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The Story of Budaejjigae, Korea’s “Army Base Stew” (부대찌개)

While preparing for our trip to Seoul in November, I came across an interesting Korean dish called budaejjigae (부대찌개), which translates to “army base stew.” Being a fan of Shin Ramyun, the Korean instant noodles with an almost cult following of Asians around the world, the idea of a spicy stew composed of Korean ramen and a mishmash of crazy toppings, including Spam, instantly appealed to me. I know — that either sounds very right or very wrong to you. Let me get to that in a moment.

Regardless of whether this is a dish you think you might ever want to try, suffice it to say that budaejjigae has a fascinating history. And during my time in Seoul, I was fortunate to meet the lady whom many believe to be the creator of this stew. She’s still making it to this day! You can find out more about her and the origins of budaejjigae in my story in the Washington Post’s travel section today. 

Now, as for whether this dish is worth trying… If you’re a fellow Shin Ramyun devotee, let me just say — one taste of budaejjigae, and you will understand the true meaning of Shin Ramyun. But if you’re balking at the whole idea of paying for a bowl of instant noodles at a restaurant, or asking why you would want to go to Korea to eat Spam — let’s just start over, shall we? This is not a bowl of glorified instant noodles. This is a Korean feast. So: think bubbling Korean stews cooked at the table with fresh ingredients — onions, scallions, gochujang (Korean red pepper paste), kimchi, tofu, leafy greens. Then, yes, add Spam and ramen and whatever else you like — it will all simmer in the rich, spicy broth, soaking in the flavors of the stew. To eat, serve with kimchi and rice. If you truly are not an adventurous eater, I suppose you could substitute in “real” meat (in Korea, Spam is made with real meat!) and maybe some Korean glass noodles. But if you don’t eat kimchi, I can’t help you there.

This is also an easy dish to recreate at home. It’s not quite the same as digging into a big black cauldron of budaejjigae in the dish’s native Uijeongbu, where each chef each has his/her own take on the stew. But it’s a nice, hearty meal that comes together quickly, especially for a cold winter weeknight.

Budaejjigae (Korean Army Base Stew): A Non-Recipe

This can be made quickly in a pot on the stove or cooked in a deep electric skillet or wok at the table, where it continues to simmer while you eat. You can have it as a one-pot meal on its own, or serve it with kimchi and rice.

Sticking to the rustic origins of this dish, here I offer you my non-recipe. Use this as a general guideline. Adjust amounts to your liking. The ingredients to this dish are very flexible, but generally it’s the gochujang, kimchi, Spam, and Korean ramen that make it, so try not to skip those. (Korean ramen has thicker noodles than other instant noodle brands. Don’t use the seasoning packets, though, as the flavor of the stew will come from the other ingredients.) Even if you just tossed everything into a pot and boiled it, it would turn out fine. The only thing I’ll mention is that if it comes out a tad too sour for you, due to the kimchi, try adding a dash of sugar. And you’ll want to eat the noodles as soon as they’re done, to avoid them getting soggy.

BASE: gochujang, kimchi
AROMATICS: onion, garlic, scallions
MEAT: Spam (additionally, sliced hot dogs and ground beef are also common)
BROTH: enough chicken or beef broth (homemade, canned, or even water would work) to just cover all the ingredients; add water if it boils down too quickly
VEGETABLES: leafy greens like garland chrysanthemum are popular (I’ve used pea sprouts in the photo), as are various mushrooms like enoki or shiitake
NOODLES: Korean ramen, such as Shin Ramyun noodles (skip the seasoning packets, though); some people like to also add sweet potato noodles
OPTIONAL TOPPINGS: baked beans, tteok (rice cake), bacon, tofu, and American cheese

The Taste of Fat

Here’s a little break today from all the travel posts:

I recently wrote a piece on the increasing scientific evidence for fat as a basic taste (yup, just like umami). While still not definitive, many taste scientists are becoming more and more convinced that our tongues can actually taste fat. Not only that, but there are a host of other tastes that we may have receptors for and that scientists are studying — things like calcium, carbonation, water, starch, and metallicity. The piece appears in today’s Health & Science section of The Washington Post, and you can read it here.

I talked to so many fascinating people and learned so much while researching this piece, it was impossible to include all of it in the article. One really fun website I wanted to mention is Barb Stuckey’s Taste What You’re Missing. That’s also the title of her recently published book, which I’m in the middle of and highly recommend as a fascinating and very accessible read on the science of taste. I particularly love these fun exercises on sensory science on her site!

I also enjoyed talking with Linda Bartoshuk, who is known for her work on the genetics of taste and for coining the term “supertaster” (someone who is particularly sensitive to tastes). Bartoshuk views basic tastes as being hard-wired in our brains: we’re born liking sweet (like mother’s milk) and hating bitter (which serves an evolutionary role in turning us away from poison). Under this view, umami is not considered a basic taste because it has no evolutionary purpose, and the widespread fascination with and acceptance of umami may instead have more to do with marketing. Hm… Guess I should not be suckered into trying out umami paste then.

