My Family Recipe

When My Grandmother Fled North Korea, She Left Behind Army Base Stew

On budae jjigae and its darker, untold story.

January 24, 2019
Photo by James Ransom

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that’s meaningful to them and their loved ones.

Growing up, I only got to eat budae jjigae on rare occasions. My parents would bring out the portable butane gas burner from the pantry and place it in the middle of the round kitchen table where all of the neatly chopped ingredients were already set out. It was a departure from the more modest dishes like miyeokguk (seaweed soup) or tteokguk (rice cake soup) that we'd eat on most weeknights. In fact, we were accustomed to having the same soup heated and reheated for several consecutive days, sometimes even the entire week, until my mother could see the bottom of the pot.

Budae jjigae, or "army base stew," was the opposite of that. We'd open the lid to the violently bubbling pot and, once the cloud of steam evaporated, get a clear view of the stew in which a medley of Korean staples were bobbing: thinly-cut enoki mushrooms, diced green onions, minced garlic, oval-shaped slices of white rice cake, squares of silky tofu, and of course kimchi. Red pepper powder, together with the kimchi, leant the soup base its alarmingly red color, brewing up a flavor that was quintessentially Korean. One whiff of it could nearly singe your nostril hairs and have you salivating like a jindo dog.

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But the thing about budae jjigae is that, once you take a closer look, you'll notice fat slices of Spam and chunks of hot dog floating atop. Stir the stew further, and you'll find sweet canned barbecue beans and sometimes even a slice or two of American cheese, just melting over the ramen noodles. These Western ingredients altered the stew from a traditional kimchi jjigae to budae jjigae, from weeknight dinner to party hot pot.

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“I think what you meant to say was “thank you for sharing your perspective.””
— Jeffrey B.

I never understood the significance of the various adjectives that preceded the Korean word for stew, jjigae. It was only when I took my first Korean language class in college that the term budae was introduced to me in one of the lessons. I learned that it meant military unit, troops, or corps. Hence, "army stew."

Unlike the seaweed and rice cake soups of our weeknights, budae jjigae would be devoured in one meal. My mom, dad, brother, and I would sit at our kitchen table and pass the ladle around like a relay baton as sweat ran down our faces from the heat of the stew's temperature and spice level. We'd take turns fishing out the geondeogi (the solid bits and bobs in soup) from the bubbling pot until only a red puddle remained at its bottom.

Everyone in my family loved budae jjigae—everyone except my grandmother.

Kim Hee-Jeong was born in 1939. She spent her childhood years in Pyongyang, which became the capital of North Korea after the peninsula was split into North and South Korea after the Korean War. When she was 12, she fled her home with two small sacks. Her father and brothers went first; after a few days, my grandmother, her mother, and her aunt followed suit. She was told they were going to visit the countryside for a few days, a quick weekend trip. She had no idea that it would end up being a month-long journey by foot to the southern part of the Korean peninsula.

“We stuffed our sacks with food and water, but they obviously didn’t last long,” my grandmother told me over KakaoTalk (a popular Korean messaging platform), when I asked her about this recently. “Your great aunt was pregnant while we were trying to get to southern Korea. We'd go into empty houses of strangers and try to feed her whatever scraps we could find, but the baby didn’t make it."

My grandmother is tough despite standing only at 5’1”, thanks to a slight bend in her back. Every day, she gets up at 5 a.m. to attend church service. Afterwards, she straps on her backpack and puts on an orange visor over her lightly permed hair to go hiking in the woods. She out-hikes me every time and once defeated me in an arm wrestle when I was in high school. If she catches you shaking your leg at the dinner table (it’s a Korean superstition that if you shake your legs, you’re shaking the "wealth" right out of you), she’ll smack your thigh with so much heat from her bare hand that you'll be left with a throbbing, albeit no longer shaking, leg.

But beneath this grit is a heart that quickly grows soft and struggles to express emotion. In more ways than one, cooking has always been her way of saying “I love you,” “thank you,” and “I’m sorry.”

