After Thanksgiving one year, I celebrated the original part of my heritage by making some kimchi chigae. (You can read the post here.) But while that post has step-by-step photos about how to make this quintessential Korean “stew”—there really isn’t an equivalent word in English language for this type of food—I didn’t really explain why such a dish is so popular and so entrenched in Korean cooking.
The other members of my family are almost strictly Korean-food consumers. The men—my father and brother—are particularly so, and cannot conceive of going two meals without kimchi. I’m not even sure that they actually EAT a lot of kimchi when they finally get it, but it almost seems as if the term “kimchi” is a short cut representing “comfort food.” Sort of like the way the word “rice”(bop) is synonymous with “food.” In case you’ve never heard this, it might interest you to know that many Asian cultures greet people by asking: “Have you eaten (rice)?”
This being the case, I did sort of feel I was letting down my heritage when I recently looked in the fridge and saw two jars of kimchi sitting in the back corner. It appears that I got a bit over-zealous in my estimation that we’d be able to finish our first jar and then purchased a second when I was last at H-Mart. Since that shopping trip was over a month ago, that meant that the older jar was much older than a month. (Unlike the rest of my family, Will and I don't go through jars of kimchi that quickly...) Hooray for fermented foods that don’t really “spoil” quickly! But upon opening the jar, I realized that the older jar was at a fermentation stage even most die-hard kimchi eaters would look askance at. Hooray for kimchi chigae!
I sometimes have to explain why many Korean food items tend to be so heavily spiced and salty. For those who know Korean food only via vast quantities of grill-it-yourself-bbq restaurants (featuring bul-go-gi and kal-bi), it comes as something of a surprise that most traditional Korean food is not terribly meat-centric. After all, for so many decades (centuries…millennia) Koreans were a poor culture. They had to stretch any bit of expensive protein by putting them in soups, as side dishes, and as chigae.
While I am not an expert on comparative food histories, I would venture to guess that most nations with a history of depressed economies, war, and occupation would have cuisine that would similarly attempt to make a little bit of meat or fish go a long way. Certainly, I’m sure many in these cultures wouldn’t have said “no” to sushi and steaks—and many are now consuming those very items in a gluttonous fashion—but most people didn’t really have those options.
That explains the popularity and prevalence of something like kimchi chigae. “Chigae” (or “jjigae”) would be analogous to something like any Thai curries or Indian stew-y dishes like dal mahkani or chicken tikka masala or lamb vindaloo. You do not eat any of those dishes—or kimchi chigae—like you would American beef stew or French boeuf bourguignon. These Asian stews are much more heavily seasoned, and a little bit of it is supposed to accompany a lot of rice. In fact, it would likely cause some gastrointestinal discomfort should you attempt to consume a whole bowl of any of the above by itself.
For instance, kimchi chigae’s main ingredient is (ta-da!) lots of kimchi—usually fermented to the point where your family members wouldn’t want to eat it fresh, without some tampering (or tempering). But why dump it when you can still whip up a family favorite out of otherwise “spoiled” food? You simply need to add—for flavoring, just in case it’s not spicy enough as it is!—staples of Korean cooking like Asian red pepper flakes (much like Turkish Aleppo recently popularized in cooking magazines) and brick red Korean chili paste called gochujang.
Then you top up with water and—if you have it—pork belly (picture above). If not, then you can still make the dish with an item from your pantry, a can of tuna broken up into chunks (picture below). Boil, boil, simmer, simmer.
Then you add some cheaper protein by slicing up some tofu. I like to use either soft or medium firm. I find “silky” tofu breaks up too easily (and you can save that for when you make another spicy stew called soon-dubu (“soft tofu”), and I’m not usually a fan of “firm” tofu unless I’m frying it up.
Now you know how and why a jar of pickled cabbage otherwise consigned to a kitchen disposal or a garbage dump becomes another variation of a national dish!