After the Korean War, the unassuming town of Uijeongbu in the suburbs of Seoul was left with two looming legacies: the hit TV series “M*A*S*H” and a quirky yet beloved Korean dish called budaejjigae, or “army base stew.”
“M*A*S*H,” of course, went on to become one of the most successful TV shows in America. Based loosely on the experiences of a real military medical team stationed in Uijeongbu, the show seared the Korean War into the pop-culture consciousness of a generation of Americans.
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.”
It’s hard to imagine this now 80-year-old Korean grandma as an outlaw. She still works at the restaurant every day, walking with a shuffle and settling bills for customers as they file out. We recognize her as soon as we enter; she’s dressed in the signature pink color that she sports in the magazine articles hanging on her restaurant walls.
We’re led to a back corner of the restaurant, where we take off our shoes and are seated at a low table. Almost immediately, a server sets a large black cauldron of prearranged ingredients before us, most of them hidden beneath a tangle of long green scallions. The server adds hot broth from a giant kettle and turns on the heat. Once the water starts to boil and the soup begins to turn a fiery red color, she adds the familiar squiggly block of instant noodles.
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.