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The many ingredients that go int buddae-jjigae
Dina Avila/EPDX

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The Korean Comfort Food at the Intersection of War and Peace

How Han Oak's Peter Cho has fun with budae-jjigae, aka army stew

Led by chef Peter Cho, the modern Korean restaurant Han Oak recently launched "Noodles and Dumplings" nights, and with them, a new, little-known noodle bowl called budae-jjigae. Better known as "army stew," budae-jjigae is a humble dish of mostly processed ingredients born from the Korean War of the 1950s. And though postwar impoverishment gave rise to the dish, it's since became a staple for many Koreans, especially college students, who absorb its healing effects both as late-night munchies and a hangover salvation.

"It shouldn't taste good, but it does"

“A proper Korean restaurant would probably never serve this,” says Cho, referring to budae-jjigae. “The idea to serve it was sort of a joke. I was at Costco and I noticed some hot dogs and brought them back to the restaurant—as a joke. Then my staff was like, ‘Let’s just do it.'"

Cho has cooked alongside culinary great April Bloomfield, and his restaurant, Han Oak, received a James Beard Award nomination for Best New Restaurant 2017. But despite his experience in high-profile kitchens—or perhaps as a result of those years—Cho has a soft spot for the high-brow/low-brow dish.

At Han Oak, the budae-jjigae is pretty traditional. It features Neoguri instant ramen noodles, pork stock, kimchi, rice cakes, Spam, and Kirkland Signature-brand hot dogs, mozzarella, and American cheese. "This is all in my attempt at getting our Kirkland sponsorship," says Cho, joking about his allegiance to the Costco food line. But in all sincerity, elevating the dish would tear it from its roots.

Chef Peter Cho making budae-jjigae
Dina Avila/EPDX

"I guess I could make my own hot dogs and spam, but that just isn’t what that dish is about,” says Cho. “I mean, the combination of kimchi and cheese is really good. 'Kimcheese' is even my wifi password." Cho says a lot of Korean Americans in his generation grew open eating budae-jjigae, and it wasn't the only time American ingredients made their way into Korean cooking. "My mom grew up eating corn bread, too,” he says. “A lot of dishes are a hold over from the Korean War. So what our parents grew up eating, we grew up eating.”

Jenny Kim, a board member of the nonprofit Korean American Coalition (KAC) of Oregon, agrees: "Because they traditionally used the things that were easy to find from the American military, they only used cheap Kraft American cheese. I’ve tried making it with Tillamook cheddar, and it doesn’t taste the same.”

The intersection of war and peace, instant noodles, and instant meats

Before moving the U.S. in 1988, Kim grew up in South Korea, in one of the cities that claims to be the birthplace of budae-jjigae, Songtan (now part of Pyeongtaek). She says her mother first heard of the noodle bowl in the early 1970s, but it could have been around longer. The truth is, no one knows exactly how Korean noodles and American instant cheese and meat became intertwined. But there's no doubt the dish was born from the unique poverty that came after the Korean War.

Han Oak’s budae-jjigae
Dina Avila/EPDX

The dominant theory about how this dish came to be is that U.S. military bases (budae literally means "army base," and jjigae means "stew") developed a reputation for having more food than they could eat, leading the many Koreans facing starvation to find creative ways to get it. Meats that weren't susceptible to going bad, like Spam, were in especially high demand.

In the article "Eating Military Based Stew," College of Staten Island professor Grace Cho sums up the oral history of Korean War survivors: “Word spread that American soldiers stationed there had an endless supply of food, with portions so big that they could afford to throw food away. It was often a melange of various food scraps mixed with inedible things, such as cigarette butts. They recalled that though the food was sometimes disgusting, it kept them alive."

"My mom cut the sausages into little octopuses"

For years, budae-jjigae was seen as an embarrassment by many Koreans, in part because it represented U.S. intervention. But over time, its unique flavors transitioned into something else: Budae-jjigae became a comfort food.

"I grew up eating it at home," says Kim. “When we had a family reunion in South Korea in 2012, we ate budae-jjigae at the restaurant that supposedly invented it, Choi Ka Neh. Some people think kimchi and American cheese sounds strange, but it’s a comfort food dish for me. It’s a winter dish, perfect for this time of the year. I still make it regularly.”

While Kim says budae-jjigae is often served in massive pots atop Butane burners in Korea, Han Oak typically serves its version in individual bowls. And though Cho doesn't touch the instant-meat or noodle components, he's particular about the stock. "It's an all-bone stock," he says, "with pork neck and back. We boil it for 24 to 36 hours, and then we lightly season it with fermented chile paste (gochujang) and kimchi."

The secret touch is technical knife work any mom would appreciate: Cho cuts those Kirkland hot dogs into little octopus, aka octo-dogs. Or maybe it's not so secret. "My mom cut the sausages into little octopuses, too," says Kim, “and I do it for my kids."

While Han Oak is better known for its prix fixe Korean meals, Cho says budae-jjigae isn't a departure from what he does. "Every night at the restaurant, we play around with food for family meal [the post-service staff meal]," he says. "Han Oak is always changing — always evolving. I opened the restaurant to serve the things I like to eat."

Han Oak

511 NE 24TH AVE, Portalnd, OR 97232 Visit Website

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