Euijeongbu’s ‘Famous’ taste of the base

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Euijeongbu’s ‘Famous’ taste of the base


On Korea’s Veteran’s Day every year, the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans holds a commemorative ceremony at national cemeteries in Seoul and Daejeon. For most people, the day means lowering a Korean flag half-mast and paying tribute to the dead to the sound of a one-minute siren in the morning. Our ninth installation of the monthly Gourmet Street series took us to Euijeongbu, the city that originated a popular dish associated with the American army during the Korean War.
These days, Euijeongbu is known as the last stop on subway line No. 1, where young draftees are sent to man Korean Army bases. With loud commercial buildings and heavy traffic on the road, the city is far from being an exotic travel destination ― except for the fact that Euijeongbu is the home of the spicy dish budae-jjigae (“military base stew”) or as jonseun-tang (“Johnson soup”).
Euijeongbu’s history started with the Korean cease-fire agreement on July 27, 1953. The headquarters of the U.S. Second Army Division was moved to Ganeung-dong, north of Euijeongbu. Along with the headquarters, seven other Korean supporting armies were posted there as well.
The story has it that Koreans living around the American bases would pick through the bases’ garbage, scavenging left-over food ― mostly sausage, ham and canned food ― and throw them into a pot of boiling kimchi-jjigae (kimchi stew). A pot full of spicy red kimchi soup ― topped with tofu and maybe some rice cakes and instant noodles, sliced hot-dogs and Spam ―was a hit among Koreans and their soldiers.
Word ― and recipes ― of the marriage between American and Korean cooking spread. And whoever knew the stew would sweep the country in the decades to come?
While it’s obvious how the dish came to have a name referring to the presence of American bases, it’s not yet known how it got its other name, “Johnson.” Some say an American soldier named Johnson first gave a bag of sausages and ham to a Korean friend, and the dish was named after him. Others claim the name was meant as a tribute to the state visit by Lyndon Johnson, the former U.S. president who came to Korea to meet with President Park Chung Hee in 1966 [shown at right]. The Johnson administration encouraged the Korean government to go easy on anti-government demonstrators in 1964 and discouraged South Korean military retaliation for North Korean attacks in 1967-1968. Presidents Johnson and Park formed a strong personal bond, and Korea became the largest source of military support for South Vietnam behind the United States.
Back in the 1960s, only a few restaurants specializing in the stew had set up business in Euijeongbu 1-dong, now known as “Budae-jjigae Golmok (alley)” located in the center of the city. Business thrived, and on Nov. 1, 1998, Euijeongbu city gave the street its official name, “Famous Euijeongbu Stew Street,” to recognize the street as the birthplace of the recipe. By then, budae-jjigae had already spread across the country.
The city once tried to rename the dish “Euijeongbu-jjigae,” on the grounds that the term, budae-jjigae, reminds people of Korea’s history of poverty and war. Nevertheless, budae-jjigae enthusiasts in Korea everywhere ― and even in Japan and China ― know the soup by its military moniker.
Currently, Budae-jjigae Street in Euijeongbu has 25 restaurants, all maintaining their original recipes; the two best-known restaurants are Odeng Sikdang and Hyeongne Sikdang. The street has been part of the tourist course for Japanese, Chinese and Southeast Asian visitors since June 2004, when Daejanggeum Theme Park opened in Yangju city, west of Euijeongbu. “Daejanggeum,” known as “Jewel in the Palace” in English, is the title of a popular Korean soap opera. The program was exported and became a huge hit in many countries; the TV station that produced the show, KBS, turned the show’s set into a theme park.
According to the 2003 report issued by the Korean Trade and Investment Promotion Agency, the latest craze among Japan’s Koreaphiles includes budae-jjigae. Nolbu Budae-jjigae, a franchise restaurant, opened its first Chinese restaurant in Weihai, southeast of China. The chain plans to open around 500 restaurants throughout China by 2008. On weekends, the stew street also attracts climbers who visit mountains nearby, such as Soyo, Bukhan, and Surak Mountains surrounding Euijeongbu, as well as gourmets seeking the taste and the history behind it.
Additional reporting by Jin Hyun-ju, Lee Min-ah and Brett Stewart

