Korean food is hearty and that is a big part of why the cuisine appeals to me. A bubbling pot of jjigae or stew is a good example. Spoon the goodies over hot rice, mush it up and eat. Heaven in a bowl to me. One of these stews, budae jjigae or Korean army base stew, even has an interesting story.

It came about, like many dishes, because of necessity. Food was short after the Korean War in the 1950s and enterprising Koreans used canned American army rations such as Spam, sausages and baked beans from the army bases to make a stir-fry with cabbage. Later, the dish evolved into a stew with fiery gochujang, or Korean chilli paste, and gochucharu, or Korean chilli flakes, added to it.

I have had budae jjigae in Korean restaurants here, but nothing prepared me for how good a homemade version tasted. On a rainy night recently, I asked friends over for dinner and decided it was perfect budae jjigae weather.

This dish is called Korean army base stew because it was made using American army rations after the Korean War. (Photo: Lee Jia Wen/The Straits Times)

One thing I love about this stew is the flexibility. I cannot bear the thought of canned sausages so I get my favourite ones, smoked bratwursts from Johnsonville. I do not like the idea of baked beans in this stew so I leave it out. Instead of processed cheese, you can use a thick slice of good cheddar or havarti, a good melting cheese. I just use the processed stuff. 

If all these ingredients horrify you, use chicken thigh cut into bite-sized pieces and marinated with soya sauce and sesame oil and thin slices of pork belly or collar marinated with salt and white pepper. Luncheon meat, however, is non-negotiable, at least to me. I love how it tastes after soaking up the spicy broth in which it has simmered.

To make the dish seem healthy, I add lots of napa cabbage, kimchi, mushrooms and firm tofu. The seasonings for the stew can be adjusted for taste. I prefer mild gochucharu, or Korean chilli flakes, to the spicy version, which just catches in my throat and makes me cough. My friends laugh at me. The hotter, the better, for them.

The dish is best enjoyed at the dinner table, with a portable stove in the middle and the stew simmering away. I hate an overloaded pan, so I use a large one that is 36 cm in diameter. If you do not have one that big, use the largest one you have and arrange some of the ingredients on a platter, to add as you and your guests demolish the stew.

Now is the best time to make it, when it is cool and wet. A young colleague who was recently in Seoul on an exchange programme said some restaurants there serve the stew with hot buttered rice. That sounds like a very good idea.

I never thought I would write this about Singapore, but it is time to get warm.

Get Hsueh Yun’s Korean Army Base Stew recipe here.

Text Excerpt: Tan Hsueh Yun/The Straits Times