The 부대찌개 (read: Buddae-jjigae) takes the words 부대 (Buddae) meaning army unit and 찌개 (jjigae) meaning stew/soup together. It is a prime example of the melding of Korean traditional cooking with an American influence. Korea before the technological and cultural factory it has become now was once an incredibly poor country and before and during the Korean War in the 1950’s. U.S military troops that arrived and fought there were supplied with many canned foods.
When the war ended, the troops left with the preservable food still around and post-war Koreans decided to utilize these provisions to good use. Using an old Korean vegetable stew and ramen noodles as a base, a myriad of other foreign ingredients such as hot-dog sausages, baked beans, cheese, and canned spam were added to the pot which resulted in the Army/Platoon Stew. Some people say that the stew was cooked and being eaten out of the left-over helmets. While it has a set recipe that acts as the foundation, many other elements and toppings can be added or removed by the preferences of the audience, adding more American style toppings or more traditional Korean ones.
The informant is my father, a proud Korean native born just after the Korean War’s end and a veritable library of knowledge on the country’s history and folkways. His lineage unites the two divided Koreas as his family hailed from the northern territories following his father’s escape to the South. His passion led him to previously be at the head of government funded Korean-American tourism business based in the Midwest during the early 2000s, promoting America to Koreans and Korea to Americans. As per South Korean law, he had also experienced mandatory military service where the stew’s relatively simple recipe makes it a favorite among the others serving their time. He often brings up it to the family when anything Korean ever makes it on the news such as movie stars or someone famous saying something positive about Korea.
I asked about the naming convention of one of my favorite Korean dishes many years ago and received an answer from both my mother and father who provided the recipe and its history, respectively. I asked once more when I had to help make one for the family.
While it carries no commemorative experiences by itself, the Buddae-jjigae to my mind perfectly symbolizes the start of the westernization of Korean culture, for better or for worse, while also standing at a liminal point between America and Korean cuisine cultures as well as traditional cooking and “modern” cooking. My grandparents and parents are often critical of the younger Korean generations for being rather dismissive of the traditional foods and forgetting many of the cultural ceremonies and rituals but the Buddae-jjigae serves as a proper bridge that generations both old and new can enjoy. Its recipe can also involve as many ingredients as one chooses, the tougher and traditional means creating homemade stock while the simpler methods are using prepackaged beef or chicken broths. It brings back fond memories of my hometown in South Korea where my and my family would talk to one of the famous restaurants that only served this stew but could only house four parties which meant that there were lines outside constantly. It brings a smile to my face every time I see some American celebrities and T.V Food Critics such as Anthony Bourdain and Andersoon Cooper talk about how much they loved the dish. Apparently even Lyndon B. Johnson loved it.