Given my recent sojourn in Korea I thought it only appropriate to do a post I’ve been meaning to do for a very long time: Kimchi Jigae (김치 찌개). Depending on who you ask, you may see it transliterated as Kimchi Chigae, Kimchi Soup or Kimchi Stew, but it all refers to the same bubbling, red hot cauldron of soul satisfying soup made with kimchi, pork and tofu.
I wasn’t able to find a ton of information on its origins, but it’s not hard to image that this dish was conceived back in humbler times as a way to use old over-fermented kimchi along with a few scarce scraps of meat. It’s a homely dish that’s typically served in the pot that it was cooked it, and when paired with a bowl of hot rice, it will jump start your internal furnace and chase away even the chilliest of chills.
Like its German cousin sauerkraut, the various strains of Lactobacillus in kimchi convert the sugars in the cabbage into acids over time. At some point, most people find that kimchi gets too tart, making it unpleasant to eat straight out of the jar, but this is the perfect time to turn it into Kimchi Jigae. The tartness mellows out as it cooks with the other ingredients and the kimchi, along with the pickling juices, adds a garlicky depth to the soup that is hard to describe.
You might take one look at the color of this soup and assume that it’s going to trigger a thermonuclear reaction in your mouth, but it’s not as spicy as it looks and the heat can be controlled by how much chili you add. Unlike some Latin American and South Asian chili’s Korean chilies are less potent, so the color can be misleading. Of course if you’re anything like me and like it hot, feel free to add some extra chili flakes to give it some extra kick.
In the same way that every family has their own secret family recipe for kimchi, the recipes for Kimchi Jigae vary widely by household. Here are the secrets from our house for making good kimchi jiggae:
- Use the kimchi juice, this is the red liquid that is released from the cabbge as it’s being pickled. Every package will have some at the bottom and you can squeeze the kimchi with your hands to get more.
- Add miso. I know, this is technically a Japanese ingredient, but it adds an earthy flavour that juxtaposes the tart kimchi nicely. If it makes you feel more authentic, feel free to substitute doenjang, but in tests, I’ve found that doenjang is a little too strong and overwhelms the kimchi.
- Add butter at the very end. This may sound really odd, but it thickens the soup and gives it a wonderful richness without being greasy. The key is to add it just before serving so it emulsifies in the soup (if you add it too early the milk solids and fat will separate and make the soup oily).
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1/3 lbs pork belly sliced very thin
1/2 small onion sliced
1 1/2 C loosely packed kimchi
4 cloves of garlic minced
1/2 C kimchi juice
2 C water
1/2 tsp dried ginger
1 Tbs cooking wine (such as mirin or shaoxing)
2 tsp gochujang (Korean chili paste)
2 tsp miso or dengjang
2 tsp Korean soup soy sauce (or light soy sauce)
2 Tbs gochugaru (Korean dried chili flakes) optional
8 oz silken tofu sliced into cubes
2 green onions thinly sliced
1 tbs butter
Heat a small enameled cast iron pot (like a Le Creuset) until hot, then add the pork belly and onion. Allow some of the fat to render out of the pork belly, then add the kimchi and garlic. Saute until the mixture is very fragrant, then add the kimchi juice, water, ginger, cooking wine, gochujang, miso and soy sauce, stirring everything together to combine.
Bring to a boil and taste for spiciness. Add as much gochugaru to taste until it’s pleasantly tingly (I usually add about 2 Tbs, but this may be way to much for some people). Add the tofu, turn down the heat to a simmer and let it cook for 15-20 minutes, or until the pork and kimchi are tender.
When you’re ready to serve, add the green onions and butter and give it a quick stir to incorporate. Put a trivet on the table and serve it straight out of the pot along with a bowl of rice.