Chicago chef Beverly Kim can't remember the first time she ate kimchi jjigae, the tangy, spicy and deeply savory Korean kimchi stew; in fact, she's fairly sure it predated her conscious life, coursing through her bloodstream in utero.
I, on the other hand, will never forget the first time I ate Kim's kimchi jjigae, a few weeks into the first pandemic lockdown, in spring 2020. Kim's two Chicago restaurants, Michelin-starred Parachute (closed till March for renovations) and seasonal tasting-menu spot Wherewithall, were quick to pivot to takeout, and comforting kimchi jjigae with rice, pickled vegetables and bing bread headlined one of the early fixed menus. The brick-red stew emanated the mellow tang of ripe, cooked kimchi; the lip-tingling fire of green chiles; and the dual umami bomb of anchovy stock and pork belly. I intermittently cooled my mouth on cloud-like cubes of tofu, and felt, for just a few minutes, like everything might be OK.
"Kimchi jjigae is one of my all-time favorite soups — and one of those things I've eaten my whole life," Kim, who is Korean-American, said. "It's kind of deep and soulful and just hits the core of your soul. Every person, whether rich or poor — it's kind of classless — everybody loves kimchi jjigae."
Jjigae means stew in Korean, denoting a thicker, saltier and more intense class of meat, seafood and vegetable soups that are often served with rice and always boiling hot. At its simplest, kimchi jjigae comprises ripe kimchi simmered in its own juices with onion till mellow and served with sliced pork, rice and often cubed tofu.
Depending on whose kitchen you're in, it takes up countless variations. Some sauté the kimchi first in sesame oil; some add ginger, garlic and kimchi juice; some cook the soup in water, others in anchovy stock. Some use bacon, pork belly, shoulder, or like Kim's brother-in-law, pork ribs. Some cook it in a ddukbaegi (glazed stone pot); others in soup pots, which makes for a thinner, guk- (meaning soup-) like consistency.
Kim learned to make kimchi jjigae mostly from her late, Korean-born grandmother, or Halmoni, but incorporates some techniques from her mom and those she's honed for decades as a James Beard Award-winning chef. Halmoni's kimchi jjigae was pretty traditional, always made in the same ddukbaegi for a thicker, more concentrated stew. Halmoni liked starting it by sweating ginger and garlic; as she got older, she started subbing in turkey bacon for the fatty pork belly. She also sweetened her jjigae to tame the sharpness — though not always with sugar, as Kim would learn.
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"She used to save packets of sugar from diners and coffee shops. I'd notice she took Equal, too, so she'd put a little aspartame in there," Kim laughed. "When she died two years ago and I gave her memorial speech, I said, 'She made the best kimchi jjigae, and her secret was aspartame!' I don't know any other Korean who'd do that."
Kim's mom made Halmoni's kimchi jjigae her own by adding a dab of Doenjang (Korean bean paste) for balance and sneaking in a few spoonfuls of MSG-laced anchovy powder for depth. She made hers thinner, more guk-like, in a large soup pot.
The family's kimchi jjigae has undoubtedly become cheffier under Kim's watch. She doubles down on the umami by adding home-made anchovy stock and adds delicate garnishes like enoki mushrooms, crushed toasted sesame seeds and thinly sliced green chile to add interest to this "big pot of red."
This intergenerational hot pot converges once more just before it's ladled out with the familiar, mouthwatering "보글보글 (bogeul bogeul)," or "bubble bubble" sound, Kim said, when all the garnishes are added and the jjigae is brought to a brief, raucous boil to achieve its ideal volcanically hot temperature.
"For non-Koreans, they're like, 'this is super hot,' but that's the way we eat it," Kim said. "It's almost sensorial for me. As you can see, most Korean soups don't have tons of fat, so I think how it's served in those clay pots and really bubbling with tons of steam helps carry flavor."
It's also the universal anticipation of that impatient first bite, knowing full well you'll burn your mouth.
"Mom just said it's making her mouth water," Kim said.
- 1 Tbsp sesame oil
- 2 cloves minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon minced ginger
- 5 oz. pork belly or bacon slices, cut into 1-inch by 1/2-inch batons
- 1/2 onion, sliced thin
- 2 cups well-fermented kimchi, chopped
- 1/4 tsp sugar
- 1/4 tsp minced salted shrimp (optional)
- 1 Tbsp doenjang (Korean fermented soybean paste)
- 1 cup Anchovy Stock, plus more as needed
- 2-3 Tbsp kimchi juice
- 1/2 pack medium-firm tofu cut into large cubes, for garnish
- 3 scallions cut on a bias, for garnish
- 1 green chili, thinly sliced for garnish
- 1 bunch enoki mushrooms (optional, for garnish)
- 1 tsp toasted sesame seeds, crushed in your fingers (optional, for garnish)
- Freshly cooked white rice, for serving
In a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven or soup pot over medium heat, add the sesame oil, garlic and ginger and sauté for 1 minute, stirring constantly. "You're not caramelizing here, just sweating," Kim says. Add the pork and sauté until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Add the sliced onion, kimchi, sugar and salted shrimp, if using. Turn the heat up just a hair and stir-fry for 3 to 4 more minutes, stirring constantly, until the vegetables soften. Again, you're not looking for caramelization. "It won't taste right if you brown!" Kim warns.
Add the doenjang and mix to combine it with the vegetables. Add 1 cup Anchovy Stock and 2 to 3 Tbsp kimchi juice, depending on your taste and how acidic the kimchi juice is (start with 2 and give it a taste). Cover and bring the pot to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes, covered, stirring occasionally. Keep the anchovy stock handy to thin the jjigae if desired.
When you're ready to serve, add the tofu, green chilies, scallions and enoki mushrooms (if using). Bring the pot up to a boil, and let it bogeul bogeul for 30 seconds. Serve bubbling with rice.
Use this anchovy stock to make James Beard Award-winning chef's Beverly Kim's kimchi jjigae.
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