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This article analyzes the role of gastronomical narratives in constructing the Korean War as “forgotten” by examining competing discourses about budae jjigae, a soup dish of American military base leftovers such as Spam, hot dogs, and American cheese and Korean food staples such as kimchi and ramen noodles. American “foodie” discourses divorce budae jjigae from its war-torn past, deliberately forgetting and simultaneously casting nostalgia over the “postwar” conditions in which the dish arose. Literally translated “military base stew,” budae jjigae’s permanence in Korean cuisine, in South Korea and in Korean America, not only represents the postwar realities of survivors, but also records transgenerational traumas, the American influence “left behind,” and remembers that neither the “forgotten” war nor the U.S. occupation of South Korea is over. Discussing how budae jjigae embodies, critiques, and resists sensory colonization, I posit that critically consuming the dish helps us understand the entwined natures of Korean and American identities with American Empire today.

In this article, I draw together an archive of gastronomical narratives about food and the Korean War, with a particular focus on budae jjigae—a stew combining American food products like Spam, hot dogs, and American cheese with Korean food staples such as kimchi and ramen noodles that emerges in 1950s South Korea in the aftermath of the Korean War. Whereas memorials, museums, history texts, and other sources of war narratives usually commemorate war’s extraordinary circumstances, these sources often leave out much of the everyday experience of war such as what people eat.1 As much as commemoration, eating is a discursive activity—we talk about and understand food in a public realm, and thus culinary [End Page 135] discourses “create, sustain, and legitimate relationships of power and privilege.”2 In a world where the Korean War is scripted as both victory for the United States and also “forgotten,” South Korea’s budae jjigae has been dismissed as an “odd” invention by Koreans and a “souvenir” of a war long past.3 Competing discourses of the dish highlight the very malleability of food and its meanings. I argue that Korean/Americans have used military base stew to express a wide range of memories, emotions, histories, identities, and experiences related to the Korean War.4 From its invention, war survivors archived their loss, pain, and grievances with the war and its aftermath without necessarily conforming to or breaking from the national and public scripts of commemorations, memorials, and histories. Like such events and monuments, food “provide[s] comfort and focus for memory for those who have suffered loss.”5 In contrast to these, budae jjigae exemplifies how food connects the body to war in ways that are difficult for museum exhibitions and historical texts to do, even when they do focus on food. Like these performances and objects, budae jjigae is meant “to convey the story of the war to a generation who did not experience it.”6 However, due to its ephemerality, the story of military base stew can be lost to silence when the dish is just a regular part of the familial or national diet.

Recovering this connection between the dish and its past is vital because food can archive a multisensory experience of war, not only its tastes and smells, but also its textures, sounds, and images, memories of which are housed in the body. In the United States, race is predominantly still understood as read on the body, and therefore, Robert Ku, Martin Manalansan, and Anita Mannur emphasize that understanding food in Asian America begins and ends with the body.7 Asian American bodies are linked to assumptions about what we eat, which can help us trace histories of U.S.-Asia relations; thus, our bodies are also read as representing histories, including the histories of war. Rising out of the aftermath of the Korean War, budae jjigae marks a defining moment that leaves Korean national and ethnic identity always determined by the war. Yet, budae jjigae also makes legible the visceral collision between Korean people and U.S. Empire, a collision that has often been obscured by scripts of U.S.-Korea friendship, allegiance, and cooperation. For this reason, I propose budae jjigae is Asian American food. In “Acting Asian American, Eating Asian American,” Jennifer Ho asks, “What does it mean to act or eat ‘Asian American’? Is it about one’s identity, one’s behavior, one’s performance, or the materiality of the food items one is consuming?”8 Ho recognizes that “food is usually thought of as being ethnic rather than racially specific” and Asian restaurants and dishes in the United States are generally tied to particular nations. Although there a few “hybrid” foods and some pan-Asian restaurants, she concludes “there are [End Page 136] no truly Asian American foods, and we generally do not talk about, think about, or cook Asian American food.”9 Building on Ho’s observations, I would like to think about military base stew as Asian American food, although it is typically ethnicized as Korean.

Born out of a very specific Korean American history, budae jjigae defies the simple classifications usually applied to ethnic foods such as “traditional” or “foreign,” “theirs” or “ours,” and, in this case, “Korean” or “American,” giving form to the inextricable Korean Americanness of postwar South Korea. The reproduction of budae jjigae in the sixty-four years since the armistice, in both South Korea and the United States, thus resists the usual scripts of U.S.-Korea relations by recalling for younger generations of Korean/Americans that food is replete with histories of race and power as well as with possibilities for resistance. Thus, while budae jjigae decidedly affirms Korean identity, understanding the dish as an index of the war and its legacies “can deliberately and strategically disrupt the notion that cultural identity is always readily available for consumption and commodification and always conjoined to culinary practices.”10 Reappropriating the American foods available to them, Korean/Americans not only remember a war that has been constructed as forgotten, but also use the food to work through the ways in which they, both within and outside of the United States, are subject to “institutional forms of white supremacy and a complicated history of racialization.”11 Using Ho’s questions as my starting point, I claim that Asian American food exists particularly in the acts of survival by Asian-raced people in the face of U.S. Empire and racialized exclusion. Budae jjigae makes legible how Korean/Americans make sense and make use of and survive and thrive in response to the circumstances of American Empire that mark their everyday experiences.