My grandmother poses for a picture with my cousin Minkyung (left) and me (right). Photo by Grace Moon

Whenever I visit Seoul, I stay at my grandmother’s small apartment. For years I remember waking up to the faint sound of the crackling radio broadcasting Korean hymns. She’d be sitting at the small kitchen table, her glasses perched gently on the bridge of her nose, as she sang along to herself. When she noticed me walking in, she’d get up and ask me the same question with a smile, “What should we have for breakfast today?”

If I asked her to make me budae jjigae, she’d wrinkle her nose at me, “Aigoo. Of all the Korean dishes, why do you like this one?" She'd say that it’s not even Korean food, that it's unhealthy. That I shouldn’t fill my stomach with so much sodium and processed canned meats. Sometimes, though, she'd cave and cook a pot just for me—but she'd always swap out the Spam and sausages with fresh ground beef. And she'd never mix in the sweet baked beans or cheese. She'd dismiss the offending Western ingredients that transformed kimchi jjigae into budae jjigae and make me a demilitarized version instead, one that was somehow more "Korean."

The Korean War ended in 1953 in the city of Uijeongbu, where many American military units were stationed (and where their rations were left). It's where army base stew was born, during Korea's most impoverished years after the war.

“Garbage stew is what we called it,” my grandmother corrected me, after I called it by its name. “It tasted like garbage because we’d sift through the leftovers of the U.S. troops. There was no kimchi or red pepper paste in these stews like you see today. Usually, we were able to find scraps of processed sausage, Spam, and some canned beans that had been spilt. We’d take what we could find and throw everything into lukewarm water. It was hard to swallow and was barely edible. Thinking of it still makes me nauseous.”

By that time, my grandmother had been living in southern Korea for a few years. During the second part of her childhood, she had exactly one shirt and one pair of pants. With no spare clothes to change into, she constantly washed and re-washed her clothes. But they'd never dry quickly enough, so she'd take her still-drenched blouses and dresses and socks, and dry them beneath her blankets on the floor overnight. The floor was heated by ondol, a Korean underfloor heating system that used wood smoke to warm the room from the ground up. She’d often catch a cold from having slept on top of her wet clothes all night.

Her life was filled with stories like these, stories I never fully heard until I was old enough to know better and ask.

Budae jjigae entered my grandmother’s life during a time of ambivalence and disrupture, when she had nowhere to call home. Memories of eating it were a lingering reminder of the permanent remnants of U.S. imperialism that burned down her homeland, something that had stripped her of an adolescence. It was a part of her that she didn't want back and wouldn’t take back even if she could. To watch this dish, rooted in oppression and war, become a mainstream Korean staple was bad enough. But searching for the words with which to answer her granddaughter’s persistent question—"Why don't you like budae jjigae?"—must've been a harsher sting.

And so, one day, I stopped asking for it.

Roughly 65 years have lapsed since the birth of army base stew, but pieces of its peninsula-splintering history continue to surface today. Whenever I see it on restaurant menus or buy a can of Spam to make it for myself at home, I think of my grandmother. I think about how all those years she swallowed her trauma to sate her granddaughter’s appetite for a culinary insult, a dish that marks her blotted journey escaping North Korea.

Budae jjigae entered my grandmother’s life during a time of ambivalence and disrupture, when she had nowhere to call home.

I struggle with budae jjigae's history. How can something so delicious have such a troubled past?

But it's through this bubbling stew that I've come to piece together omitted parts of my grandmother's narrative. What had once been a fragmented story told to me throughout my childhood lives now, in the present, as an irresistible dish that pains me yet entices me. Part of me thinks honoring my grandmother’s life means boycotting budae jjigae. But that'd be ignoring history. I can’t vicariously be upset at a pot of stew, especially when it's a part of my story also, evoking memories not of a country torn in two but of a family brought together at the table: my mom prepping the ingredients as a labor of love, my dad ladling scoops of geondeogi into each of our bowls as a show of his, my brother stealing Spam from me when he thought I wasn’t looking, me throwing caution to the wind even as my cheeks began to puff out in immediate response to the sodium bomb that is budae jjigae.

