Food, glorious food! Oh, gentle friends, you know it is my raison d’être. I think I’m going to have to tell you about the food I’ve been discovering in Korea in installments, because there’s just too much to talk about in one post. Today’s Episode: Soup.
Koreans take their soup seriously. Just as nary a meal is complete in the Land of the Morning Calm without kimchi, I’m finding that most meals–even breakfast–involve some kind of soup, whether as the main attraction, or as an accompaniment. There are multiple words for soup in Korean: guk, tang, jjigae and jeongol, and those are just the terms that I’ve encountered. There are, doubtless, more. Some may quibble that jjigae and jeongol are really “stews,” not “soups”–I’ve even heard them erroneously referred to as “casseroles”–but I’ve eaten enough of all of them now to feel that I’m on taxonomically solid ground putting them all under the general “soup” umbrella. You wanna call them stews, get on with your bad self, I’m not going to argue.
I have noticed that “guk” and “tang” each seem to refer to soups with clear (or clear-ish) broth, whereas jjigae often seems to involve red, murky broths spiced with the delicious, fermented chili paste, gochujang. I could be wrong. That’s just my observation. But, otherwise, I honestly find it pretty hard to differentiate between the various sorts of soupy wonders that are called guk, tang, jjigae and jeongol, respectively.
One of the first Korean soap operas that I ever watched was called “Cooking Up Romance,” and was set in a traditional Korean beef soup restaurant. (A soup opera!) I used to laugh at these scenes where the owner of the shop would yell at his staff and cry about how they would commit the tiniest transgressions, deviating from his original beef soup recipe and bringing shame to his establishment and name, and how the grandma would scream at the owner’s college student daughter about her lack of filial piety in not wanting to take over the restaurant and serve the family’s beef soup to generations to come. Seriously, the beef soup was, itself, a character in this show.
They were not joking around, either, these were not comedic scenes. Luckily, the hapless young chef-Man Bong-came along, mastered the owner’s recipe, and fell in love with the owner’s prodigal daughter, keeping the restaurant, and tradition, alive and in the family. So, now that I’m in Korea, and I see so many soup restaurants touting a multi-generational traditional family recipe, I can’t help but remember that charming and hilarious show.
If you go to a Korean barbecue restaurant, where you grill the meat on the table, you’ll also get a big, bubbling pot of some kind of jjigae, along with ten or twenty different “banchan”–the ubiquitous side dishes that are served in every Korean restaurant. The fattier and heavier the meat you are cooking, the spicier the jjigae will be, to cut the grease. But, make no mistake, like it or not, you will be gettin’ jjigae wit it. (Oh, forgive me, I have been waiting to use that line for weeks! No one here gets the reference, they just look at me like “yeah, you always get jjigae, what’s so funny?” Thanks, it’s out of my system now, I promise.)
On their birthdays, Koreans traditionally eat seaweed soup. This is, apparently, because that’s what is fed to new mothers after giving birth, to restore their strength. So, eating it on your birthday is a sort of commemoration of your mother’s birthing experience. Sounds fair to me. She suffered, why shouldn’t you? (Just teasing, the seaweed soup I’ve had–usually for breakfast, with rice–has been pretty tasty.)
I have been lucky enough to join Korean friends in the soup restaurants, so that I could observe and imitate their strategy in attacking the repast. It isn’t always obvious. What condiments you add, what you pick out with chopsticks vs. what you slurp up with the spoon, what you spit out, what you gnaw on, what you soak up with rice, etc. It’s a veritable faux pas waiting to happen. (I’m still emotionally scarred from the whole “Soft-Boiled Egg in a Cup Incident of 1984” in Germany, where the whole table was politely waiting for me to begin eating, and I had no idea what to do with the damned thing; I’d never been served an egg still in the shell before. Let’s just say, there was spoon violence, yolk explosion, shirts ruined….I swear, my poor German host family must have thought they’d taken in a teenaged barbarian.) After a while, though, I realized that as long as you eat with gusto, and enjoy the food (which isn’t difficult), Korean cooks will be happy with you, and how you get it down your gullet is of lesser importance. The other diners might make fun of you, but you probably won’t understand them anyway, so don’t worry about it.
I’ve seen it argued that the difference between “jjigae” and “jeongol” is the number of star ingredients, with jjigae having usually just one featured component, like kimchi or tofu, and jeongol having multiple, like “haemul jeongol,” which has several different kinds of seafood. In response to this theory, I invoke the immortal Colonel Sherman T. Potter of the TV show M.A.S.H., and say: Horse Hockey! Were that the case, how would you explain Buddae Jjigae? Ahhh…Buddae Jjigae. The fact that this is, hands down, my favorite Korean soup so far is just proof positive that, whereas some folks’ bodies are temples, mine is a landfill. It’s okay, I own it.
Buddae jjigae came about due to scarcity of food during and after the Korean War, when impoverished Koreans had to make do with scraps scavenged from the American military. Originally made from leftover Army rations–hot dogs, Spam, canned beans, and whatever else they could find–it’s also called Army Base Stew, or “Johnson Tang,” referencing the common American surname. It’s still very popular today. Some people are very sentimental about it. Everyone has their own recipe, but the classic has to contain hot dogs, ham, Spam or a Spam-like processed meat, ground beef, canned baked beans, instant ramen noodles, kimchi, onions, and a couple slices of American cheese that dissolve completely into the spicy, red broth, yielding a mysterious, rich, velvety quality that you just couldn’t achieve any other way. It. Is. So. Good. If I had to compare the taste to something, I’d say it kind of reminds me of when I was a kid, when we went camping, my mom would cut up hot dogs into Campbell’s Bean and Bacon soup. But much spicier, and with more stuff thrown in.
There are restaurants all over that specialize in Buddae Jjigae. But, you can also get these kits delivered right to your house, containing all the ingredients, already chopped and prepped and ready to be thrown into the pot.
You just call on the phone and say how many you want, and shortly, a guy on a motorbike shows up at your door with your Buddae Jjigae kits, and 20 minutes later…it’s soup! Genius, no? Why don’t we have that kind of a service in the States? Someone, get on that before I get home.