It might be said that budaejjigae has played a similar symbolic role in Korea. Combining such disparate ingredients as ramen, Spam, kimchi and sometimes even American cheese, this one-pot meal serves as a culinary vestige of the tough years following the Korean War, when locals would make do with leftover rations from U.S. army bases. What resulted, though, is a comforting pot of spicy, savory, pungent stew whose popularity has only grown over the years.
These days, there is an official Budaejjigae Street in Uijeongbu, where it supposedly all began, and where a dozen or so restaurants devoted to this single dish have sprouted up. That was where I set out with my family on a recent visit to Seoul, hoping to trace this unique dish to its source.
Among the many establishments along the street, only one had a line trailing out the door when we arrived around 3 p.m. on a cold winter weekday. This was Odeng Shikdang, one of the oldest budaejjigae restaurants in Korea. And its owner, a short octogenarian lady named Heo Ki-Sook, is rumored to be none other than the creator of budaejjigae herself.
According to Heo, she began as a street vendor 54 years ago in Uijeongbu, selling odeng (fish cake). At the time, many Koreans who worked on U.S. army bases would smuggle out goods such as coffee and chocolate and sell them on the black market. Some of these were customers at Heo’s street stall. They’d smuggle out meat by wrapping it in tinfoil and hiding it under their clothes. Then they’d bring the meat to Heo and ask her to make something with it.
“I used all kinds of leftover meat, including turkey, beef, sausages and Spam for this dish,” said Heo through an interpreter. “I didn’t think smuggling meat left over from the workers was a big problem, because it was already cooked and was going to be thrown away after soldiers’ meals.”
At first, she simply stir-fried the meats, but when some of her customers told her that they missed having soup, Heo got more creative. She fashioned a makeshift pot out of a cast-iron lid and coated the bottom with lard and wild sesame oil. She added the smuggled meats, as well as kimchi and gochu (Korean red pepper), and turned the dish into a stew. This might just have been the earliest known version of budaejjigae.
“I got summoned by the customs office many times for using ham and sausages — products that were not imported to South Korea and therefore were not available at that time,” Heo confessed. “Every time I got caught, the customs office confiscated the meat and levied fines.”