When I’m away from home, this kimchi stew is what I crave the most.

Hyosun Ro
May 22, 2021
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Credit: Hyosun Ro

Pictured recipe: Kimchi Jjigae

When kimchi gets old, it becomes my favorite ingredient to cook with. This flavor-packed, sour kimchi is perfect for many different dishes in Korean cooking. Kimchi jjigae (stew) is the most common dish made with aged kimchi, and it's the most beloved jjigae in Korea.

In late fall, Korean households make enough kimchi to last through the winter and early spring until fresh vegetables are available. This annual kimchi-making event is called kimjang (or gimjang), and is a time-honored tradition in Korean culture. I grew up watching my mother make kimchi with over 100 heads of napa cabbage. On the kimchi-making day, she would gather with her neighborhood friends. These ladies would take turns to help each other. It was a community event. Back then, meat was scarce, so Korean mothers heavily relied on kimchi to feed their families. All winter long, throughout different stages of kimchi fermentation, they would make stews, soups, noodles, dumplings, savory pancakes, stir-fries, fried rice and more. There simply could never be too much kimchi.

With modern refrigeration technology and with cabbage and radishes available all year round, we don't make as much kimchi as my mother's generation used to. But I still make a fair amount of kimchi. I learned it from my mother, and it's a tradition that I hope my children will continue. 

Growing up, we had a lot of meals just with kimchi jjigae and a bowl of rice. I don't remember ever getting tired of it. There is something about that red, rich and hot broth and that deliciously softened kimchi we all love. When I'm away from home, kimchi jjigae is what I crave the most. Actually, most Koreans do. It's comfort food at its best.

The most popular version of kimchi jjigae is made with fatty pork. Many people love the rich broth with pork fat, and fishing out the intensely kimchi-flavored pork pieces. For younger Koreans, it may even be difficult to imagine this dish without some sort of pork. However, when I was growing up, kimchi jjigae was often made simply with anchovy broth, without any meat. Even as a young child, I really enjoyed the clean, savory flavor of anchovy broth in soups and stews. When I think of my childhood kimchi jjigae, I think of kimchi jjigae made with anchovy broth.

While Koreans also use soup or stew stock made from other ingredients such as beef, chicken and vegetables, dried anchovies are traditional and most commonly used. As such, dried anchovies are a staple in every Korean kitchen. They come in different sizes for different uses, but medium to large anchovies are best for making broth. (Look for dried anchovies in Korean markets and well-stocked Asian markets. They are also available online—Seoul Mills is a good source for them and other staples of Korean cuisine.)

The recipe I've shared here uses anchovy broth as the stew base, but you can substitute with any flavorful broth you have available, such as beef, chicken or vegetable broth. While the consistency of this stew may seem more like a Western soup, Koreans distinguish a stew (jjigae) from a soup (guk) based on the ratio of liquid to solids in a dish. Soups generally have more liquid than solids, and stews have more solids than liquid. 

As long as you have well-fermented, sour kimchi, kimchi jjigae is hard to mess up! The older, the better. (If you make your own kimchi, use the oldest jar you have. Some Korean markets also sell mukeunji, aka old kimchi.) To develop a deeper flavor, cook the kimchi before adding the liquid. Use the juice from the kimchi, if available. It adds lots of flavor to the stew.

Salt is usually not necessary, unless the kimchi was lightly seasoned or kimchi juice is not available. Season the stew to taste. You can simply use a little bit of salt, but Korean soup soy sauce, fish sauce or salted shrimp (saeujeot) are also used for additional seasoning.

In addition to fatty pork, kimchi jjigae can also be made with beef or canned tuna—anyway you make it, it's not only a great way to use up old kimchi, it's also an incredibly satisfying meal.

Hyosun Ro started her blog Korean Bapsang (Korean Table) in 2009 as a way to teach her children how to cook the food they grew up with. Join her more than 76,000 followers on Instagram @koreanbapsang.