled rice and some banchan from the market for an extra authentic touch.

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