When thinking of Korean food, the most likely item that pops into ones head is… drumroll please… wait for it… almost there… KIMCHI! And for good reason. Kimchi, in all of its spicy, pickled, and fermented glory, just so happens to be the national dish of Korea.
Kimchi comes in hundreds of varieties and is made using a main vegetable ingredient and a variety of spices. Spices used to make kimchi vary by region of the country, and the vegetables used vary slightly by season. However, the variety of kimchi that most people in the US are familiar with, and the variety that we’ve seen and eaten most in our time here in Seoul, is made with napa cabbage, chili paste, garlic, and a an assortment of other unidentifiable spices.
One variety or another is served with almost every meal, and not always as just a side dish. You often see kimchi served as the main course in the form of kimchi pancakes, kimchi pork cutlets, kimchi fried rice, etc. In an early effort to adhere to the culinary cultural norms of Korea, we felt it necessary that our first meal upon arrival in Seoul have an obvious kimchi element. After searching long and hard for nearly 35 seconds, we found this dish at a restaurant down the street from our new apartment.
김치찌개 Kimchi Jjigae
Jjigae is the Korean word that describes a soup or a stew-like dish, which is usually eaten communally amongst friends and family. Kimchi, as mentioned above, is a mix of fermented vegetables pickled in spices. Put the two together and you get a bubbling mix of tangy cabbage, tofu, pork, scallions, and onions all simmering in a orangish-redish, beyond-spicy broth. In other words, deliciousness!
On that first night in Seoul, after a long flight and an unsuccessful attempt to unpack, we were ready for our first taste of authentic Korea together. One of our co-teachers, Mr. Jae, who lives in our same building, took us out to a restaurant just down the street. We let him know that we wanted something typically Korean and affirmed that we weren’t afraid of spice (though Staci has learned that it may not always be in our stomaches’ best interest to let me pick the the level of Scoville heat units our meals have). We ordered the Kimchi Jjigae to share and some soju to celebrate and help dull the spice. In just a few short minutes, the waitress came to our table with a bowl of kimchi jjigae the size of a witches cauldron, three bowls, a half-dozen side dishes (banchan), rice, and the ever-so-important, pain-dulling soju. We dug right in and loved every bite!
While the soup is certainly spicy, it strikes the right balance of pain and enjoyment. Apparently, you are supposed to use more “mature” or “ripened” kimchi to get the full flavor out of the dish. In other words, when your fermented vegetables are becoming just a bit too fermented, make some soup. Not only does this help make the flavor stronger, it also apparently contains a higher level of “good” bacteria to help your digestive system. Now Korea is also known as The Land of the Morning Calm, but Staci and I can affirm that the person responsible for giving Korea that nickname most certainly did not have kimchi jjigae for dinner the evening before! The mixture of spice from the chili paste and “good” bacteria do little to “calm” your morning, but they do make for a delicious soup… that you have to enjoy in the moment.
If, like me, you are a glutton for spicy punishment, and you want to try making kimchi jjigae on your own at home, try the recipe below. Now we can’t personally vouch for this recipe (honestly there isn’t much need to make it at home here when you can get two gallons down the block for $12), but we’d love to hear how things work out in your kitchen. I will advise, however, that you not have this meal before a night out on the town or prior to boarding your flight to come visit us!
Until next time, we wish you happy cooking and a fermented farewell!
1/3 lbs pork belly sliced very thin (omit for vegetarians)
1/2 small onion sliced
1 1/2 C loosely packed kimchi
4 cloves of garlic minced
1/2 C kimchi juice
2 C water
1/2 tsp dried ginger
1 Tbs cooking wine (such as mirin or shaoxing)
2 tsp gochujang (Korean chili paste)
2 tsp miso or dengjang
2 tsp Korean soup soy sauce (or light soy sauce)
2 Tbs gochugaru (Korean dried chili flakes) optional
8 oz silken tofu sliced into cubes
2 green onions thinly sliced
Heat a small pot (cast iron works best) until hot, then add the pork belly, onion, and vegetable oil. After a few minutes, add the kimchi and garlic. Saute until the mixture is very fragrant, then add the kimchi juice, water, ginger, cooking wine, gochujang, miso, and soy sauce, stirring everything together to combine.
Bring to a boil and taste for spiciness. Add as much gochugaru to taste until it’s pleasantly tingly (I usually add about 2 Tbs, but this may be way too much for some people). Add the tofu, turn down the heat to a simmer, and let it cook for 15-20 minutes, or until the pork and kimchi are tender.
When you’re ready to serve, add the green onions. Serve with rice!
Recipe found from NoRecipes.com