Tuesday, July 22, 2008
One of my current research interests (don't laugh) is a cultural history of 부대찌개. Why? Well, I think that the current folklore about the origins of it are interesting, but I don't for a minute believe that it's true.
The usual narrative about 부대찌개 is that it developed in the postwar period among the poor, who scavenged spam, sausage, and other leftovers from the trash heaps outside US military bases, which is what earned it the name "army stew" or "Johnson soup" (존손탕 after Lydon Johnson.) Uijeongbu, with its strong association with the US military, is the most famous location for the stew. On the face of it, it seems like a reasonable story. Certainly in the postwar period lots of people were very poor, and the soup is made from ingredients that are definitely not appearing in the latest issues of Gourmet Magazine. (ZenKimchi's food journal includes an alternate tale - link may no longer be working- in which the dish was created off-base to appeal to American soldiers by incorporating tastes of home. This story is cute, but I am 100% certain apocryphal. Do we seriously believe that any Korean would think a stew with kimchi and hot peppers and tofu would appeal to homesick soldiers? Korean skepticism for the ability of the American palate to handle spicy food is strong.)
The ingredients used vary slightly from place to place, restaurant to restaurant, but there's still a pretty uniform set of ingredients:
spam or processed ham, hot dogs or sausage, canned beans (in tomato sauce), "american" (processed) cheese, ground beef or pork, 파 (green or spring onion), 미나리 (dropwart), 김치(kimchi), 고추장 (red pepper paste or 고추가루 (red pepper powder) or both, 마늘 (garlic), 두부 (tofu), 양파 (onion), instant ramen noodles (or sometimes now 쫄면 or other kinds of noodles), 호박 (zucchini), 떡(rice cakes) . . .really, lots of common ingredients in the Korean kitchen, mixed in with some surplus "American" foods. Seems feasible so far, but . . .
The first problem I have is with the timing for the introduction of some of the ingredients. Instant ramen noodles are one of the big constants, no matter which restaurant you go to. I've never, ever seen a place that didn't either include them automatically, or have them as the most prominent "add in". But instant noodles weren't even invented until 1958, and while they were certainly available and popularized in the 60's and 70's that's a little late to the party. It's possible of course that instant noodles were a later adaptation, and regular 국수 or other noodles were used, or it started without noodles. Certainly there was a big push to use foods made from wheat flour in the postwar period because of the forms of US food aid, but it's still a little suspicious. I'm looking for more information on exactly when instant noodles a) entered and became popular in Korea b) their relative costliness c) when they became an intrinsic part of the soup.
떡 is another odd ingredient to show up . . . from interviews and discussions I've done before, 떡 seems to have been a special treat before the economy really took off in the late 70's. My host mother can recall specific days and events where she was able to eat 떡, so for the generation that supposedly grew up with 부대찌개 it sure is strange to be using a special ingredient like that. Once again, that doesn't mean it was always part of the stew (even now, I know lots of places that don't include it. At least, not for free as a standard item) but it does make me wonder.
Another thing that should be making everyone wonder is the appearance of American packaged foods. This is the bit that lends a special poignancy to the food, after all - eating leftovers thrown out by the US army. Except that it's seeming less and less likely that these items were being discarded. I haven't been able to interview anyone with firsthand knowledge, but conversations I've had with Americans with US military experience (including my odd extended "family" of other military brats) seem to indicate that those foods wouldn't have been thrown away. First of all, the point of spam at least is that it has a shelf life of just about forever. There wouldn't be a need to throw away some of it. Second, how accessible were those trash piles to Koreans anyway? The people going through the trash for discarded foodstuffs would probably have been Koreans employed on base, in which case their income was probably enough that scrounging like that wouldn't have been necessary or attractive - except for resale on the black market. This is where things start to get much more interesting. If these foods were showing up in the Korean food system anywhere, it seems most likely that they were being exchanged on the black market, sold by Koreans working on base, or by American GI's. Korea still has a thriving underground trade in items off the bases, but if current control methods are anything to go by, the US military's upper echelons are doing their darnedest to stop it. Back then this probably would have meant keeping control over refuse as well as commissary access, once again making those supposed piles of American throwaways unlikely. It seems much more likely that GI's and Koreans with base access were selling off unwanted rations to the local black markets. After all, why would soldiers and workers be throwing away something that offered income? The black market was even larger and more important then, and so there would have been even more opportunity and motivation to take that can of spam out and trade it for currency, services, or goods. Secondhand accounts strongly support this. Those foods were black market goods, not trash.
The plans now are to a) locate veterans or other military personnel who would have been in Korea in the immediate postwar period, stretching into the 60's and 70's and ask them about their eating habits at the time, perceived Korean eating habits, and the black market b) interviews with older Koreans about their first experiences with 부대찌개 to pinpoint when it was really popularized and what was in it c) research some of the major chains like 놀부 as well as check out smaller local restaurants and the "original" ones in Uijeongbu d)get to know both the black market and overall economy of Korea in the postwar period, especially pertaining to food costs and availability.
If I had to take a guess now, I'd say that 부대찌개 in some form emerged in the 60's, became more elaborate over the 70's and 80's (the only 부대찌개 place whose opening date I know for sure was in the early 80's) and then I'm going to take a wild guess and say that the dish probably became REALLY popular in the during the IMF crisis. When I lived in Andong, I was a little surprised that some of the older people I knew did not share my reverence for 안동찜닭, partially because they consider it "IMF food" - something that could be made cheaply and thus lacked prestige (these folks usually tried to point me towards 간거등어, 안동식혜, and especially 헛제사밥.) In both cases I'm sure the dish predates the IMF period, but in the financial crunch became more attractive foods, especially for restaurants (which brings up another point - I have never, ever heard of a Korean making this dish at home. All the homemade accounts I've heard are from 교포, and I think it's probably rare to make at home here.)
Now, just because I think the tale is false doesn't mean it's not important. If I'm right about the actual development of 부대찌개 then the substitution of poor people gathering from US garbage for people buying US goods on the black market is very, very important. Once again, I'd bet that that particular permutation of the story really came into vogue during either the affluent period of the 80's when people were eager to distance themselves from the poverty of the postwar period by picking up on a tale of woe turned delicious triumph, or during the IMF as a comforting story of innovation during tough times. Hopefully I'll be able to find out.
Of course, if there is anybody out there reading this (hahahahah!) who would like to talk about their experiences of 부대찌개, black markets, or Korea anytime from the 50's - 90's, I would love to hear from you!
Posted by Gomushin Girl at 10:48 PM