All around us, other families are congregated around their own simmering cast-iron woks, everyone dipping their chopsticks in to assemble their own smaller bowls of noodle soup, which is, naturally, eaten with kimchi and rice.
As a stew, budaejjigae by its very nature is a flexible dish. Here, Heo uses ground beef, hot dogs, glass noodles and tofu. But a version we tried in downtown Seoul contained baked beans. Yet another iteration in the international neighborhood of Itawon includes bacon and American cheese, which melts into the broth to create a creamy soup. Still other places add tteok (Korean rice cakes). And those who cook it at home may simply use what’s on hand. There seem to be as many versions of budaejjigae as there are people who cook it.
But whatever the add-ons, the core of the dish comes down to the two standing symbols of budaejjigae’s cross-cultural origins: kimchi and Spam.
In Korea, kimchi is more than a spicy fermented cabbage. It is the country’s national dish, the backbone of Korean cuisine, the staple of every Korean meal (including breakfast). No good Korean leaves home without mom’s homemade kimchi — and that includes soldiers and astronauts. In fact, when South Korea sent its first astronaut into space a few years ago, millions of dollars and years of government research went into engineering a kimchi that could accompany him.
As for Spam, this luncheon meat was turned into an icon of American patriotism after World War II, when millions of cans of this “spiced ham” were sent overseas to feed U.S. and Allied soldiers. The marketing campaign of the time even featured a touring troupe of singing, dancing former servicewomen known as the Spamettes.
While its status in the United States has sunk over time to the point where it has become the object of mystery-meat jokes, Spam has thrived abroad. Because of import laws, it remained illegal (and thus highly coveted) in South Korea until 1987, when a Korean company bought the rights to make this canned meat locally. Now, apart from Hawaiians and residents of Guam, Koreans eat more Spam than anyone else in the world. Even more bewildering, Korean Spam is actually made with higher-quality ingredients, and the image of Spam as a luxury item in Korea has spawned elaborate gift sets that adorn local supermarkets during the holidays.
In some aspects, were it not for the way history turned out, kimchi and Spam might never have been placed together, benefiting from the meeting of two cultures and the binding power of soup.
Which brings us to the last element of budaejjigae, the key to many a budaejjigae chef’s livelihood and something carefully guarded — the broth, or what Koreans call yook-su.
The depth and savoriness of Heo’s broth is something we couldn’t find elsewhere. This couldn’t be a soup that resulted simply from stewing with the other ingredients on the table before us. It must be a separate recipe, with its own list of ingredients and preparation method.
When asked about it, Heo was coy. Even in the twilight of her life, as proud as she is of her role in Korean culinary history, there are some things the creator of budaejjigae is still not ready to reveal.
“Of course I have my own secret for my dish,” she said sweetly. “But I cannot tell you.”
220-58 Uijeongbu-dong, Uijeongbu city, South Korea
Public transportation: From Seoul, take the line 1 subway to Hoeryong and transfer to the Uijeongbu LRT (the LRT line may not be on Seoul metro maps). On the LRT, get off at Uijeongbu Jungang and go out exit 2. Budaejjigae Street is right under the bridge when you exit. Alternatively, take the line 1 subway from Seoul to the Uijeongbu stop and walk north to Budaejjigae Street.
Wan is a writer based in Beijing. Yoonjung Seo in Seoul contributed to this report.