Army stew (부대찌개): Fighting against hunger in post-war Korea

An ordinary dish suddenly becomes very special and that much more delicious when we have special memories attached to it. A pancake breakfast might not mean much to others, but to someone who grew up with pancake breakfasts during weekends made by grandma (because mom and dad were both still in bed from working all weekday), pancakes would hold a very special place in their hearts.


Grandma’s pancakes!

Korea has a similar attachment to a certain food item, but as an entire nation instead of one or two households. That special food item is Spam, which is often used as side dishes for bachelors or households with children, and it is beautifully wrapped and sold as one of the favourite gift packages exchanged during national holidays such as 추석 (Korean Thanksgiving). This is almost inconceivable to some of my Canadian friends, who hold spam in very low regards, and one friend even compared it to something they would rather give to pets.

Today’s posting deals with a dish involving spam, and unveils bit of the history behind the emotional attachment with this canned meat. The dish we will be exploring today is Budae Jjigae (부대찌개: Army Stew).

Night time view of Seoul

Night time view of Seoul

It’s hard to imagine that this modernized metropolis that is Seoul, was all but ruins 60 years ago. Just having endured a tragic war between our own people, the city was devastated with no infrastructure left. Resources were scarce; people were malnourished, hungry, without jobs, and without homes.

Seoul - After the war

Seoul – After the war

As it was briefly covered during my previous posts about tteokbokki and bungeobbang, Korean people were concerned with feeding themselves with what little food they had.

This is where the US army comes into the picture. Battalions of US soldiers were based in Korea to keep civil order and to watch out for potential breach of armistice agreement from the other side. Although things have much improved now especially for US and Israel soldiers, army food in general has a history of having taste as a secondary or even tertiary concern, after either budget, preservation, quantity, or portability (field rations).

Field rations. Delicious...?

Field rations. Delicious…?

And because of this, US soldiers stationed in Korea would grow sick of ration food, including canned ham. Occasionally they would throw out left over food from less-than-mediocre tasting rations, and even threw out whole pieces of the can-packaged and salted ham sometimes. The starving Korean workers within the army base (usually garbage cleaner or janitorial duties), or even random citizens roaming near the base would take notice, and happily take the pieces of precious meat.

These were the times when tree barks near cities were all stripped naked… The people were starving so much, that they resorted to chewing on tree barks just to deal with hunger. Such was the way things were during post-war Korea.

Before we are quick to pass judgement on issues like hygiene, or dignity against begging, the actions of desperate parents wanting to feed their starving children is an admirable one, no matter how it may be viewed otherwise.

Utilizing the canned ham that was thrown out by the US soldiers, a new dish was born: budae jjigae. You can probably guess why the dish was named budae jjigae (army stew). Depending on ingredients that gets added or removed, many variations exist, but key ingredients that makes it a budae jjigae is kimchi, sausages, and spam. Then depending on personal taste (or restaurant recipe), you add items like ramen noodles, rice cake slices, crystal noodles, cheese, mushrooms, vegetables, and even canned baked beans!

Budae jjigae I had from Sunrise house

Budae jjigae I had from Sunrise house

Being a relatively simple dish, I used to make it sometimes while living with Korean roommates in University, and my mom would also occasionally make it for family dinner. As long as you have good kimchi and the meat ingredients, it’s hard to get it wrong. And budae jjigae is not only great as a meal, but goes very well with soju as an anju (안주: food eaten with alcohol).

*Just a reminder that budae jjigae is a sharing dish, and in most cases comes out in servings of minimum 2 people only. It can be pretty spicy & hot to those not used to spicy food or Korean food

Making budae jjigae taste good is easy, but making it taste great is hard work! Not to mention all the grocery shopping and dishes involved with cooking. So instead, if you’re craving to try out some budae jjigae in Toronto, here’s two locations that I’d recommend.

Owl of Minerva. 5324 Yonge St, Toronto, ON

Owl of Minerva. 5324 Yonge St, Toronto, ON

Location #1Owl of Minerva (부엉이, near Finch station)
Best known for its gamjatang (감자탕: pork bone soup), this place also has great potluck style dishes for 2 or 4 including budae jjigae. Right after getting off from Finch station, you take a brief walk southward on Yonge, and you’ll run into this place on the west side of Yonge.

Taste: 3.5/5 (Tasty~)
Price: 3/5 ($19.99 for 2 person, budae jjigae with 2 rice and side dishes. Price may need update, but shouldn’t vary too much from that)
Accessibility: 3/5 (Few minutes walking down from Finch, southward on Yonge street)
Others: 4/5 (24 hours!!)

Sunrise House. 661 Bloor St W, Toronto, ON

Sunrise House. 661 Bloor St W, Toronto, ON

Location #2Sunrise House (해뜨는 집, near Chrstie station)
This place is starting to become pretty popular amongst Korean international students and Overseas Koreans, and for good reason. Their food tastes good, is decently priced, and comes out in hearty portions! The side dishes that comes out are also delicious as well. Hard to go wrong with ordering from here, including budae jjigae.

Taste: 3.5/5 (Very delicious kimchi was used as ingredient, and soup was excellent, but it was missing spam which is a huge minus point for me)
Price: 3/5 (Around $20 for 2 person, budae jjigae with 2 rice and side dishes. Everything was delicious and good portion!)
Accessibility: 3.5/5 (Very close to Christie station, just few minutes’ walk eastward on Bloor street.)
Others: n/a

That’s the end of today’s posting. Spring is here (calendar wise anyways), so why not celebrate with some delicious and spicy budae jjigae before the weather gets too hot? Then until my next posting, bon appétit!

Categories: 2014

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