You can turn almost nothing but kimchi and liquid into something vibrant and nourishing to eat—something that everyone seems to want right now.
About a year ago I started a long, rambling Twitter thread that featured nothing but puns about Korean food. It started with this one:
I kept the thread going for about a year, perhaps annoying some of my Twitter followers, but I really just loved doing it. It started because I had made a batch of kimchijigae and then posted an Instagram story about it with Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy With It” in the background. I deeply loathed the song when I first heard it in high school, but now enjoy it in an ironic sort of way—it’s the type of reference I make to show people that I am both cool and tragically ridiculous at the same time.
Kimchijigae, though, is not ridiculous. Of all of the stews and soups in Korean cuisine, it’s probably the best-known—and maybe one with the least consensus in terms of preparation and ingredients. There are non-negotiables—it needs kimchi, of course, and a protein of some kind—but even the type of kimchi to be used is not something every Korean family would agree on.
To make most versions of the dish, you take old, super-fermented, dank baechu kimchi (I like it to the point where it’s fizzing and the green color of the cabbage is completely gone), cook that for a bit to give some of that funk an even deeper flavor profile, then add stock and proteins and whatever else you feel like and let it bubble away. Unlike Western stews, you don’t necessarily want it to cook forever, though it does taste better a day or two later.
Since most of my kimchi isn’t old enough for me to use yet, I’ve been remiss in making kimchijigae so far. But that hasn’t prevented me from thinking about it constantly since shelter-in-place started here in the Bay Area.
Of all of the stews and soups in Korean cuisine, kimchijigae is probably the best-known.
Kimchijigae often comes as a free side at Korean barbeque restaurants, and features heavily on menus at many homestyle Korean restaurants. More than anything else, though, it is the go-to starter recipe for most Korean home cooks, since you can turn almost nothing but kimchi and liquid into something vibrant and nourishing to eat—something that everyone especially seems to want right now, during the pandemic.
Both kimchi and kimchijigae are foods born of necessity; foods of a particularly Korean combination of despair and grit, pride and suffering. The heat of Korean food, the pain it can cause you while still nourishing your heart and spirit—this duality is so essential to what kimchijigae is, and why people love to eat it.
I start a batch of kimchijigae by going to my refrigerator and taking stock: What is in there? What can I combine in a pot that will be delicious? This ingredient seems old—what if I boil the shit out of it and then throw this other ancient thing I found in the freezer in with it? Will it all be okay together? Even if it’s not, it’s worth the effort of experimenting, maximizing what we have, slowing down to consider what we still possess and how to make the best use of it.
And this resourceful, improvisational kimchijigae method reminds me of other aspects of our lives now, the questions so many of us are asking and the processes we’re going through in isolation. Every day brings some new attempt to transform what we already have into something that maybe feels new, or comforting, or at least recognizable. How can I rearrange my space to make the living room seem new? What hodgepodge of classic films and new TV shows can I combine to stay entertained? We might even be rediscovering those parts of ourselves that were buried deep in the fridges of our brains.
For me, sheltering in place has activated so many different thoughts and emotions that I thought therapy and SSRIs had tucked away for me. Sure, I’m not anxious about my commute to work, since I just walk into the next room. I’m not anxious about being late to meet a friend somewhere, since there’s no one and nowhere to meet. But anxieties about whether or not my job can be sustained long-term, whether my finances will come crashing down, whether food workers are getting fair treatment even as I wrestle with worries about running out of food—these worries, which I’ve long felt, are now constantly and overwhelmingly present, without clear answers.
It’s worth the effort of experimenting, slowing down to consider what we still possess and how to make the best use of it.
Food scarcity has always existed, whether that be during the Joseon era of Korea or the very real American food deserts that predated Covid-19 and will endure long after. That so many people are only now facing food shortages and empty shelves, scrambling to combine and cook every last thing in their cupboards and refrigerators and not waste anything, shows how inattentive many of the privileged were to the hunger that grips countless people in this country. They’d rather not think about it, lest they imagine it could happen to them; now that it is happening to some of them, it feels new and scary.
Kimchijigae comes from a place of scarcity: take what you have, cook it, see if it works. When the ancestors finally figured out that it was the sour kimchi that tasted best in stew—that it was the bubbling heat that purified their food, and that they could produce so much with so very little—they gifted us something that maybe a lot of us have forgotten and are only now able to understand anew.
I have long been someone who loves a good hug when I’m sad or anxious; it’s why I love having a dog that spends much of his time with his big head on my legs or his body strewn across my lap. With everyone social distancing, I do not know when I will get to enjoy an embrace from a friend or loved one as I did in the past. But I do know that one of the most reliable physical pleasures I have left is that of the warmest foods, the comforting ones I return to over and over. The embrace of kimchijigae has long been there for me, and will continue to be there for as long as there is aged kimchi for me to use.
Noah Cho teaches middle-school English in the San Francisco Bay Area. His writing has appeared on NPR's CodeSwitch, Shondaland, The Atlantic, and The Toast. He spends most of his free time going on hikes with and taking photos of his doggo, Porkchop.