To understand the cultural work of culinary discourses about food and the Korean War, I closely read three narratives about budae jjigae in this article: Jonathan Gold’s 2008 LA Weekly review of Chunju Han-il Kwan, a restaurant in Los Angeles’s Koreatown; the April 2015 “Korea” episode of the culinary travel show Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown; and Grace M. Cho’s summer 2014 personal essay “Eating Military Base Stew” from Contexts, the public audience quarterly magazine of the American Sociological Association. In his review, Gold uses budae jjigae as an entry point to distance his mainstream reader from the foreignness of Korean cuisine before praising the “refined,” “traditional,” and “authentic” dishes the restaurant offers.12 In Parts Unknown, host Anthony Bourdain describes the “vintage army stew” as proof that necessity is the “mother of all deliciousness” and as a sentimental symbol of how the war has forever changed the Korean character.13 I use Gold and Bourdain’s prominent mainstream representations of [End Page 137] budae jjigae to establish how in the United States narratives about the dish circulate through the power of well-established white male authorities on food. Both men have built their careers pursuing and maintaining celebrity and credibility through their taste in food, becoming what Pierre Bourdieu calls arbiters of taste. Their writing and television shows capitalize on the fact that “[c]onsumption is … a stage in a process of communication” and “an act of deciphering, decoding, which presupposes practical or explicit mastery of a cipher or code.”14 Demonstrating a mastery of food that their audiences do not yet possess, Gold and Bourdain set examples that educate their viewers to become foodies, “consumers bound up in the pursuit and acquisition of status through their taste in food.”15 Through imitation these foodies participate in the processes of food socialization, learning to spot culinary trends and “worthy food choices,” and also “specifying what foods and food trends are interesting, relevant, and high status” (as well as which are not), growing their own ability and authority to decipher and decode the “exotic” budae jjigae and further circulating narratives set by Gold and Bourdain.16 Unpacking how mainstream narratives construct the Korean War as “forgotten,” and therein how their accounts of military base stew perpetuate this forgetting, I contribute to a growing body of scholarship that examines what Tessa Morris-Suzuki calls “the production of U.S. amnesia about the Korean conflict.”17

Departing significantly from these celebrity food adventurers, Cho, a mixed-race Korean American academic, reminds us that the significance of budae jjigae rests in its origin story and the processes through which it persists in South Korea and the Korean diaspora as comfort food with multivalent meanings. Turning to Cho’s Korean/American story about budae jjigae, I analyze minority methods of remembrance that resist patterns of mainstream forgetting across national boundaries and across generations. Examining budae jjigae through the lenses of Cho’s work on transgenerational haunting and Jodi Kim’s work on the Cold War as a structure of feeling, we see how cuisine can be an “unsettling hermaneutic” that upsets the dominant narratives of the Korean War in the United States and disrupts the routes by which that war is “forgotten.”18 Considering these multiple meanings of military base stew enables us to see otherwise overlooked entwined material and political histories of the United States and South Korea, revealing how U.S.-Korea relations are built on a foundation of sensory colonization that persists today. Providing medical care, food, shelter, and other goods and services that appeal to sensory perception, interventions that “register at the level of affect,” a privileged power spreads an ideological message to those on the receiving end.19 By deliberately distributing food to satiate postwar Koreans’ hunger, “the [End Page 138] United States was producer and distributor of the discourse of the American dream and its accompanying images of American generosity,” making war survivors and subsequent generations of Korean/Americans “grateful for the very thing that tastes like war.”20 In her essay, however, Cho considers the many meanings budae jjigae has for Korean/Americans, demonstrating not only that sensory perception is a site of colonization, but also that the sensory experience of consuming budae jjigae is “an important site of resistance precisely because it reveals the conflation of American rescue and annihilation in the body memory of the War.”21 Reproducing budae jjigae across more than six decades and several generations, Korean/Americans reproduce the sensory experiences of the war: its taste and smell, as well as the contradictory feelings of shame and satiation, disgust and deliciousness that the dish evokes. These sensory perceptions, particularly taste and smell, “are cultural as well as physical acts, in that they are infused with meanings and ways of knowing that are socially constructed and historically specific.”22 Although the youngest generations of Korean/Americans may not know budae jjigae’s “dark past,” the sensory experiences of eating the dish continuously provoke them to ask questions about how and why the dish came to be, opening the potential for not only remembering the war and recognizing its legacies but also resisting the forces of American Empire that construct the Korean War as forgotten.

Jonathan Gold: Budae Jjigae as Urban Legend

Jonathan Gold’s review “Chunju Han-il Kwan Draws Hungry Late Night Crawlers with Its Budae Jjigae” places the dish in the foreground, beginning with this description:

A spitting cauldron of superheated liquid on a tabletop burner, ejecting droplets of orange goo and puffs of sulfurous steam. … Leaves of cabbage careen across the glowing, red maelstrom like so many whirling rafts of the damned. Feathery green chrysanthemum leaves sink into the morass. Those lozenges of pink meat? Sliced Spam, straight from the can. The sausages? Hot dogs, sliced into coins. That familiar-looking square of curly noodles? Packaged instant ramen, unless I miss my guess, half-submerged and softening in the roiling broth.23

Gold enables readers to imagine budae jjigae on multisensory levels: they visualize the bright orange color of the dish and feel a sticky or slimy “goo”; they imagine the steaming heat and also recall that sulfur is responsible for the characteristic odor of rotten eggs. These sensations give rise to [End Page 139] feelings of fear that underlay Gold’s description of the dish as a menacing “glowing, red maelstrom” and muddied, mysterious “morass.” “Lozenges of pink meat” further alarm them about potential danger to consumers, making readers share Gold’s hope that budae jjigae is “urban legend” rather than “actual food” and adding up to a narrative that signifies budae jjigae as unfit for human consumption.24

After this less-than-appetizing introduction, Gold concedes: “Budae jjigae, the legendary specialty of Chunju Han-il Kwan, is oddly tasty”; however, the second half of the sentence, which emphasizes that budae jjigae “is the furthest thing from refined,” soon tempers this unexpected good taste.25 Gold draws a clear line between an unrefined budae jjigae––filled with Spam “straight from the can”; not sausages, but their lesser cousin, sliced hot dogs; and packaged, instant ramen––and the “refined” traditional Korean fare his readers can find at Chunju Han-il Kwan: “the herb-laced beef soup with delicate mandu (dumplings) is first-rate, and the noodles for the guksu are handmade. You will even find decent takes on soontofu, the soft-tofu casserole that is usually only found in specialty restaurants, and the rice dish bibimbap.”26 For Gold, budae jjigae resembles traditional Korean food, but it is something of a mockery. According to him, traditional Korean food “includes many, many refined jjigae, thick, chile-doused soups made with kimchi, homemade tofu or sparkling fresh fish, shellfish, or octopus, choice bits of pork or cattle innards.”27 In contrast to the “first rate,” “homemade,” “sparkling-fresh,” and “choice” ingredients that should compose “real” Korean food, he describes military base stew as “a culinary souvenir from the impoverished years after the Korean War, when the readiest sources of protein were canned provisions cadged from the American military bases around Seoul, which were then simmered with an ordinary kimchi jjigae to make the unlovely stew—an early if inadvertent example of fusion cuisine.”28 Gold does not question why Koreans would continue to incorporate these American goods into their cuisine long after the need to do so has allegedly passed, instead he reduces Korean people to the “unlovely” food “they” eat.

