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The Most Comforting Cold Remedy Is My Mother’s Korean Stew

published Jan 8, 2020
Kitchn Love Letters
My Mom’s Easy Korean Stew
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Growing up as the child of immigrants usually means two things: You speak multiple languages, and your palate is very confused. At least that’s how it’s worked out for me. Fortunately, my culinary confusion goes away on sick days, when my taste buds lust over the Korean dishes of my childhood. 

Now, Koreans have very specific ideas of what foods heal illness, which ingredients help your bowels move, and which desserts should only be eaten once a year. One popular cough and sore throat remedy, for instance, involves hollowing out a large Korean pear, filling it with honey, and steaming the whole fruit. The resulting syrup is sweet and completely natural.

That’s not my preferred go-to, though. Mine is something many Korean natives usually prescribe for hangovers. It’s called “budae jjigae,” or “army stew,” and it’s a hearty, savory, spicy stew perfect for those gnarly winter flus that make you feel weak all over with no appetite.

Budae jjigae is indulgent manna filled with chewy, spicy, meaty flavor that truly hits every spot and will have even soup and stew skeptics asking for seconds. 

This stew is made with kimchi, ramen noodles, and, traditionally, Spam. This last addition is the stew’s calling card, and has a pretty simple history. Korean army stew was something concocted out of necessity during the Korean war, when locals facing a post-war food scarcity began incorporating American ingredients (including processed meats like Spam) found on military bases into their dishes. To help understand this stew in the greater oeuvre of Korean dishes, it helps to think of army stew as an “everything pizza” topped with every single possible topping on the menu.

Sure, most Koreans might recommend a more simple kimchi soup to treat a cold, but where are the carbs and the unabashed excuse to inhale processed meats?

What I love about budae jjigae is how easy it is to make. Essentially you throw all your ingredients in a boiling pot of water and stir until it’s cooked. Make it once, and you’ll never forget how to make it again.

The recipe itself is pretty flexible too, but there are a few essentials. For the broth, you’ll need three things, all of which should be at your local Asian grocery store. First is gochugaru, a classic Korean chili powder whose coarseness can be categorized between powder and flake (it’s also available on Amazon). Next, MSG or dashi powder is pretty common in all east Asian cooking (and it’s also on Amazon). Finally, garlic powder, which you can get most anywhere. 

For the mix-in ingredients, you’ll want kimchi (extra fermented if you want to make it super authentic); ramen or rice cake slices; and some kind of salty protein like Spam or bacon. I like bacon because I always have it on hand. I also like to add in at least one easily washed and/or peeled fresh ingredient like mushrooms. 

Of course, this whole pot of stew needs to be adapted to your own spiciness level, so don’t forget to dip a spoon in and taste-test continuously. Just remember that everything will taste a little bit spicier when it’s fresh off the heat. 

Credit: Nadine Lee

My Mom’s Easy Korean Stew

Serves 1 to 2

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 4 cups

    water

  • 1 teaspoon

    garlic powder

  • 1 teaspoon

    gochugaru

  • 1 teaspoon

    MSG or dashi powder

  • 2 cups

    kimchi, ideally extra fermented. You can buy some and leave on your kitchen counter at room temperature for a few days to achieve this ideal fermentation level.

  • 1/2 cup

    bunashimeji mushrooms

  • 1 cup

    rice cake slices or half pack of instant ramen

  • 1 cup

    bacon, Spam, or any other salty protein

Instructions

  1. Boil water.

  2. Lower the heat and add MSG, garlic powder, and gochugaru to water. Stir stock and simmer until all powder is dissolved.

  3. Add kimchi — including brine — and mushrooms to pot, and keep stirring until vegetables are soft.

  4. Add bacon and let simmer until meat is fully cooked.

  5. Add rice cake slices and cook until al dente.

  6. Serve with rice and side dishes (banchan) or on its own.

Recipe Notes

Storage: If you’ve added any ramen or rice cake slices to it, this pot of stew is ideally best consumed within the next 48 hours. Sans ramen or rice cake slices, you can leave it in you fridge for up to five days.

At Kitchn, our editors develop and debut brand-new recipes on the site every single week. But at home, we also have our own tried-and-true dishes that we make over and over again — because quite simply? We love them. Kitchn Love Letters is a series that shares our favorite, over-and-over recipes.