• The comforting sundubu jjigae (soft tofu stew) at Melbourne's Dooboo. (Dooboo)Source: Dooboo
From the cheesy army stew with ramen to the popular kimchi version, here are examples of the hot Korean staple worth trying.
Audrey Bourget

9 Jun 2020 - 11:45 AM  UPDATED 9 Jun 2020 - 11:45 AM

A traditional Korean meal is not a simple affair; the table is jam-packed with a main (often meat or fish), rice, several banchan (sides) and a soup or a stew.

There’s a long list of Korean stews, or jjigae, and as many ways to make each of them. “It’s one of the things that Koreans never get sick of,” says Kenny Yong Soo Son from Sydney’s Sáng by Mabasa. Some jjigae are named after their main ingredient, like kimchi jjigae or sundubu (soft tofu) jjigae, and others by their broth or main seasoning, like gochujang (fermented chilli paste) jjigae and doenjang (fermented soybean paste) jjigae.

Four jjigae to get started

Kimchi jjigae

You’ll find kimchi jjigae in several Korean restaurants here, like family-run Sáng by Mabasa in Surry Hills. “It’s good to use kimchi that is a bit over-fermented because it adds more flavour to the jjigae,” explains Son.

The restaurant’s kimchi jjigae is served for lunch only and made with a kelp and anchovy broth, vegetables and tofu. Other jjigae sometimes appear on the lunch menu as specials.

Sundubu jjigae

Sundubu jjigae is one of the most popular stews in Korea. In Melbourne, it’s the speciality at Dooboo (CBD and Box Hill). “We use about 20 ingredients to create the soup, including crab, gochujang, chilli powder, squid and prawn,” says founder Insu Kim.

“We boil the soup together with the soft tofu. The soft tofu is almost like jelly. The broth is quite strong but the taste of tofu is very subtle, so it works well together.” This spicy dish is served with freshly cooked rice and several banchan. Other ingredients like kimchi, mandu (dumplings) or ham sausage can be added to the stew.

“It’s very common in Korea, sundubu is a food you can eat every day,” says Kim.

For those who can’t handle the heat, Dooboo has created a milder version of the stew.

Budae jjigae

At the CBD location, Dooboo has featured budae jjigae (army stew) on its menu and may bring it back when the weather gets colder. Its version has beef broth, kimchi, Spam, sausage, pork and ramen noodles.

“Army stew was invented after the Korean War in the 1950s. There were a lot of American bases around. It’s a very traditional Korean soup, but it’s using some of the ingredients left by the troops, like ham and cheese,” explains Kim.

“Army stew was invented after the Korean War in the 1950s … It’s a very traditional Korean soup, but it’s using some of the ingredients left by the troops, like ham and cheese.”

Born from scarcity, the dish is still very popular today, especially among Korean students. At Sáng by Mabasa, the budae jjigae special is made with a gochugaru (ground red chilli) broth, baked beans, Spam, cabbage, instant noodles, corned beef and cheese.

Doenjang jjigae

If you prefer a milder stew, with less chilli, doenjang jjigae is a good option with its soybean paste and anchovy base. It’s often loaded with vegetables like radish, mushroom and potato. Cheonggukjang is another type of fermented soybean paste that can be used for stews, but it is considered more pungent than doenjang.

Making jjigae at home

Jjigae can be eaten throughout the day, and most types are relatively easy to prepare. “Because it’s inexpensive, everyone can make it," Son says. Historically, tofu and vegetables were used in soondubu jjigae, for instance, because it was cheaper than cooking with seafood or meat. So you could keep it traditional or adjust it as you like.

“It’s all about the base,” he adds. “So you’ll need good quality gochujang, doenjang or kimchi.” A Korean supermarket will have all the ingredients you need.

And while you’re at it, make a big batch. You’ll often see jjigae served in individual clay pots in Australian restaurants, but it’s usually meant to be shared from a communal pot.

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Army base stew (budae jjigae)

They say necessity is the mother of invention and this stew is a sterling example of that sentiment. Budae jjigae (army base stew) was created in Uijeongbu, an hour north of Seoul, soon after the Korean War when food scarcity led starving Koreans to concoct a meal using food that was discarded or handed out at US military bases.

Korean army stew (budae jjigae)

The dish gets its name, army stew, from harder times, and true to its namesake, it’s loaded up with all things plain but wonderful — instant ramen, salty Spam, chewy rice cakes and silky soft tofu.