In this review, Gold relies on demeaning and belittling Asian stereotypes to dismiss budae jjigae’s historical and ongoing significance to Korean/Americans before pivoting to objectify them and the desirable, “refined,” and “authentic” Korean cuisine his readers can find at Chunji Han-il Kwan. Evaluations of the refined and authentic seem informed by fantasies of cultural isolation and exoticism, a “Koreanness” that one should be able to acquire, especially in an LA-based Korean restaurant that only recently acquired an English menu and transliterated sign.29 The appeal of the exotic that draws non-Koreans to Koreatown is the “adventurous desire [End Page 140] to explore and possess the unknown other.”30 Military base stew, however, cannot fulfill such desire because it reveals an intimacy between South Korea and the United States that not only disappoints their expectations for authenticity and exoticism, but also is difficult for foodies to explain. Despite this dissonance, the restaurant is “Korean enough,” and, like Koreatown itself, it is “acceptably foreign and thus desirable to visit within the burgeoning ‘foodie’ landscape.”31 As Gold notes, “Koreatown is the logical center of Los Angeles nightlife at the moment” where “an evening of soju and budae jjigae is a rite of passage” for non-Koreans.32 With an English menu and a new sign, Chunji Han-il Kwan is open to the prying eyes and devouring stomachs of Gold’s foodie audience. They can eat Korean food without traveling too far from their comfort zones or their fantastic expectations, without contemplating the histories and geopolitics that bring Korean/Americans and budae jjigae to Los Angeles on a daily basis.

Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, “Korea”

For American audiences with no access to LA’s Koreatown, they can get to know budae jjigae from the comfort of their own homes when Anthony Bourdain visits South Korea in the April 2015 fifth season premiere of Parts Unknown. Fans of the show get their first “taste” of budae jjigae in CNN’s five-minute promotional video for the premiere, “Anthony Bourdain Cooks Korean Food for Anderson Cooper.” In this video, Bourdain describes budae jjigae as part of a “long, glorious Korean tradition” that dates back to the Korean War, a nod to history but a simple fact Bourdain and Cooper feel no need to explore deeper.33 What takes precedence over the history of the dish and its links to war is celebrating military base stew as “bro food,” eaten at two in the morning when one is “not at his best.” Despite budae jjigae’s allegedly fun reputation, Bourdain explains that he decided to make it because he knew it would really “freak out,” “offend,” and “terrify” Cooper more than any other Korean dish, setting viewers up to fear the dish and its “parts unknown” ahead of the season premiere. Cooper plays along: “Is that what that smell is?” he asks, feigning horror when Bourdain opens a jar of kimchi; “This is the last thing in the world I want to eat,” he says as Bourdain arranges the ingredients in a shallow pan. With a smirk, Bourdain warns him that the Koreans will remember his words when they “are our new overlords, which should be any day now.”34 Bourdain’s joke hints at how the strange amalgamation of ingredients that “offend” Cooper’s sense of smell and “terrify” his palate are reflections of a “yellow peril” underwriting Bourdain’s visit to “hyper-modern Seoul which has its sights set on becoming the world’s top exporter of popular culture.”35 What “freaks [End Page 141] out,” “offends,” and “terrifies” Bourdain’s audience is not the budae jjigae as much as the potential for Korean popular culture to displace American popular culture’s global dominance.

The “Korea” episode is designed precisely to neutralize these fears. It opens with a hungover Bourdain waking from a blackout drunken night, he then “pieces together” his visit to South Korea in reverse order from his last meal to his first, meals so mixed with soju, beer, and whiskey that Bourdain cannot clearly recall what he ate or when. Somewhere in the middle, Bourdain joins Chef King Biryong on his live broadcast eating show, or mokbang. Chef King Biryong is the on-screen name for Ji-hwan Choi, one of South Korea’s most popular mokbang hosts, with over 260,000 subscribers tuning into his nightly broadcasts.36 Choi’s show is characterized by his comedic emphasis on how much he enjoys the food and by a military theme: from inside a U.S. Army surplus tent, Choi cooks in a mock mess hall kitchen decorated with toy rifles and grenades and he regularly wears military training gear or battle fatigues. Parts Unknown’s editing choices mean that viewers are not initially introduced to Choi, and so his set, his body language, and the cartoonish sounds emanating from his computer as the mokbang audience interacts with the live broadcast combine with “ironic winks” from Bourdain to dismiss Choi as comedian rather than chef as Bourdain helps him make budae jjigae, which Bourdain translates as “vintage army stew.”37

Telling the story in reverse, the Parts Unknown segment can be confusing: Bourdain and Choi eat the finished stew; then, they are cooking together and Bourdain spills sauce all over the counter, dangerously close to Choi’s computer; next, in interview mode, Bourdain gestures around the tent and asks Choi, “So, most people are not sentimental about their time in the military; why do this?” The mokbang superstar’s answer is disrupted as soon as he mentions South Korea’s two-year military service requirement. Any deeper explanation for Choi’s artistic choices is cut off as Bourdain uses this fact of mandatory service to draw a link between nostalgia, budae jjigae, and South Korean militarism, a frame that distorts the origin story of the dish. Bourdain narrates in voiceover,

Dating back to famine years of the Korean War, scrounging and scavenging from American military bases, it’s in fact a classic example of necessity being the mother of deliciousness. … [It] became an enduring and deeply loved classic. … In a society reeling from conflict and deprivation, largely without meat or fresh ingredients, this was the gift of the G.I.38 [End Page 142]

Meanwhile, the show cuts to black-and-white war-era footage of American B-29 bombers flying over Konan, North Korea, in 1951.39 The voiceover continues, “The Korean War lasted from 1950 to 1953, but in many ways it never ended. The country is split in half, and in a constant state of alert,” threated by the North’s “bughouse crazy dictator with an enormous standing army, a bad haircut, and a nuclear arsenal.”40 While Bourdain gives budae jjigae’s origin story, he dismisses its plethora of meanings by celebrating it as a “gift of the G.I.” and romanticizing necessity as “the mother of all deliciousness.” Further, by linking the dish to conscription in South Korea in the present day, his narrative implies that budae jjigae remains in order to sustain a South Korean army that is on high alert, but only playing at war, against a “bughouse crazy” North Korean dictator.

