By Franklin FisherApril 8, 2014
UIJEONGBU -- Its Korean name translates roughly to "military camp stew," and while there are more than a few versions of how budaejjigae got started, most agree that it came about amid the devastation of the Korean War and its day-to-day, hand-to-mouth aftermath.
Budaejjigae, (pronounced booday jee-gay), is a culinary convergence of two cultures -- traditional Korean and GI Joe American. It's a steaming, bubbling, orange-colored stew awash with spam, hot dogs, ground beef, ham, sausage, sometimes a slice of cheese, tofu, bean sprouts, kimchi, Korean green peppers, red pepper powder, red pepper paste, garlic, onions, scallions, and one or more varieties of noodles, for example, potato noodles and ramen noodles.
The liquid, called yook-su, contains an ingredient that varies somewhat from one restaurant to another and is usually a closely-held house secret.
The standard account of budaejjigae's origins is that Koreans working on U.S. military bases would scavenge leftovers from GI chow halls or officers clubs, take them off-post and combine them with whatever everyday Korean ingredients came to hand.
While it's known to have gained popularity in a number of Korean cities over the years, it carries an especially close association with the city of Uijeongbu, about an hour north of Seoul and home of Camp Red Cloud.
In fact, Uijeongbu boasts an entire street of restaurants dedicated to serving budaejjigae, and the city has sought to further underscore the connection by erecting a special sign at the head of that street. It reads, in Korean and English, "Uijeongbu Budaejjigae Street."
It's maybe not surprising that on that street is one restaurant in particular whose owner lays claim to being the city's originator of budaejjigae.
Huh Ki-sook, 78, is owner of Odeng Sikdang. Sikdang means restaurant. She opened it in 1955 when Korea was still a scene of rubble and postwar privation. In the earliest years she served only two Japanese dishes, odeng and udon.
According to Huh, it wasn't until the 1960s that she started cooking GI ingredients but served them fried, not as a stew.
In those days, she said, there were a number of U.S. military installations in Uijeongbu.
Some Korean civilian employees who worked at one of those -- she doesn't recall which one, she said -- got hold of some leftovers tossed out at the post officers club, hid them under their clothes and brought them to her.
See what you can do with these, they suggested.
The food included spam, sausage and other scraps, and she said she mixed them with Korean ingredients.
The turning point, she said, came when South Korea hosted the 1988 Olympics. That, she said, is when she began serving the actual stew, budaejjigae.
At her restaurant, for example, kitchen staff cut the ingredients, then place them in a shallow black pan. Each pan is then stacked slantwise one behind the other in a shelf-like metal cabinet.
When an order comes in, a waitress carries the pan to the customer's table and sets it on a gas burner, pours in the yook-su and starts the flame.
Within five to 10 minutes the budaejjigae is bubbling.
Budaejiggae was a hit with Spc. Kara Buckner, a vocalist with the 2nd Infantry Division Band at Camp Red Cloud.
She had it for the first time a few weeks ago at Odeng Sikdang after hearing about the dish from her boyfriend, who's Korean, she said.
"I really liked it," said Buckner, 21, of Shepherd, Mich. "I was a vegetarian for a while, so this was one of the meals I tried once I started eating meat again, and I really loved it.
"I liked how they used spam, how Koreans can take the simplest things and make it taste so good. They have like, cabbage and all these different vegetables and it's just like the perfect combination of everything together. Just makes it taste so delicious."