‘Grandma’ brings up her baby: A stew that’s 40 years old

For 40 years, a stew’s tradition has been preserved by “Grandma” Heo Gi-suk, the owner and founder of the notorious Odeng Sikdang, or more widely known as “Original Budae-jjigae,” on the Famous Euijeongbu Jjigae Street.
Why notorious? It has ruthless service, but the taste of the stew makes up for all the frowning and pushing of the wrinkly waitresses. One popular Korean comic book series, “Sikgaek” (“Diners”), which lists Korea’s best restaurants, elaborated upon the scrumptious flavors of Odeng Sikdang’s stew.
The diner, which opened in the ’60s, still maintains the plain exterior and shoddy interior with a few worn-out Formica tables in the hall and old tables with burn marks on yellow linoleum floors in the adjacent room. There is a tiny and ancient-looking co-ed bathroom, which was fairly clean. Diners there run the gamut through Korea’s demographics, from young college students to middle-aged men to housewives to occasional soldiers in their military habits.
Ms. Heo, who was sitting down near the cash register, seemed to be in good cheer. She said that despite recent health complications, she works full-time, overseeing the daily operation.
In the old days when food was scarce, Ms. Heo used to sell cheap odeng (fish cake), thus the name for the restaurant, but she started selling budae-jjigae due to a shortage of food supplies. Korea then was much different than it was today. Cheap contingency foods, such as Spam, Ritz crackers and Taster’s Choice coffee, were considered pricey luxury items for the privileged class, which only sustained a black market for years to come.
Asked where she procured her made-in-the-USA sausage and ham ― essential ingredients ― Ms. Heo said she used to get hers from the nearby American military base.
Fast forward to 2006: No curfew siren goes off at night. People don’t go to jail for dealing with black market goods. It’s a time of peace, prosperity and abundance. Slurping the spicy soup and chomping down on hot sausages, we were immensely grateful to be able to savor, with abandon, delicious food with stories to tell in a politically free, economically affluent country.
So is the Euijeongbu budae-jjigae substantially different from the ones sold in Seoul?
A pool of red soup in a large pot, good for three to four diners, is heated on each table; not so different from most budae-jjigae restaurants. The ingredients ― a package of instant noodles, cabbage kimchi, chunks of tofu, glass noodles and so forth ― were similar as well.
We found the price of the stew there was about the same as those sold in Seoul; the stew costs 6,000 won ($6.33) per person, but additional servings of Spam and hot dogs cost 5,000 won each. Side dishes included kimchi and fermented radish slices in a cold vinegared soup, a rare country-style treat these days.
When the stew began to boil wildly, we got to taste the two kinds of noodles, mixed with by-now bloody red sausage and ham chunks. The soup was spicy and deep but not so greasy as imagined, despite such big portions of sausage and ham. As the soup dried up, the rough-mannered matron came back several times to pour in some semi-transparent stock from a large kettle. We were lost in a red mess of greasy noodles, meat, tofu, kimchi and all.
All around us, chatty diners get suddenly quiet when the sizzling stew arrived at the table. When asked about the source of the sausage and ham, she said, “It’s all imported American stuff. Korean stuff is inedible ― it’s crap!”
So in the making of authentic budae-jjigae, there is a big difference in processed meat from Korea and the United States. It’s that real imported American stuff that contributes to the Korean stew’s mystic charm, as it can wind the clock back to the most turbulent, bygone era of modern Korean history.

Odeng Sikdang
English: Not on the menu, not spoken.
Tel: (031) 842-0423
Hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Credit cards: Accepted
Reservations: Recommended
Dress code: Come as you are
Parking: Available

by Ines Cho
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