Bourdain’s voiceover pauses for a moment before ending his brief overview of the past sixty-seven years: “We know this.”41 The “part unknown” to his American viewers is how the war divided families and forever changed “the Korean character.” But what exactly “the Korean character” is or how it has changed remains unexplained to Bourdain’s audience as their attention is turned back to the cooking demonstration: Bourdain enters the tent, shakes Choi’s hand, and picks up the iconic blue rectangular Spam can, showing its Korean script to the camera. With a “wink” to the audience, he says “classic indigenous ingredients.”42 Although Bourdain acknowledges how “we know” the Korean War is ongoing, there are no references to the enduring U.S. military bases or the impoverished camptowns that surround them nor to the United States’ unfinished war with North Korea. To speak of the American interest in the Korean conflict would unsettle the ideological boundaries between “us” and “them,” “Korea” and “America.” According to the show’s general description, Parts Unknown enables its viewers to vicariously travel to and discover “little known destinations and diverse cultures.”43 As Anita Mannur reminds us, however, Bourdain’s TV shows rarely engage with the local culture, focusing instead on establishing easy equivalents between the food he eats and the people that food represents with food choices that are “always about the superlative—the most pristine, the most extreme, the most outrageous.”44 For him, budae jjigae provokes foodies’ cravings despite the American connotations of Spam because the dish “flagrantly violates social or culinary conventions” and “creates a bold spectacle of norm-breaking exoticism that confers distinction” on its non-Korean eaters.45 In conferring this distinction, Bourdain’s food adventuring decontextualizes military base stew, obscuring the everyday realities of South Korean life interwoven with American militarism.

Building on Americans’ familiarity with a wide range of Korean pop cultural productions such as makeup tutorials, dramas, and music videos that [End Page 143] have “renewed fetishized interest in Korean bodies,” Parts Unknown’s visual and discursive tropes keep the imagined borders between “us” Americans and “them” intact, producing Koreanness as strange, exotic, and even pathological for the entertainment of the show’s American consumers.46 Similar to American discourses about the ethics of Korean beauty standards, the food discourse dominating Parts Unknown “allude[s] to anxieties around a ‘New Korea,’” especially “the possibility of a Korean competitive force” that poses a threat to U.S. global dominance.47 To temper this, the show crafts a connection between excessive alcohol consumption and corporate culture and pathologizes other forms of consumption such as live broadcast eating. Thus, Parts Unknown reinforces images Americans have conjured up about Koreans’ conspicuous consumption by focusing on commodities that are not in fact foreign to Americans at all: fried chicken, karaoke, video games, beer, and Spam. In the subtext of Parts Unknown, while American military personnel “stand firm along the DMZ … our South Korean friends can go about their lives,” liberally eating and drinking these foods, mixing karaoke with plates of squid and M&Ms, and tuning into mokbang shows, excessively “[mishandling] the gift of freedom already bestowed upon them by the United States.”48 Parts Unknown thereby assuages American fears because the palatable nature and invasive potential of “all things Korean”––from Hyundai, Kia, and Samsung to kimchi and “Gangnam Style”49––is indeed “soft” and precarious power, too immature to truly gain global economic power without being propped up by American interests. As with most culinary travel discourse, Parts Unknown reveals what makes “Korea” seem exotic and distant, constructing images of a nation that go beyond a simple account of food alone. Although audiences see much of “Korea” in this hour-long show, “we almost never learn about the serious social problems that exist” there, covering over Americans’ complicity with the ongoing state of war and the profound change in the Korean character since the war.50 Thus Parts Unknown reduces “Korean” to an empty signifier, representing nothing more than a foreign Other that is not “us.”

Korean/Americans Eating Military Base Stew

Yet, as Americans we are struck with the familiarity of the rectangular blue can Bourdain holds up to his audience. This uneasy recognition is heightened when Choi disrupts Bourdain’s joke: taking the can, Choi points to the English script on the other side and says, “No, no, no. Spam.”51 Although it is easy to overlook, we can imagine that Choi is “winking back,” sharing an irony with the predominantly Korean audience tuning into his mokbang, [End Page 144] for whom Spam is a clear signifier of the United States. The moment presents an opportunity to explore how colonized subjects have creatively appropriated foods brought by their colonizers, “using foodstuffs forced upon [them] in utterly new and unexpected ways … ways that bear the unmistakable flavor of the colonized.”52 Budae jjigae is more than a creative appropriation, however. For the eldest generation of Korean/Americans military base stew represents survival and an attempt to hold onto some sense of self in the moment when markers of belonging such as nation, home, and family had been destabilized by war. American foodstuffs scavenged from the trash and incorporated into an ordinary kimchi jjigae may have seemed “new and unexpected” to Americans at the bases and in the camptowns, but this food became a comfort for displaced and mourning war survivors and refugees. Not only does the reproduction of budae jjigae, bearing the “unmistakable flavor” of Korea, recall an important historical moment for Korean/Americans, but the meanings of military base stew continue to reflect the dynamic geopolitical relations of the divided Korean Peninsula across the demilitarized zone and with the United States. If only subtly, Choi reminds the audience that the United States is implicated in the ongoing conflict of North and South by drawing attention to the Spam, broadcasting from a U.S. Army surplus tent, and dressing in military clothing. More than being “sentimental” about his time in the military, Choi may be emphasizing that Korean identity, Korean bodies, and the continuing Korean War are inextricably tied to U.S. militarism. Although Parts Unknown gives viewers no opportunities to read Choi or his mokbang as participating in this kind of strategic remembering or making resistant commentary about the Korean War and U.S.-Korea relations, the segment can pique curiosity and generate questions to which Cho’s reflective essay “Eating Military Base Stew” can lend insight.

