Budae Jjigae, or Korean Army Base Stew, is the ultimate pantry blowout meal

budae jjigae in hot pot
Photo: Jacklee (Fair Use)

If you’ve ever been to a Korean restaurant, chances are you’ve been to a place that serves something called budae jjigae, or Army Base Stew. If it was at a Korean barbecue restaurant or bar, you probably glossed over it in order to get to the cook-it-yourself grilled meat section of the menu. What I wouldn’t do to go back to one of these spots right now. (Although one time I snuck some of my own raw meat into a Korean barbecue restaurant, and I am not sure I should ever go back. This is my personal burden and the curse of my own making.)

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If you have ordered budae jjigae at a restaurant, then you know it usually comes out with its own little propane stove and is then brought up to a raging boil in a giant pan, tableside, so you can burn your face off while eating it. It’s so much fun, full of that extra savory flavor you get from a shit-ton of processed meat: make-you-sweat spicy and oh so salty. This is a communal dish that you reach into with your chopsticks and your spoon, which is why it’s so good with friends around, and it’s what makes it a good example of anju. Anju is the term for food you consume alongside alcohol. Korean drinking culture dictates that you eat while you drink, because snacks keep you going strong for a night of shenanigans.

Budae jjigae, as I mentioned, translates to “army base stew.” The word budae means “army base,” while jjigae means “stew.” Pretty straightforward. The name, in a way, is sort of the decoder ring to explain why each of the ingredients contained within the stew make sense. Are you emotionally prepared? This list gets intense.

Start with an instant ramen base, and then you can add any combination of the following, and I swear I’m not making this up: American cheese, mozzarella, kimchi, ham, Spam, hot dog slices, baked beans, mushrooms, green onions, onions, garlic, bacon, tofu, sliced peppers, rice cakes, macaroni noodles, eggs, cabbage, bean sprouts, gochujang, and, at this rate, you can probably throw an entire fighter jet in there too.

Everyone has their preferences, but really, the key is to use whatever you have. There’s no formal recipe. You see, budae jjigae came from a time period shortly after the Korean War when things were really, really desperate for a lot of South Koreans. In dealing with the aftermath of a war, a whole country was trying to figure out how to survive.

Here’s where the U.S. Army comes in. Remember all those processed meats I mentioned, like Spam and hot dogs? Those home cooks lucky enough to get hold of American soldiers’ surplus rations were able to incorporate those ingredients into their cooking, which is why Spam is such a beloved item in Korea to this day. Meat in general was extraordinarily difficult to obtain, so canned army rations were truly something to be cherished, and that feeling persists today.

In a way, it’s actually the perfect moment to have budae jjigae at home, for two reasons: there’s no way in hell are we’re going to be sitting around a communal table anytime soon, and this is a perfect pantry meal. Time to use all that canned shit you hoarded last spring and have been holding onto for the past ten months. Plus, it’s wintertime. Stew season!

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Now, is this an everyday Korean food? Hell no. In terms of sodium and fat content, it’s wildly unhealthy. This is why I had no idea budae jjigae even existed until I was well into adulthood. I asked Mom about it once:

ME: Mom, do you know what budae jjigae is?

MOM: [Brief silence.] What? That? Why are you asking?

ME: Did you ever make it for us? I don’t remember ever having it.

MOM: No! I never made it. It’s not good for you. I never made it.

So, no, I don’t have an award-winning childhood essay lodged inside my body somewhere about Army Base Stew. Is it worth trying at least once? Hell yeah. It’s super easy to make. Just chop up the ingredients, toss them in with instant ramen along with some extra water or broth, then cook the noodles until they’re done. If you’re doing cheese, just add it on top at the end and let it melt. And there you have it, soldier.

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Budae Jjigae à la Dennis

  • 1 (12-oz.) can 25% Less Sodium Spam, cut into thick slices (I prefer the low-sodium variety since there’s so much salt in the rest of the ingredients)
  • 8 oz. hot dogs (4-5 regular sized hot dogs), sliced into coins
  • 1 (16-oz.) package firm tofu, sliced
  • 1 cup kimchi, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 onion, thinly sliced
  • 8 oz. white button mushrooms, thinly sliced
  • 1 package instant ramen, with seasoning packet (Shin or Neoguri are my favorites)
  • 2 Tbsp. gochugaru (Korean red pepper flakes)
  • 1 Tbsp. gochujang (Korea red pepper sauce)
  • 1 Tbsp. minced garlic
  • ½ tsp. black pepper
  • 4 cups chicken, beef, or vegetable stock, or water
  • 2 slices American cheese
  • ¼ cup sliced green onions
  • Sticky short grain rice, cooked

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, cook the Spam and hot dog slices until hot, approximately 5 minutes.

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Place hot dogs, tofu, kimchi, onion, and mushrooms in a large shallow saucepan. Put ramen noodles on top.

In a large bowl, combine the ramen seasoning packet, gochugaru, gochujang, minced garlic, and black pepper until it becomes a paste. Pour in stock or water and mix until incorporated.

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Pour the liquid mixture into the saucepan, and bring to a rolling boil. Cook until noodles are tender, about 6-7 minutes. Place slices of American cheese on top and turn off heat. Garnish with green onions and serve with hot rice on the side. Serve the stew straight out of the pan.

Staff writer at The Takeout. Also: Saveur Humor Blog Award Winner, professional pizza maker, and insufferable troublemaker.

DISCUSSION

Your mother probably never made it for you since it brings up painful memories for her. It’s not just a stew made up of US Rations that were given to Koreans during the war, it is made up of items that they would find in the TRASH. Younger kids will say, “Koreans were Freegans?!?! Awesome!” Um, no. They did this because the country was in ruins and they were trying to survive as you briefly mentioned.

If your mom isn’t old enough to remember life during and immediately after the war, then she probably doesn’t know it. Her parents probably wanted to keep that dish away from her since it’s considered low class and reminded THEM of hard times. While it’s know as Army Base stew, it’s also known as garbage stew. My late grandmother had some vivid memories of what was inside that stew and how it was made.