Ihad only been living in Korea for three days when I was first introduced to budae jjigae. The principal at the English academy I worked for had taken all of us teachers out to lunch and took it upon himself to select what he called, “The World’s Greatest Food.” As the soup was put before us, he went over all the popular ingredients: spam, hot dogs, canned ham, pepperoni, ground beef, beans, green onions, tofu, garlic, macaroni, kimchi, gojuchung paste, and ramen noodles all mixed together creating a marvelous sea of hot food brimming over the top of the pot. It had a little bit of everything, and I have to admit I was afraid that the combination would not work. But as the first spoon full of that spicy soup touched my tongue, I was hooked. It was a taste explosion. My mouth, my body, all of my senses wanted more and more. I was sad and sweaty when the meal was done, but then my principal said to me, “Be happy young man. Not only is it the world’s greatest food, you can also find it just about anywhere in Korea.”
Later that night, still remembering the budae jjigga, licking my lips as I imagined it in my mouth, I decided I wanted it for dinner. I ventured out into the cool autumn of October armed only with the name of the soup saying it over and over in my head, budae jjigae, budae jjigae, budae jjigae. I walked along the streets hoping to find the words written in English, but this just did not exist. So, I stopped at every single place that resembled a restaurant, stuck my head inside, and said very loudly to the people working and eating there, “BUDAE JJIGGAE?” Some laughed; some paid no attention, but most made it clear I was in the wrong place. Again and again over the next hour I stopped at places and yelled, “BUDAE JJIGAE?” The night grew darker and the sky became murky with evil looking clouds that seemed to give me wicked smiles mocking my failing quest. In my desperation, I started stopping any Korean passing by me and said to them in a starving voice, “Where…is…the…budae…jjigae?” A little kid said, “Hello. How are you?” I was getting nowhere. And just as I was going to find a taxi home and give up, I looked up into the sky and yelled out the words one last time, “BUDAE JJIGAE.” Maybe I hoped some God of Korean Food would come down and grant my wish or shine the way to a restaurant, but that did not happen. What did happen was a curious older Korean man, in his mid sixties, quite tall and handsome, came up to me and said with the most polite voice, “Can I help you? You sound like you have an emergency.”
He had a thick Korean accent, but nonetheless I was grateful to meet someone who could speak English. I explained my situation and he laughed and said to me, “No problem. Please let me introduce myself. I am Mr. Kim, but you may call me The Duke.” He handed me a business card that said he was the president of some shipping company and that he really did go by the name The Duke. The Duke laughed once again and led me only a few more blocks to a restaurant that seemed to beam out a beacon of light that pierced my eyes with a hypnotic force. Finally, the quest was over. Finally, I could eat budae jjigae. I was so overwhelmed by the thought and the light of the restaurant and all the smells coming out it, I wondered for a second if perhaps I had actually died and this was my heaven.
The place actually looked very similar to where I had lunch earlier that day, except for the fact that it was completely empty. We sat down and a short Korean man came over to our table. The Duke explained that he was the owner of the place and told me there was nothing to worry about anymore. He quickly said some words to the owner in Korean who went off and came back a few seconds later with a bottle of soju and two glasses. The Duke poured us two shots, looked at me and said, “Now let me ask you, what do you know about the Korean War?” I told him I didn’t know much, but The Duke it turned out was fascinated with two things in life: studying the English language and talking about the Korean War. Without even a breath, he started to go over all the history of the conflict.
When the food arrived it was not at all what I expected, it was a bowl of green seaweed soup which The Duke said was called miyeok guk and that it was good for my health. I didn’t understand why he didn’t order budae jjiggae and I looked at the miyeok guk with a stricken face, my stomach gurgling in disappointment. The Duke looked straight into my eyes and said with all seriousness, “Straighten up soldier. A few more shots of soju and anything will taste like budae jjigae.” At points I lost the drift of The Duke talking and imagined myself swimming in a perfect bowl of budae jjigae: those perfect pieces of meat, those succulent noodles, that spicy taste, but soon reality got in the way again and I could only hear my stomach yelling at me and the duke rambling on about the 38th parallel or MacArthur or the Chinese. I even tried the miyeok guk once that night out of pure starvation, but even after three bottles of soju it tasted lifeless and nothing like budae jjigae, and so for the rest of the evening, it sat near bye undistributed, growing cold, and perfectly happy that it was not the soup of choice.
Finally, the owner closed the restaurant and The Duke and I stumbled out. He bowed and disappeared down a side street as if he was a ghost. I did eventually find my way home, and with my stomach still rumbling, I got on the internet determined to study hangul. I wanted only to be able to read and understand the words: 부대찌개, so that I could eat it every day, so that I could avoid getting help from anyone named The Duke, and most of all, so I would never have to see a bowl of 미역국 ever again!
Christopher Thomas Linville
(Baird University College, SSU)