Cho begins her essay with an overview of budae jjigae’s origins and quickly begins to analyze how and why the dish has come to have a variety of meanings, some of them contradictory. For example, diasporic artists she works with in the United States regard budae jjigae as “both a culinary travesty and an iconic symbol of U.S. imperialism,” while elderly Koreans tell her that the dish represents survival.53 In these survivors’ voices, Cho recognizes “humiliation, resentment, and gratitude all at once,” as they describe buying bags of garbage from the Americans to pick out the leftover bits of edible food.54 Recalling her own childhood relationship with Korean food, she confesses: “the stew had long been the stuff of my nightmares. A stew gone wrong. A stew so laden with Spam, hotdogs, American cheese and other ‘food products’ that it had become a perversion of Korean cuisine, indeed, a perversion of real food.”55 She proposes [End Page 145] that her mother—a military bride and former “bar girl” who had worked near a U.S. naval base––never made budae jjigae because she wanted to dissociate from the stigmas of Spam, a product that was largely available to South Koreans only through a black market and which is regarded in the United States as “a poor person’s meat.”56 The stigmas of Spam, hot dogs, and instant ramen noodles rest in their classification in market terms as “inferior goods.” The consumption of these goods is high when income levels are low, but as incomes rise their consumption should decline as consumers opt instead for “normal goods,” goods like Gold describes as the “refined” and “traditional” food found at Chunju Han-il Kwan.57 Although these market terms are meant to describe consumer behavior rather than evaluate the quality of the goods themselves, when applied to food the terms carry strong class connotations that have been deployed to evaluate racially marked bodies in the United States.58

In his work on authenticity and the Filipino culinary diaspora, Martin Manalansan describes how food is often the most accessible way for immigrants to travel back “home” and how this can go awry when Filipinos encounter “inferior goods” such as hot dogs in red casing at their Christmas meal in the United States.59 Encounters with budae jjigae may summon similar feelings for Cho’s mother, the diasporic artists, and the elderly war survivors, for whom military base stew may constitute uneasy homecomings rather than comfort. Although it is a mainstay at Korean restaurants in both South Korea and in the United States, military base stew continues to ask Korean/Americans to “confront and ‘return’ to the unwanted tastes and flavors they thought they had left behind” when they immigrated to the United States, a confrontation that can “confound, distort, and/or unsettle [their] sense of identity and belonging.”60 For instance, budae jjigae may represent how Cho’s mother was outcast in South Korea for her affiliations with American men and how she is isolated in the United States, struggling to belong in a rural town with a Korean population of three. The potential for unsettling confrontations makes budae jjigae “inauthentic” in the sense Manalansan describes: “the historically and culturally negotiated state and process of emotional discomfort and affective refusal to adhere to an easy mapping of identity” often associated with ethnic food in the United States.61 That is, budae jjigae breaks down the easy equivalents of food and identity that define “Koreanness” in the United States, pointing instead to the ways that the signifier “Korean” is always an epistemological difficulty rooted in competing narratives of the Korean War.

To help her make sense of Korean/Americans’ difficult relationships with budae jjigae, Cho visits the camptowns surrounding U.S. bases Camp Humphreys and Camp Stanley to interview the Koreans living and working [End Page 146] there. Although official boundaries define the military installments themselves as territory of the United States, Cho’s descriptions demonstrate how “the boundary between the base and the town is porous, with the effects of militarism spilling into everyday life.”62 As Camp Humphreys expanded, subsuming the towns of Doduri and Daechuri, for example, former residents have “taken jobs picking up trash from city streets” and they live in leftover military housing, a situation reminiscent of the poverty that drew Koreans to the American bases after the war and led to the invention of budae jjigae.63 But, looking around a restaurant in Uijeongbu, near Camp Stanley, Cho notices how an American serviceman takes his meal just a few tables away from a former prostitute; and looking at her and her companions’ own order of budae jjigae, Cho notes how the dish attests to ways the relationship between the town and the base is predicated on a mutual exchange.

Unlike Gold or Bourdain, who narrow their focus to the moment of consumption, Cho provides contextual tours of the South Korean camptowns that meet the needs and desires of American personnel stationed in South Korea. In doing so, she highlights not only where budae jjigae originated but also why military base stew is continuously reproduced: because the interdependence of South Korea and the U.S. military bases is not a distant memory but an ongoing legacy of the Korean War. Cho gives a simple ingredient list for budae jjigae: “a bubbling pot of clear noodles, cabbage, onion, scallions, mushrooms, chrysanthemum leaves, hot dogs and Spam, in a spicy gochu-jang broth, topped off with a few slices of American cheese that somehow retained their shape through the scalding heat.”64 Rather that aspiring toward a visceral sensory experience of consuming the dish, Cho immerses her readers in the places and the political circumstances that continue to give military base stew its meanings, and she highlights the perspectives of the people who make, serve, and consume the dish across several generations, people for whom the dish is most significant. While she admits that she can never truly know what budae jjigae means to the people of Uijeongbu, “who claimed the dish as part of their regional culinary identity, yet resented the U.S. military for the collateral damage to their community,” her essay demonstrates that curiosity, open-mindedness, and willingness to listen rather than focus on taste, appearance, or the components of budae jjigae help Koreans and Americans alike understand and remember the continuities of the Korean American past with a Korean American present.65 [End Page 147]

Tasting and Remembering the “Forgotten War”

