Saturday, June 29, 2013

The History of Budae Jjigae

Koreans have eaten jjigae (very thick stew) perhaps since time immemorial, but with the coming of the Korean War when food was scarce, a new kind of jjigae was born - budae jjigae, almost literally "military stew". With the advent of the US soldiers, who were considered rich next to the impoverished Koreans who lived a hand-to-mouth subsistence, Koreans were first introduced to what it was like to have a surplus of meat. They themselves didn't have the surplus but the Americans did, and around the US military camps some of the US army supplies of canned meats like hot dogs, spam and other packaged meats sometimes found their way into the Korean economy. With the meats that were given to them, exchanged for work, or gleaned from the garbage, Koreans made jjigae by adding the meat to boiling water and whatever else they might have along their their ubiquitous red pepper paste and kimchi.

Although the jjigae was "born" in the Korean War, it ironically came to be called Johnson tang - tang is another kind of soup, not quite so thick or hearty as jjigae. The stew was named after US President Lyndon B. Johnson, and here's the irony, Johnson became president (1963-1969) a decade after the Korean War, the circumstance that actually "created" the thick soup. Therefore, it appears that calling the stew-gumbo Johnson tang was due to the stew's gaining popularity around Korea as Korea had more access to military supplies because many US soldiers continued to be employed in South Korea and pass through South Korea on their way to fight in the Vietnam War. The Vietnam war, the time era when Johnson tang became more widely known, was a time of economic development for the Koreans, particularly as many South Koreans fought in the war as hired soldiers, earning valuable income for their homeland. Thus, with the exposure to the US military goods, namely canned meats, a new food tradition was started in South Korea and has continued to grow in popularity since. 

Budae jjigae, "military stew", is linguistically tainted however with a shadowy military past and connotations of impoverishment, particularly around US military camps. Therefore, in the late 1990s Uijeongbu, a city bordering the north of Seoul and where a large number of military personnel reside, tried to remove the military connotations from the now-popular food by stipulating that henceforth the jjigae was to be referred to as Uijeongbu jjigae. Not many restaurants complied, but other restaurants picked up on the new nomenclature and began calling their stew Uijeongbu budae jjigae. In Uijeongbu and in other spots around Korea, there are budae jjigae streets where a high concentration of budae jjigae restaurants offer variations to the stew: curry budae jjigae, stir-fried budae jjigae, among others. With budae jjigae, about anything is possible for the pot, examples being ddeok, cheese, beans.

The popular Korean dish that was born of adversity is still popular today, and now is called a "fusion food", a new term applied to foods which are a combining of homeland Korean chow mixed with some foreign element, e.g. cheese kimbap is another fusion example and the first time I had it, I just about gagged! In Korea (not surprisingly) there is even a Budae Jjigae Festival with thoughts that it will help "revitalize the economy" and "make us remember the meaning of the Korean War"; it is also said to "unify the local community" although no one has explained to me how this will be a result of eating the stew.

Budae jjigae has even been spread to Japan and from Japan it has been brought back with other "fusion food" changes. I think budae jjigae is a good example of how Korea has changed over the past century - it has gone from being a proud homogeneous society to one that accepts the blurring of cultural lines as long as something Korean still shines through the cultural borrowing.

Credit in outlining this information and particularly for the pictures
goes to my students Lee Cherin and Choi Yeonhee.

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