When it comes to Korean food, I love most of the delectable dishes, which make up your standard fare for Korean cuisine from the hearty vegetable and rice medley of bibimbap to the tender and tasty strips of kalbi (Korean-style spare ribs) that you grill at your table.
However, there is one dish, which has always been one of my favorites: budae-chigae.
In Korea there are various kind of “chigaes” or stews like “kimchi-chigae” (kimchi stew) and “sundubu-chigae” (tofu stew) which are quite spicy and served piping hot. Well maybe “piping hot” is a bit of an understatement because at some restaurants, these “chigaes” which are sometimes served in black stone bowls are almost boiling over when they are brought to your table. (The small third-degree burns on the hands and fingers that you see on some of the waitresses and cooks just might be one of the occupational hazards when cooking and handling these boiling bowls of chigae.)
These chigaes are both delicious and not too expensive, which is probably one reason why they are so popular to make and eat. Ask most Koreans what their favorite food is and you’ll probably get either kimchi-chigae or sundubu-chigae.
Budae-chigae, which can be translated as “camp” or “military” stew is similar to kimchi-chigae (both consist of kimchi, onions, and in some cases small flat rice cakes called “ttokk”) is often cooked at your table in a large bowl resembling a large hubcap and shared by two or more people. Although a lot of Korean food is served in individual servings, some dishes like budae-chigae, bulgogi (grilled beef/yaki-niku), kalbi, and buldalk (spicy morsels of grilled chicken sometimes referred to as “fire chicken”)—all of which are cooked at your table—are meant for more than two people. Indeed, some restaurants will even refuse to serve you one of these dishes unless you order two servings. Perhaps it has to do with the “eating” culture in Korea where many people eat together and share food like the side dishes of kimchi and other vegetables known as “ban-chan.”
However, what makes budae-chigae special (and very tasty) I suppose is the history of this dish. During the Korean War, many Korean soldiers did not have much to eat other than kimchi, rice, and other vegetables. Meat was scarce. Either some Korean soldiers who were KATUSA’s (Korean Augmentees to the U.S. Army) and assigned to American military units scrounged for meat such as Spam and hot dogs from their American counterparts or were given this meat made a stew out of it with the kimchi, vegetables, and noodles (later ramen).
It is still a very popular dish (it has undergone a few ingredient improvements like adding pork and ground beef) and today when Narumi and I were looking for something to eat, I had to have her try some. In fact, the restaurant we went to in Myong-dong was packed with office workers having budae-chigae for lunch.
Hmm…sounds like budae-chigae was Korea’s first fusion food.