Spring is coming! It’s true, we did just spend the majority of last week’s commutes skating through pools of slush, and there are still attractively sooty mounds of snow piled in the purgatory between the cars and the sidewalk. But they’re melting so fast. We’ve been waking up to a cacophony of long-lost birds outside our window, I’ve (tentatively) traded in my Michelin-man puffer for a wool coat for the first time in 2015. I’ve graduated from leggings to tights under my work pants. It’s supposed to be a high of sixty today?! I almost didn’t type it because I feel like I might jinx it. Spring is tiptoeing our way, and — even though I know it’ll probably desert us at least a few more times this year — I’m so excited.
Guys! This is one of my favorite things ever.
Okay, so I have a long list of “favorite things ever” — mostly involving cheese, chocolate, or not leaving the house — but seriously, this. This is a favorite of favorites.
I first had budae jjigae in a little upstairs joint in K-town, underneath a sea of fairy lights and soju caps dangling from a net-draped ceiling. It was in weather not unlike the kind we’ve been having this week, and the bubbling pot that appeared in front of us was all my winter-comfort dreams come true — spicy, noodly, Spam-y melty-cheese heaven.
Since then, budae jjigae has been a staple of every winter I’ve spent up North, the kind of droolworthy dish that had me waiting for the bus in snowy single-digit Boston weather and struggling through skyscraper wind-tunnels on frigid Manhattan evenings to find. It’s classic comfort food, one that gets its name from harder times, and true to its namesake, it’s loaded up with all things plain but wonderful — instant ramen, salty Spam, chewy rice cakes and silky-soft tofu. The broth is thick and rich, laced with earthy umami tones from kombu and anchovies, dyed fiery-red with kimchi and gochujang, spicy enough to make you sweat even when your fingers are still thawing from the cold outside. It’s a humble, hearty stew, a stew for sharing, and I associate it with the best memories of warm friends on cold winter nights.
I grew up in a relatively small city in the South. It’s big enough to have an airport, but small enough that that airport only has five gates (and one direct flight to NY that I never take because it costs approximately a billion million dollars) — big enough that some people have heard of it, but small enough that a nod and an “Oh, right, right,” is as much as they can muster. (Occasionally, I’ll meet someone who actually drove through it.) It was also small enough that, growing up, I can remember the first restaurant of almost every kind of unusual cuisine opening up in town — the first Korean restaurant, Thai, Vietnamese, etc. — and I can also remember the first time I ever had any of those kinds of foods. The first time I had pork bulgogi, then known to me only as “Korean spicy BBQ pork,” I thought it was the most ridiculously delicious dish I’d ever tasted, and I thought that that one god-like restaurant must have been the only place in existence that could create such a magnificent mouth-party. Logical. (And thus began a lifelong love affair with Korean food.) READ MORE
I have never seen anyone anywhere eat with the capacity and fervor of Bowl #2 when he orders spicy basil fried rice for delivery from a Thai place. No matter how monstrous the portion is, he will finish it (even if it means total immobilization and agony for hours afterwards). So, given the tumultuous events in Boston yesterday, I thought I would try to recreate it as a comfort food amidst all the lockdown insanity. (I won’t talk too much about everything that happened, since it’s been done much more eloquently than I could attempt to, I’m sure. I will say that I’m not ashamed to admit that we probably did exactly what we would have done on any other day with no obligations — stayed home in our pajamas, watched TV, cooked food, noshed on food. But, other than the fact that what we were watching that day was breaking news, wasn’t half of the lockdown’s eeriness simply knowing that you couldn’t leave if you wanted to?)