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Opinion: Korean Army Stew Is Totally Worth It. Fight Me

Opinion: Korean Army Stew Is Totally Worth It. Fight Me

  • Features
  • Food
Most of us are familiar with Korean Army Stew. Budae jjigae is the unhealthiest option at your local Korean restaurant; a kimchi stew where the pork has been replaced by spam and the vegetables replaced by pork (sausage). Its only discernible hand-wave to the clean-eating crowd is a piece of tofu, simmering happily next to the instant noodle and processed cheese.  

Some have called it ‘garbage stew’ while others compared it to pagpag, but most of us are not quite so ‘discerning’. Dietary restrictions notwithstanding, few are able to resist the siren call of fatty meat in a spicy sodium-rich broth.  

However, Budae jjigae has a fairly interesting history. Unlike many dishes whose origins are lost in the fog of history, army stew was a recent invention and well-documented to boot. Most writers trace its humble beginnings to the many American bases in South Korea, which had spam, processed cheese slices and sausages in abundance. These rations weren’t supposed to leave the camp, but the country had a lot of very hungry and very resourceful people. 

The first eatery to serve the army stew is supposedly a restaurant named ‘Odeng Shikdeng’ in the city of Euijeongbu, where many military bases were located. In the 1960s, its owner began stir-frying bits of spam and ham with kimchi and rice cakes to make an ‘Army Base Stir Fry’. The soupy sequel soon followed. In essence, it was the evolutionary opposite of Mala Xiang Guo. MLXG was a hotpot which turned into a stir-fry. Budae jjigae was a stir-fry which turned into a hotpot.

There is a time and place to discuss the legacy of American military intervention in Asia and its impact on local culture. This is not that place. 

In Singapore, the main question is: Should we order the Budae Jjigae or not?

On this issue, the people are divided sharply into 2 camps. On one side are those who say yes because they want to eat it. On the other is the ‘bo hua’ faction, who complain that Army Stew is ‘not worth’ because they “charge so much but isn’t it just spam and kimchi… might as well make at home.” Of course, these annoying little shits will never actually make it at home, but that’s beside the point. The point is, some dishes are never ‘worth ordering’ because the ingredients are too cheap, or because it’s too simple to justify their price tag.

However, is it even true? How much more are you paying when you order the Budae jjigae anyway?

For the stew:

1 x Instant noodles (Nongshim) — $1

1 can of Luncheon meat (Maling Premium) — $3.15

200g of Generic brand sausage — $ 2.78 (I used cocktail)

1 slices of processed cheese — $0.35 

1 chunk of Tofu — $0.475

Tteok (or Korean rice cakes) — $3.60 for 500g, $1.80 for 250g

Baked beans (Ayam brand) – $0.90

4 of Slices Bacon —  $4.40 for 10 slices, $1.76 for 4 slices

Mushroom (Enoki) —  $ 1.25 

170g of Kimchi (Joonga brand) —  $6.20 for 380g, or $2.77 for 170g

Green onion for garnish — Ask your mom

For the soup base:

Chicken stock (1 Litre) — $3.90

Gochujang — $0.10 worth

Gochugara — $0.10 worth

Soy sauce — Ask your Ah ma where she put

One minced garlic — Check the vegetable drawer of your fridge, I bet at least one fell out of the pack and has been sitting there since 2007.

So the grand total for an extremely generous portion of Army stew adds up to… $20.30 (rounded down). At a CBD Korean restaurant, the bill adds to at least $40 after service charge and GST, so you will save roughly $19.70.

$19.70 is not insignificant. That’s one-and-half months of Netflix Basic. You can play the claw machine 19 times. It’s 3.03% of a Lance-corporal’s monthly salary, and about 5-6 meals of cai fan—assuming you order 2 veg 1 meat. However, unless you eat army stew everyday, it won’t add up to that resale flat you and your partner have been eyeing. If you do eat it everyday, the savings are considerable but not enough for that triple heart by-pass you’ll need next February. 

That being said, the taste is not very different from what you’ll get at Chicken Up or Dae Bak. The broth is not as gao, but it’s easily remedied by adding more soy and gochujang to taste. As for the portable electric stove to keep everything simmering, you can buy one on Lazada for $20.

Okay, I’ll admit. The math doesn’t look great. I didn’t think this through. However, I would argue that no matter how egregious the mark-up, you should order it anyway. 

There is a special place in hell for people who don’t order what they want to eat, but what is the most ‘worth’. Their own gustatory pleasure is not important. What’s more important is the masturbatory pleasure of not-being-taken-advantage-of. For them, true happiness lies not in the eating, but in the thought of other people’s diminished profit margins. Better a lose-lose dinner rather than a win-win scenario where the FnB owner wins more than you. 

This is a phenomenon not limited to army stew. I’ve heard variations of this logic applied to zi char, teo chew porridge, cold drinks and hotpot. One of my closest friends refuses to order vegetables when we go eat Zi Char because he doesn’t like the mark-up on kai-lan and sambal kang kong.

Why we are still friends, I have no idea.

Of course, this is a problem seemingly confined to mostly ‘Asian’ food. Rarely will you hear the same complaint about upscale fine dining or even McDonalds. Carbonara is arguably less difficult to make to make than a good sambal kang kong, but few whine about the cost of pasta or salads. Some cuisines are automatically elevated to the realm of cuisine/art, and they are allowed to charge for onion soup the way Christie’s charges for a Matisse. Meanwhile, other cultures remain stolidly in the realm of the utilitarian, and we haggle over the prices like produce.

As for processed foods, it’s a total mystery. The unfathomable mathematics of industrial-level food manufacturing means that we rarely give any thought to the ‘bo hua’-ness of baked beans or Gardenia bread. McDonalds probably makes a killing on those Chicken McNuggets but I’ve yet to meet anyone who complains about how the food cost of leftover chicken bits cannot be more than 10 cents on the dollar.It’s totally unfair but that’s life. Hawkers and small business owners bear the brunt of our kiasu-ness while multinational conglomerates escape unscathed.

So the answer is yes, just order the army stew.

What is the point of math if it doesn’t spark joy. After all, it’s better to be happily ripped off, rather than to get the best deal on misery. Seize the moment, for it may never come again. 

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Pan Jie Staff writer