More than the Korean War being the “forgotten” one, Jodi Kim discusses in Ends of Empire that there is a lack of comprehensive knowledge about the war in the United States, where it is so simply dichotomized as one to preserve democracy from the threat of communism. She explains that comprehensive knowledge not only is lacking for Americans for whom amnesia is systematically produced, but can also be insufficient for Korean/Americans born since the war. For them, the Korean conflict is an untold part of their family histories, histories that their parents or grandparents want to silence due to feelings of shame, fears of reliving painful traumas, and anxiety about exposing loved ones to the war’s misery. These concerns combined with mainstream narratives about budae jjigae, with their idea that the dish is a “gift of the G.I.,” perpetuate sensory colonization, in effect rendering Koreans’ experiences of war unspeakable unless they offer expressions of gratitude, friendship, and zeal to be good, democratic South Korean subjects, enthusiastic about being like or becoming Americans. In resistance to these pressures, for the war generation producing and consuming budae jjigae may have been a method of communicating war stories. The unspeakable traumas they experienced could be concentrated into military base stew, the American food products becoming symbols of the survivors’ pain, suffering, losses, and grievances while the dish’s name explicitly located both the source of their agony as well as the material basis of their survival. Today, South Korea’s economic prosperity means the nation does not rely on these militarized American food products for survival, but the continued production of the dish can point toward South Korea’s dependence on the U.S. military bases to supplement its economic prosperity.66 Thus, the ubiquity of the dish in South Korea and in Korean America speaks to trauma’s unfixedness, or what Cho calls “transgenerational haunting,” emphasizing how individual traumas experienced in wartime move beyond the boundaries of a family unit into the social realm, having deeper national implications that inevitably trouble subsequent generations, whose identities and bodies continue to be tied to war and militarism.67 Even as American foodie discourse strips these meanings from the dish and perpetuates the “forgotten” history of the Korean War, I suggest that these “darker” meanings of military base stew linger, weighing on every spoonful. Thus, no matter how the rich meanings of budae jjigae are lost over time and across borders, still military base stew is a dish that is haunted with questions of why and how it came to be, questions that haunt both Koreans and Americans. [End Page 148]

For U.S. Americans budae jjigae foregrounds the facts and legacies of the Korean War, Korean/American experiences, and grievances that deviate from the official script of U.S.-Korea history and relations. Military base stew is “uneasily digested” because it gives form to how “America is founded on the very ideals of freedom and unity whose betrayals are repeatedly covered over” in the treatment of racial Others.68 Because exclusion, imperialism, and colonization are counter to American ideals of democracy, liberty, and individualism, “cultural memory in America poses a continuously vexing problem.”69 Although Americans attempt to “move on” and “get over” the contradictions of the Korean War, scripting it both as a “victory” and as “forgotten,” in order for the nation to complete the mourning process and let go, diverting our attention to the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf, and, for most of the twenty-first century, the global “war on terror,” the melancholic nature of budae jjigae’s “dark past” remembers how racial exclusion is the condition of, rather than an exception to, the American gift of freedom. The sorrowful histories that budae jjigae embodies come into conflict with American scripts of liberation and rehabilitation, and by consuming these realities Americans face discomforting knowledge incongruent with their identities. To avoid discomfiture, as Amy Kaplan explains, Americans are conditioned to, on one hand, adamantly believe “imperialism [is] a foreign activity, an aberration from the national commitment to freeing the captive” and to, on the other, disavow how “the narrative of liberation legitimated the exercise of imperial power.”70

Where food is concerned, this “split consciousness” plays a significant role in attempts to incorporate the Other and celebrate what makes them worthy of American rescue and the gift of freedom, as Mark Padoongpatt discusses in his work on American suburban housewives’ Cold War–era interest in “Oriental cookery.” Upon returning to the United States after traveling to Asia and the Pacific, wives of military officers, teachers, and missionaries often taught cooking classes in their homes and wrote cookbooks that opened their neighbors’ minds, eyes, and stomachs to “the Orient.” Appropriating the cultures they observed and experienced in their Cold War travels, the housewives not only capitalized on opportunities to “[turn] sustenance into commodity,” but also encouraged ordinary Americans to experience the tastes and, they imagined, the cultures of the “Oriental” sites where the Cold War played out.71 Padoongpatt views this interest as a route for sustaining domestic support for U.S. Empire, “by adapting [Asian/Pacific] food cultures and systems to the taste and appetites of U.S. consumers.”72 Ordinary Americans could try and love the foods without ever experiencing either the Cold War conflicts waged in Asia and the Pacific or the oppression associated with consuming these dishes. Commercializing [End Page 149] the foodstuffs and fetishizing the lifestyle they experienced overseas, these American housewives domesticate the “wild” and “savage” cultures of the “natives” in Asia and the Pacific and participate in what Kaplan describes as a fantasy of a borderless world reflecting an American image.73 The Cold War thus was an epistemological project seeking to reproduce dominant U.S. narratives about the “harmonious” ideological pairing of democracy and the good people of Asia in need of and worthy of American rescue.

Unlike the purported harmony of Cold War–era recipes like “Kim Chee Dip,” however, the blending of Korean and American ingredients in budae jjigae is rhetorically hoped to be myth rather than actual food, deemed offensive and terrifying, or believed to be a perversion of Korean cuisine under Western eyes.74 Carefully considering deeper meanings of the disgust in these narratives, we see that military base stew does not satisfy the “colonial thirst” for authenticity and is precisely counter to the imagined life of luxury and royalty deeply embedded in foodie discourses of Asian fusion cuisine in the United States. Instead, budae jjigae resists such cultural appropriation by manifesting what Kim calls the Cold War’s protracted afterlife.75 Constructed out of the war’s ruins—base trash––military base stew communicates a specific Asian American experience that has taken place before the South Korean immigrant enters the United States. Budae jjigae represents “baggage” they refuse to forget, testifying to the specific forms of American Empire covered over in “immigrant narratives” of blank slates and fresh starts by remembering imperialism in the textures of the everyday and refusing to be a “cooperative native informant” on authentic Koreanness, drawing attention to how American Empire is an integral part of what it means to be Korean/American today.

