Kimchi Chigae (김치찌개)

In the last few months, I felt (yet again) suspended in limbo. In so many ways, this year feels like a first. The first year I can’t use being a full-time student as an excuse to eschew finding a steady and stable full-time job. The first year I realize the true effort it takes to keep in touch with even the best of friends, whose lives also happen to be unfolding unexpectedly before them. The first year I see life the way I do now. It feels strange and surreal to remind myself that I am a college graduate, an adult.
Once in a while, I sift through old pictures and catch snapshots of my past, finding myself at a loss for words. I remember those blunt bangs and the plaid uniform I wore at my private school in California. I remember my strawberry-blonde best friend, her freckles an object of my greatest envy. I remember my sun-kissed skin from blackberry-picking with my Guatemalan nanny, Adela. I remember ferry rides to Granville Island and goose-chasing at Stanley Park with my sister in Canada. I could never forget the fluorescent lights of Seoul and the way my heart would beat in the city. I remember my first failed experiments with make-up and fashion, high school crushes and cliques. Flip forward a few pages and I vividly recall my high school graduation, all the flower leis, and my first official cap and gown. Then I remember Seattle and the courtyard of cherry blossoms on campus. It baffles me that now, I’m looking at freshly-printed photos of my friends and I in forest green caps and gowns against azure Hawaiian skies, proudly displaying our post-college diplomas – our tickets into the real world. To think, I’ve journeyed this far.

The funny thing is between all the heres and theres, I’ve landed somewhere neither here nor there. Somewhere at a crossroads. Somewhere within the familiar and the foreign. Somewhere between childhood dreams and grown-up realities.
But the truth is, it’s in times like these, I feel the most grateful. I’m forced to reflect upon where I’m from, where I’ve been, and ultimately, where I’m going. I admittedly get lost sometimes often, but I’m fortunate enough to have constant reminders along the way.

Like this Kimchi Chigae (김치찌개), or stew. In more ways than one, it represents so much of who I am and where I’m from. For every city I’ve lived in and for every person and culture that has left its permanent mark on my soul, there has been an affiliated dish or two that I’ve come to love and re-create as my own. For Seoul, the city I was born in, it’s everything kimchi. Kimchi chigae was, in fact, the first Korean dish I learned how to make. Simple ingredients are treated simply with diligence as they come together to gain more depth and flavor over time. This is what makes Korean food and Korean culture so raw, so remarkable. Often times, this is how I view myself – a stone pot of various ingredients being simmered together to create a formidable flavor, one whose whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.

That’s what’s great about cooking. Sometimes, it isn’t about precision. It’s about tasting, cooking, waiting, adding, and tasting again and again until the flavors are just right. I admit it’s frustrating at times and to be honest, I don’t even know how long it will take to achieve the exact flavor I seek for my own self. Who knows. In the coming weeks, I might get sick of the tender sweetness of stewed zucchini or the biting heat of a jalapeno pepper. Before long, I may change it up by adding the irresistible richness of pork belly or brined flakiness of canned tuna. But whatever it takes, everything good is worth the wait. Kimchi chigae is undeniably one such thing. And it’s here, in limbo, where the simplest of ingredients are simmered with patience and diligence to yield an unfathomable new flavor.

Kimchi Chigae (김치찌개)
A Hungry to Happy Recipe
Serves 2-3

Ingredients:

2 cups kimchi (the more fermented/older, the better), chopped with its juices
1/2 onion, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1-2 tspn sesame oil
2-3 cups water, or dashi (recipe as follows)
1/2 zucchini, halved length-wise and sliced
1/4 cup leeks and/or green onions, chopped
1/3 jalapeno pepper, thinly sliced (optional)
1-2 tspn chili pepper flakes, or 고추까루
1-2 tspn chili pepper paste, or 고추장
1 tspn sugar
1/3 pack of tofu, cubed

Preparation:

In a medium saucepan or pot, heat sesame oil and minced garlic. Then add kimchi, leek, jalapeno, and onion and sautée with chili pepper flakes, chili pepper paste, and sugar until tender, about 7 minutes. Add zucchini and sautée for another minute or two. Then add water or dashi until all ingredients are submerged.

Bring pot to a boil then let simmer over medium-high heat for 20-25 minutes. The longer the simmer, the stronger the flavors.

Adjust sugar, chili pepper paste, and sesame oil to taste. Add tofu and cook additional 5 minutes. Garnish with chopped green onions. Serve immediately with rice.

* optional: most varieties of Kimchi Chigae are made with pork belly or canned tuna. You can include about 1/4 lb of chopped pork belly or about 1 can of tuna by adding one or the other into the pot in the beginning of the recipe after the minced garlic.

Dashi
Makes about 4 – 5 cups

Ingredients:

5 cups of water
1 (2-3 in) strip of konbu (dried seaweed)
1 cup bonito flakes, or 10 dried anchovies

Preparation:

Place konbu square in water with anchovies and bring to a boil. Let simmer at medium-high heat for 30 minutes.

Strain the liquid through a fine sieve or strainer and discard konbu and anchovies.

Use liquid dashi as soup base for various recipes or store in air-tight container in fridge for up to one week.

3 comments

  1. dovely

    Ooooh kimchi chigae, one of my absolute favorites. I enjoyed reading your personal bit of history behind the dish. 🙂

    I was in fact JUST having a conversation with my friend about how quickly life whips by; both a surreal and slightly frightening concept. good to know that you’ve taken time to reflect and appreciate how far you’ve come!

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