Lastly, before we all get our hopes up on being able to buy fat paste in a tube in the near future, I should mention that scientists believe that the taste of fat is actually, well, not pleasant. The taste receptor that’s been discovered is for free fatty acids, which don’t typically exist in pure form in foods, and when they do, they usually indicate that a food has gone rancid. For example, fatty acid is what’s responsible for the stink in stinky cheese. What we normally eat and enjoy in foods are fats known as triglycerides (composed of three fatty acids and glycerol), which we’re not yet sure can be broken down on the tongue in order to taste. We experience triglycerides typically through aroma and texture. Rick Mattes has done extensive research on the topic and explains that our taste receptor for fat (or fatty acid, specifically) may serve more as a warning system, like bitterness, for foods that have gone rancid.

Did that last part just go over your head a little bit? If so, no worries — it completely went over mine too initially. :) I’m most grateful to the many people I talked with who helped illuminate the science of taste a bit for me. It’s definitely encouraged me to delve more deeply into the topic.

If you’re interested in learning more about the science of taste, be sure to check out Jeannine Delwiche’s helpful site, Tasting Science.

banh mi essay and homemade mayo

A while back, I wrote a piece on the history and appeal of banh mi, the popular Vietnamese sandwich. It appeared in Sandwich, a supplement to Meatpaper magazine’s Fall 2010 issue, and you can click on the image to the right to read the essay. (Side note: the first sentence of the piece should refer to the first time I had fresh pate… not the first time I had banh mi, which I have eaten for as long as I can remember.)

In the piece, I mention making homemade mayo with my family when I was a kid. Back in the day, we didn’t have a mixer, and so we’d make the mayo by hand, one of us furiously whisking the raw egg yolk with a pair of chopsticks while someone else slowly dripped oil into the bowl. It was really a test of patience as we agonizingly watched the thick yolk slowly grow into a light, creamy spread. But the result was always worth it — fresh mayo that we ate on crusty bread… the bread was really just an excuse for the mayo.

So here I give you my instructions on how to make mayo at home. You’ll want to use a fresh egg, as the yolk will remain raw.

Homemade Mayonnaise
Makes about 1/2 cup

1 egg yolk
1/2 cup of canola or vegetable oil (something neutral-tasting)
pinch of salt
lemon juice
mustard (optional)

Attach one beater to a hand mixer, and turn the mixer on the lowest setting. (Alternatively, use chopsticks or a whisk — but you’ll have to work fast!) Add the oil slowly, a few drips at a time, letting it gradually emulsify with the egg yolk. After you get a creamy consistency, you can start adding the oil in a thin steady stream.

If the emulsion breaks — that is, if the mayo starts to get clumpy rather than creamy, and the oil begins to separate from the cream — stop and set this broken mixture aside. Start the process again with a new yolk, but instead of adding in oil, add in bits of the broken mixture until all of that mixture is incorporated into the new yolk. Then continue adding oil in a slow, steady stream.

You can really add as much oil as you want to get your desired amount of mayo. Just keep in mind that the more oil you add, the less concentrated your mayo will be, so it is really just a matter of preference (or patience :). I usually run out of patience after about 1/2 a cup of oil, so my mayo is a bit more concentrated.

When you reach the desired amount, add a pinch of salt and a few drops of lemon juice to taste. If you like, you can also add a bit of mustard.

You can spread the mayo onto crusty bread and eat it plain, use it in sandwiches, or serve it as a condiment alongside meat, like roast chicken or steak or grilled pork chops. My family likes to do a simple baguette sandwich with homemade mayo, cha (slices of steamed pork roll), and a dash of Maggi seasoning sauce.

a durian story

Remember the trip I made to Malaysia back in August of last year? Well, it kind of started with my fascination with durian and all the folklore, culture, and controversy that surrounds it. You can read more about my adventures in my Washington Post story today, which includes an encounter with a farmer named Durian himself. [You can also submit questions now for the live chat today at noon. Chat closed.]

Durians at Chow Rasta Market in George Town, Penang, Malaysia.

On that same trip, I also stopped in Singapore, where durian season was just winding down, and I was able to get a taste of the famous Mau San Wang and Butter Durian. My friend Greg took me to his favorite durian seller who shows up a few times a year in front of the red Pek Kong Temple in Geylang Balestier. The only thing better about eating fresh durian is eating it with people who love it as much (or more than!) you, and I felt lucky to get to share in the festivities with Greg and his family.

Sadly, when I have a craving for durian these days, I end up getting a durian sinh to (smoothie) at the Eden Center out in Falls Church, VA, or getting a whole one (previously frozen, unfortunately) at Grand Mart. It will just have to tide me over until my next trip to Southeast Asia…