This is the story of a dish. The story of a nation and a war. This is the story of a city and of poverty. And it’s a story about spam. On its red simmering surface, budejigae should taste foul. The name translates as ‘army base stew’ and its main ingredients are sausage, scraps of old kimchi and chopped spam. But it tastes fantastic. Budejigae is a relatively new addition to the Korean dinner table, and in its soggy, spicy dregs lurks a little spam-like chunk of history.
In the early 1950s South Korea was desperately poor, its war-ravaged economy rivalling Papua New Guinea’s. In the towns around the many US army bases dotting the country, poor Koreans began supplementing their meagre meals with surplus army rations. And surplus army rations meant one thing – spam. Or ‘luncheon meat’ if you’re having guests. People put the wondrous pink cube-meat in their kimchi stews, and a culinary sensation came into being. Although a poor man’s dish it proved immensely popular and is still eaten today all over the country. And boxed sets of spam are popular gifts during local holidays.
Surrounded by craggy mountains a grenade’s throw away from the De-Militarized Zone in the city of Uijeongbu you can find Budejigae Street, where multiple restaurants serve the old favourite. So the story goes, this is where the dish was first sold commercially, and the décor in the oldest budejigae restaurant here certainly evokes the poverty of post-war Korea. Actually the dish tastes better at the restaurant next door, so go there and skip the queues.
Although you can get budejigae anywhere in Korea, it’s worth taking the trip up to Uijeongbu, only forty minutes from Seoul. The amount of off-duty soldiers around the town recalls budejigae’s origins and reminds you of the real tension that still exists on the Korean peninsula. The skinny Korean soldiers in over-sized combat boots are military service kids; the American soldiers, even in civilian dress, are far more imposing. To be fair, the Korean kids are mostly 20 and aren’t serving by choice, but it is rather like bringing a knife to an aerial bombardment.
Uijeongbu is a busy city, a satellite of Seoul really. But with plenty of streams and mountains between the apartment complexes it has a lot more breathing space than Seoul. A diverse population too, spices things up. On a Sunday morning in Uijeongbu the crowds of locals and soldiers are mixed up with a surprising number of migrant workers from India, Vietnam and the Philippines, enjoying a day off from their demanding, low paid factory jobs. It makes Uijeonbgu feel less like an orthodox Korean city and more like multicultural Sydney. If Sydney was at war with Newcastle.
There you have it, the story of a dish, a city, and a people. A delicious piece of history. Korea, and Uijeongbu, have come a long way since the days of army rations. Budejigae, spicy and nostalgic, also proves that a foreign import – spam – goes well with centuries-old Korean food. And now that Uijeongbu’s streets ring for the first time with the many foreign tongues of South East Asia, the hybrid nature of budejigae might actually speak more to the future of South Korea than to its past as the country grapples with a totally new phenomenon – multiculturalism.
Take subway line 1 up to Uijeongbu station. If you’re around northern Seoul, taking line 4 and transferring at Changdong might be faster.
Fun fact: Uijeongbu is also where the classic TV show M*A*S*H was set, although nothing was ever filmed there.