In Dubious Gastronomy, Robert Ku suggests that following Spam across the globe in recipes like budae jjigae is an apt way to map the history of American Empire since World War II, particularly in Asia and the Pacific.76 While budae jjigae is a transnational and diasporic dish situated in South Korea, Spam and its other American ingredients mean the dish straddles and blurs the conceptual boundaries of what is and who are Asian/American. Given the U.S. military’s profound presence in South Korea and the economic and political entanglements this entails, the ubiquity of American pop culture and commodities there, and the transnational pathways of travel and immigration between the two nations, Korean/Americans bring budae jjigae’s American ingredients home transformed, foreign and yet very familiar—bringing American foodies face-to-face with the realities of U.S.-Korea relations. As such, perhaps the bowl of military base stew can remind us that the Korean War resulted in the deaths of more than one million Koreans and the ongoing separation of families on both sides of [End Page 150] the demilitarized zone; or, perhaps the military base stew can remind us that the United States has more than ninety-five military installations and nearly twenty-eight thousand personnel stationed in South Korea, where approximately twenty-seven thousand women sell their sexual labor in the surrounding camptowns;77 or, perhaps the bowl of military base stew can remind us of the broken promises of “honorary whiteness” offered to more than one hundred thousand Korean military brides and to another one hundred thousand Korean and mixed-race transnational adoptees who have come to the United States since the war. Set against powerful U.S. narratives of a “good war” and ongoing threat of communism and the war on terror, these reminders have little chance of being accepted as truth, but because budae jjigae blurs the boundaries that have separated “us” from “them,” perhaps the bowl of military base stew can prompt us to remember both who and what is “forgotten” by the usual scripts of the Korean War. In reproducing military base stew, not only can Korean/Americans mourn for their lost loved ones and the ongoing bifurcation of their nation, but they can also present their grievances about the dissonance between the histories they live through, the realities of life in U.S.-occupied South Korea, and the discourse of the American Dream that might provide their escape. In this way, the prevalence of budae jjigae in South Korea and Korean America today not only recalls the spontaneous, improvised sustenance of the postwar period but also continues to remember how war and U.S. militarism are the very condition of living as and being Korean and American today.

Nicolyn Woodcock

Nicolyn Woodcock is a doctoral candidate in the English literature program at Miami University, Ohio. She studies Asian American literature and transpacific American empire. She is especially interested in the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, and foodways in narratives emerging from the particular Asian American spaces and legacies of U.S. militarization in Asia from World War II to the present.


I would like to thank LuMing Mao and Anita Mannur for their insightful feedback, incredible patience, and unwavering support for this project from its beginning. In addition, I am grateful to Nona Landis, the anonymous reviewers, and editors at JAAS for their thoughtful comments, challenging questions, and valuable suggestions on previous versions of this article as well as to participants of the 2016 CLIFF Conference “Appetites: Discourses of Consumption.” Finally, I thank friends and colleagues for eating and thinking with me over budae jjigae at southwest Ohio’s Korean restaurants.


1. While I note that many sources of war narratives leave out histories of food, my claim is not absolute. Many histories, museums, and other sources have given attention to food. Yet, I believe that food is often overlooked [End Page 151] in histories of war, and even when food is attended to, it is difficult to fully encapsulate meanings that go beyond what people ate during war.

2. Josée Johnston and Shyon Baumann, Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape (New York: Routledge, 2010), 38.

3. We can see this “official script” of U.S.-Korea relations at work in U.S. President Barack Obama’s July 2013 speech commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the Korean Armistice Agreement. He remarks that the Korean War did not end in a tie, as some critics have long believed, but that indisputably, “Korea was a victory” because today “50 million South Koreans live in freedom––a vibrant democracy, one of the world’s most dynamic economies, in stark contrast to the repression and poverty of the North”; because U.S. soldiers “stand firm along the DMZ … our South Korean friends can go about their lives, knowing that the commitment of the United States to the security of the Republic of Korea will never waver”; and because “our allies across the Asia Pacific know––as we have proven in Korea for 60 straight years––that the United States will remain a force for peace and security and prosperity” in the region and world-wide. In his speech, Obama proposes about the war that “among many Americans, tired of war, there was, it seemed, a desire to forget, to move on” and he emphasizes that veterans of this war and “36,574 American patriots” who died, deserve better. His speech notes that “more than one million of our South Korean friends—soldiers and civilians” also died, but does not emphasize how Korean war survivors and the generations that have come after not only also deserve better but, moreover, that they have not forgotten either the war or the fact that it continues. See Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President at 60th Anniversary of the Korean War Armistice” (Washington, D.C., July 27, 2013), “Odd” and “souvenir” are descriptions Jonathan Gold uses to describe budae jjigae. See Jonathan Gold, “Chunju Han-il Kwan Draws Hungry Late Night Crawlers with Its Budae Jjigae,” LA Weekly, Food & Drink, June 4, 2008,

4. Throughout this article, I use the slash in “Korean/American” to designate flexible ethnic and national identity choices for groups central to my discussion of food and war, who may identify themselves as Korean or as Korean American. I also use the slash to recognize how the distinctions between Korean and Korean American are often collapsed and conflated, always casting those with Asian ethnicities as not American. When I use a particular label such as “Korean” or “Korean American,” I aim to do so as accurately as possible. See David Palumbo-Liu, Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999), 1, and Celine Parreñas Shimizu, The Hypersexuality of Race: Performing Asian/American Women on Screen and Scene (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007), 14. [End Page 152]

5. Tessa Morris-Suzuki, “Remembering the Unfinished Conflict: Museums and the Contested Memory of the Korean War,” Asia Pacific Journal 29, no. 4 (2009): 19.

6. Ibid., 20.

7. Robert Ji-Song Ku, Martin F. Manalansan IV, and Anita Mannur, “An Alimentary Introduction,” in Eating Asian America: A Food Studies Reader, ed. Robert Ji-Song Ku, Martin F. Manalansan IV, and Anita Mannur (New York: New York University Press, 2013), 1.

8. Jennifer Ho, “Acting Asian American, Eating Asian American: The Politics of Race and Food in Don Lee’s Wrack and Ruin,” in Ku, Manalansan, and Mannur, Eating Asian America, 304.

9. Ibid., 306. “Hybrid” foods Ho cites include fortune cookies and California rolls.

10. Anita Mannur, Culinary Fictions: Food in South Asian Diasporic Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010), 7–8.

11. Ho, “Acting Asian American,” 306.

12. Gold, “Chunju Han-il Kwan.”

13. Anthony Bourdain, “Korea,” Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown (CNN/iTunes, April 26, 2015), video stream.

14. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984), 2.

15. Isabelle de Solier, Food and the Self: Consumption, Production, and Material Culture (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 7.

16. Johnston and Baumann, Foodies, 39–40.

17. Morris-Suzuki, “Remembering the Unfinished Conflict,” 1.

18. Jodi Kim, Ends of Empire: Asian American Cultural Critique and the Cold War (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 6.