So, I reconcile. I reconcile my grandmother’s memories with my own as I prepare a pot of it at home. This wartime dish tells the story of Kim Hee-Jeong's traumatic past, but it also tells the story of her ultimate survival. And, just like that, army base stew transforms into family troop stew, the Moon clan's budae jjigae, bringing together the various pieces that span three generations into a single pot that bubbles and pops, even after all these years.

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Grace Moon

Written by: Grace Moon

Raised in Texas, Grace Moon is a Korean-American food writer and journalist


ian January 28, 2019
hi grace, i moved to korea to work on the airport in inches in 1999. I had no idea what i would expect there. I was introduced to budae cjjae by one of my colleagues who is married to a korean lady. Hde informed me it was a spicy london grill "a tinned breakfast containing beans, spam and sausage". we ate the stew and agreed both it was a good meal. On my returns to korea with my wife who is korean it is a meal i enjoy. However i can't eat it where i live in the middle east as food with spam is not allowed.
Thanks for your in site in to the history of the meal with your family. I do remember my first trip to Seoul where the ingredients were sold at he back market that were obtained from the us army px.


WsK January 28, 2019
Isn't this a bit one-sided:

Memories of eating it were a lingering reminder of the permanent remnants of U.S. imperialism that burned down her homeland, something that had stripped her of an adolescence.

I understand the wartime experience was brutal...something I cannot relate to in my "first-world" upbringing. But I'm sure glad NK didn't overrun the South.
Jeffrey B. January 28, 2019
I think what you meant to say was “thank you for sharing your perspective.”
WsK January 28, 2019
Sure, point taken!

But our narrative would certainly look drastically different were it not for US "imperialism" or whatever said perspective desires to call it.

Probability is we're not even writing these comments.
Jeffrey B. January 28, 2019
Not convinced you took my point. Not every forum needs a troll. Go back to Twitter.
WsK January 28, 2019
Oh please...just stop.

I thought the article was poignant in that it stirred both my heart and stomach.

What's the point of having a comment section of you can't comment.

WsK January 28, 2019
I should've started with this:

"I thought the article was poignant in that it stirred both my heart and stomach."

So please accept my apologies, Ms. Moon for not leading off with that encouraging bit. And thank you for the article!
dee February 3, 2019
I agree. Wonder if the runnaway granma shares the writers’ perspective on this history.

This writer has certainly assimilated 100% to the currently popular historical revisionism on all fronts.

I am an emigrant from a socialist country and have a very ambivalent view od history. Aware of both the positives and the negatives. Just puzzled why this woman is turning her back on the history and probable views of her family.

I am not a troll. This landed in my mailbox ghis morning.
Christine K. January 28, 2019
Thank you for sharing this story. My mother's family fled the north as well, and never spoke of this dish.
Jeffrey B. January 24, 2019
I just loved reading this.
Nancy A. January 24, 2019
Thanks, Grace, for sharing your family's story and bringing depth to my understanding of the origins of this dish — something I've had to summarize in a few words as an editor and didn't fully grasp myself.
Christine L. January 22, 2019
Thank you for writing this, Grace. My mom and father (who are about your grandmother's age)--also dislike budae jjigae, and my mom even uses the exact phrases to disparage it ("it's unhealthy! it's junk!"). I had to discover it on my own, and I don't very much like it, because sometimes--sometimes, trauma is passed on. But I'm glad also that this history is still very alive in food, because it's harder to erase and easier to acknowledge.
Eric K. January 22, 2019
My grandfather crossed over from North Korea, too. Crazy to think that this is their story, and that no one really talks about it. Thanks for shining light on a narrative many of us share.
M January 22, 2019
This is thoughtful, nostalgic, reasoned, reverential, and emotional. Thank you. (Food52- Please seek out more writing like this!)

I think we struggle with nostalgia these days, as we try to balance our emotional and often naive nostalgia with the truth of the past. This piece is a perfect example of how we can embrace our nostalgia and celebrate our parents/grandparents/families/customs, without forgetting the troubled circumstances behind a lot of this love.