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Getting jjigae with it: The Korean soup-stew is nothing to be afraid of (recipe)

Credit:Marcelle Richards

I've always felt estranged from my Korean half. Aside from my mom, the rest of that side of the family is in Korea. Regrettably, I don't know the language, and I don't think my mom enjoys cooking, but she made a few basics at home. I do remember the house stinking to high heaven when she made kimchi stew, or kimchi jjigae, and from that I ran like hell.

Kimchi stew is best, I'm told, with old kimchi - the stankier the better. In a stew, the sourness of the kimchi contributes a desirable depth of flavor, which fresher kimchi doesn't have.

I guess my genes finally kicked in. For February's Soup and Bread fundraiser at the High Noon Saloon, I made kimchi jjigae for the first time. At first, the kimchi stew attracted a small but knowing crowd in the serving line. As time passed, several people revisited me for seconds. Others - perhaps initially trepidatious - came up to me saying, "I'm told this is the one to try."

One woman handed me her card: "Will you send me the recipe?"

We were told to bring one crock pot of soup. I ran out of two, all I'd brought.

I believe the secret of my kimchi stew is that it was made virtually all from scratch. I made my own kimchi two weeks in advance, and I made stock from pork bones, which Jim's Meat Market practically gave away. You can make a pork stock by following a beef stock recipe and substituting pork, but my secret ingredient was a handful of raw shucked oysters simmered and strained out with the rest of the ingredients.

If you are into making your own kimchi, it's as easy as making pickles.

But the fastest way to enjoy kimchi jjigae is to buy kimchi from a health food store or an Asian market (Oriental Food Mart, 1206 S. Park St., is Korean-owned, and it carries a wide assortment). Also available there are diminutive rice cake ovalettes - more or less flat, glutinous rice dumplings commonly used in Korean cuisine.

Typically, the kimchi used for this is the stuff that's been sitting in the fridge for too long, which could take months. To speed up the fermentation, leave the kimchi out at room temperature for a few days, covered. The brine keeps the submerged vegetables from growing nasty unmentionables. When it smells and tastes notably sour, it's ready.

Here's my rendition based on a hodgepodge of research and a little call-out to my ancestors.

Bastardized Kimchi Jjigae
Serves 6-8

Kimchi jjigae is often made with water and dashida, a bouillon that contains MSG. Because the kimchi is so flavorful, even plain water for the liquid will suffice, but I like the added flavor of a stock instead (which also avoids the MSG).

I used fish sauce in my kimchi, so I didn't add extra to my soup, but depending on the flavor profile of the kimchi you choose, a little fish sauce is another common addition. For more heat, be sure to use gochugaru, Korean chili flakes.

  • 12 ounces pork belly (or protein of choice), thinly sliced into bite-size pieces
  • 5 cups old kimchi, with juice
  • 8 ounces tofu, cubed
  • 8 ounces rice cake ovalettes
  • about 6 cups water or stock

Sauté pork belly in single layer in sesame oil until slightly brown and fat is rendered. Deglaze with soy sauce and add kimchi, stirring to heat through. Add stock and tofu and bring to simmer. Just before serving, simmer rice cakes 1-2 minutes until soft and chewy. Adjust seasoning. Stir in butter, garnish with scallions, and serve.

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