Kimchi Jjigae (kimchi stew) is pure and simple comfort food, home cooking, Korean style. Now I have made so many bowls of kimchi jjigae that I don’t even know how long ago I started to make it or what life is like without it.
A word on kimchi. Purely as a food stuff kimchi refers to a large number of fermented/pickled (sometimes not) vegetable dishes that Koreans produce, that as a main ingredient use napa cabbage, radish, or cucumbers, etc. Like fermentation/pickling everywhere it started as a way to preserve much needed vegetables for the long cold winter. The list of different types and regional variations of kimchi is far too long to go into here, for this dish you only need to concern yourself with cabbage kimchi. Cabbage (baechu or paechu) kimchi is, well, think of it as sauerkraut with chilies, sort of along those lines (I’m sure large swaths of Americans don’t eat sauerkraut either, but they should). Baechu kimchi is essentially a head of napa cabbage stuffed with various vegetables such as green onion, garlic, radish, spices (heavy on the chili) and put in a brine and left to ferment (recipe). It is exceptionally healthy, (more than) a bit fragrant, slightly sour, and quite possibly essential to life (I don’t find it all that spicy but I might not be the best person to ask about that).
Beyond just a food stuff, kimchi is a huge part of Korean cultural identity. No, really you cannot overstate its importance. Seriously, go to Saveur for an actual food writer’s (Mei Chin) opinion. Kimchi is served at every meal and I swear I detect at least a faint smile from the waiter or owner every time I finish off my side dish (banchan) of kimchi at a restaurant. So don’t worry about having trouble finding kimchi, you find a Korean market you will find it.
Kimchi Jjigae is an excellent use for kimchi, especially the old stuff, the older it gets the better the stew tastes. The flavors and and textures make for a very complex dish. The sharp notes from the kimchi, the sweet notes from the gochujang (pepper paste), the alternating layers of fat and meat with the slightly chewy rind on the pork belly, the soft, soft tofu, and the sweat on your brow. Pure bliss. There are probably as many recipes for kimchi jjigae as there are Korean mothers. I am not going to pretend to reinvent the wheel, just go to Maangchi for a recipe/video.
But if you must know, my ingredients list is; 1/3 to 1/2 lb pork belly (skin on), 1 small onion, 6 cloves of garlic, 2-4 green onions, 4 c. chopped kimchi, water to cover, 1 T. of sugar, 2 t. pepper flakes (or more), 1 T. of pepper paste, 1 block of tofu and a dash of sesame oil. All done up in the normal manner. By which I mean divided between two little earthenware bowls on the stovetop.