(As told to Sonja Swanson.)
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I first started to experiment in the kitchen while I was studying abroad in Oxford, England, when I lived with a host family of kind but reserved professors. I made all kinds of food, but I held back on one particular Korean dish: doenjang jjigae (된장찌개). Doenjang jjigae is about as classic as it gets when it comes to Korean comfort food. It’s one of the country’s most popular stews, eaten at any time of day, whether for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. It’s one of the first things you learn how to cook when you move out of your parents’ house—it’s easily adapted to whatever vegetables and proteins you have on hand it’s relatively simple to make, and it doesn’t require a lot of banchan (small side dishes) to go with it. It’s a complete meal, full of vegetables and fermented soy proteins, which was especially important a long time ago when there wasn’t a lot of meat in the Korean diet.
Doenjang, the soybean paste that forms the base of this broth, is also one of our strongest-smelling fermented products: It’s similar to miso, but darker, more pungent, earthier, saltier, and wheat-free. For Koreans, it’s a nostalgic smell that makes our mouths water. For people unfamiliar with doenjang, it can be a bit of a shock. (Be sure to read this article on Korean pantry staples for tips on what brands of doenjang to look for.)
Right before I returned home from my year in England, I decided to cook doenjang jjigae for my host family. My host mom sniffed the air outside the kitchen, where the jjigae was boiling away, frowned, and left in a hurry. But at dinnertime, she had one bite, then another, and pretty soon she had scraped the bowl clean. It’s just that flavorful and addictive.
A jjigae is a kind of stew that’s loaded with delicious stuff: vegetables, seafood or meat, tofu, and more. It shouldn’t have a few small bits of solids floating and swirling around in the broth—it should feel fuller to count as a jjigae. Increase the broth ratio and you basically get a doenjang-guk, or doenjang soup; there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just not a jjigae anymore.
On that note, I want to point out that every home has a slightly different take on doenjang jjigae. If you want a really thick, strong broth you can add more doenjang, and if you want a very mild broth that’s nice for sipping, opt for using less. The recipe I put together is based on a very common style of doenjang jjigae, but it can be easily varied. You can use different kinds of protein, like seafood, for a more refreshing stew, or beef, for a more rich and earthy style. If you want, you can make a very simple vegetable jjigae using tofu as the protein (or omit the tofu and just use vegetables). And though it will be less flavorful, you can use water instead of stock in a pinch. Doenjang jjigae is forgiving. You can experiment and find the recipe and ratios that work for you.
That being said, I do have a few tips I’ve picked up over the years from both culinary school and from my mom.
The recipe starts by making a stock using dried anchovies and dashima (kelp, or what the Japanese call kombu). You want to put your stock ingredients in cold water, then bring it to a low simmer, and keep it there for at least 15 minutes. Don’t drop them into boiling water and don't bring them to a hard boil, which blanches and cooks your anchovies and dashima, preventing more flavor from coming out. A nice slow simmer will help the flavors melt right out.
Keeping the pot half covered while simmering the stock allows some of the stronger fish aromas to cook off while preventing too much reduction of the liquid. You can check if your stock is ready by reaching in and tasting an anchovy. If it still tastes savory, that means there’s more flavor to be extracted from the fish. Keep simmering.
I also like to use the starchy water leftover from rinsing rice as the base for my stock. It's not required, but it adds a mellow and comforting flavor to the pot, plus, if you're making rice anyway, there's no harm in making use of its rinsing liquid. Just make sure not to use the water from the first rinsing, which can have dust and impurities in it. The water from the second or third rinsing is preferable.
Once the stock is ready, it’s time to strain it, then add all the vegetables and proteins and doenjang to the pot. The exact sequence depends a bit on what’s going in, but one thing you don’t want to do is put the doenjang in first. When you do, you create an extra salty broth that then picks up less flavor from the vegetables. If you add the vegetables first and cook them until they’re tender and have fully flavored the broth, then the doenjang can go in with no trouble. So remember: Veggies first, then doenjang.
My recipe here calls for rehydrated dried shiitake mushrooms, summer squash, onion, scallion, garlic, clams, and a little buzz of heat from some fresh chilies. You can easily vary this, adding potatoes, spinach, cabbage, Swiss chard, and more.
When your stew is ready, serve it piping hot with a bowl of hot rice and a side of kimchi—it’s pretty much one of the simplest, most satisfying Korean meals you can make. And if you have leftover doenjang jjigae in your pot from, for example, breakfast, just keep it on the stove and boil it again for lunch or dinner. It gets thicker and saltier with each boil, so feel free to add a little water if you feel like it.
Last but not least, cooking your jjigae in a ttukbaegi, or heavy clay pot, keeps it hot longer and the pot can be taken straight from the stove to the table for serving. But be sure to never wash it with soap, because the soap stays in the microscopic pores of the clay and gives you bubbles the next time you cook with it. No one wants to eat a soapy doenjang jjigae, not even buttoned-up university professors.
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