19. Grace M. Cho, Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 84.

20. Ibid., 84 and 86.

21. Ibid., 84.

22. Mark Padoongpatt, “Oriental Cookery: Devouring Asian and Pacific Cuisine during the Cold War,” in Ku, Manalansan, and Mannur, Eating Asian America, 191.

23. Gold, “Chunju Han-il Kwan.”

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid.

30. Johnston and Baumann, Foodies, 101.

31. Stephen Cho Suh, “Introducing K-town: Consumption, Authenticity, and Citizenship in Koreatown’s Popular Reimagining,” Journal of Asian American Studies 19, no. 3 (2016): 398. [End Page 153]

32. Gold, “Chunju Han-il Kwan.”

33. “Anthony Bourdain Cooks Korean Food for Anderson Cooper,” (CNN, Youtube, April 24, 2015),

34. Ibid.

35. Bourdain, “Korea,” emphasis added. This is taken from the summary of the Parts Unknown “Korea” episode available on the iTunes download page.

36. Sangyoub Park, “Eating Alone? Friends Are One Click Away,” Food Anthropology, Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition, September 30, 2014,; and Jeyup S. Kwaak, “In South Korea, Eating Shows—or ‘Mokbang’—Are Hits on the Web,” Wall Street Journal, March 9, 2014,

37. In their work on class and gender representations on Bravo’s Real Housewives series, Michael Lee and Leigh Moscowitz discuss ironic scenes, which are dubbed “winks” by the show’s producers. These “ironic wink” scenes violate “an audience assumption that is deeply engrained or recently primed” and their dramatic potential stems from “the hidden and the unsaid,” and the scenes invite the audience to participate “in the completion of a communicative act.” Most often, Real Housewives audiences are invited to judge the women on the show as shallow and as bad mothers. In the case of Parts Unknown’s “Korea” episode, audiences are invited to judge the food and the Korean people with whom Bourdain eats, evaluating whether what they eat is desirable or disgusting, authentic or inauthentic. See Michael J. Lee and Leigh Moscowitz, “The ‘Rich Bitch’: Class and Gender on the Real Housewives of New York City,” Feminist Media Studies 12, no. 1 (2013): 67–68.

38. Bourdain, “Korea.”

39. “U.S. Air Force B-29 Superfortresses on a Bombing Mission over Konan, North Korea,” 1951 (Granger Historical Picture Archive, New York),

40. Bourdain, “Korea.”

41. Ibid.

42. Ibid.; Sharon Heijin Lee, “Between Beauty Empires: Global Feminism, Plastic Surgery, and the Trouble with Self-Esteem,” Frontiers 37, no. 1 (2016): 2.

43. Anthony Bourdain, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown (CNN, 2013–17),

44. Mannur, Culinary Fictions, 172.

45. Johnston and Baumann, Foodies, 119.

46. Ibid.

47. Lee, “Between Beauty Empires,” 4.

48. Obama, “Remarks by the President”; and Lee, “Between Beauty Empires,” 11. [End Page 154]

49. Lee, “Between Beauty Empires,” 4; and John Lie, “What Is the K in K-pop? South Korean Popular Music, the Culture Industry, and National Identity,” Korea Observer 43, no. 3 (2012): 359.

50. Johnston and Baumann, Foodies, 123.

51. Bourdain, “Korea.”

52. Lisa M. Heldke, Exotic Appetites: Ruminations of a Food Adventurer (New York: Routledge, 2003), 166.

53. Grace M. Cho, “Eating Military Base Stew,” Contexts 13, no. 1 (2014): 38.

54. Ibid., 39.

55. Ibid., 39–40.

56. Ibid., 40. Although budae jjigae was born of necessity as postwar Koreans scavenged for American goods in the trash, as income levels rose the dish remained desirable because American food products were not legally available for sale to Koreans. A black market developed with the help of Korean women (prostitutes, G.I.s’ girlfriends, and military brides) who had access to the U.S. bases’ post-exchange (PX) stores. According to Cho, in the 1960s, under the Pak Chung-Hee dictatorship, “Spam smuggling became punishable by death,” giving “an element of intrigue to the dish whose main ingredients one could only acquire illegally.” As of the late 1980s there was no longer a need for black market trading of American goods, but as Robert Ku explains in Dubious Gastronomy, Spam remains a luxury product because it is American and thus budae jjigae continues to be a status symbol for middle-class consumers in Korea. See Ku, Dubious Gastronomy: The Cultural Politics of Eating Asian in the USA (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2014), 194.

57. E. W. McCoy, “Shellfish Economics: Course Outline for NACA Training Group” (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Corporate Document Repository, n.d.),

58. The Chinese Exclusion–era pamphlet “Meat vs. Rice” is a notable example of how particular commodities and their economic value come to have racial connotations that are then used beyond the scope of what people eat. See Samuel Gompers and Herman Gutstadt, “Meat vs. Rice: American Manhood vs. Asiatic Cooliesm” (1902; San Francisco: Asian Exclusion League, 1908).

59. Martin Manalansan, “Beyond Authenticity: Rerouting the Filipino Culinary Diaspora,” in Ku, Manalansan, and Mannur, Eating Asian America, 292.

60. Ibid., 294.

61. Ibid., 297.

62. Cho, “Eating Military Base Stew,” 42.

63. Ibid., 41.

64. Ibid., 43.

65. Ibid., 43.

66. Cho, Haunting the Korean Diaspora, 59. [End Page 155]

67. Ibid., 30

68. Anne Cheng, The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 11, emphasis original.

69. Ibid.

70. Amy Kaplan, The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002), 92.

71. Padoongpatt, “Oriental Cookery,” 188.

72. Ibid., 187.

73. Kaplan, Anarchy of Empire, 16 and 25.

74. Padoongpatt, “Oriental Cookery,” 201; Gold, “Chunju Han-il Kwan”; “Anthony Bourdain Cooks Korean Food for Anderson Cooper”; Cho, “Eating Military Base Stew,” 39.

75. Kim, Ends of Empire, 4.

76. Ku, Dubious Gastronomy, 221–22.

77. Ryan Browne, “Top General: Cheaper to Keep U.S. Troops in South Korea Than U.S.,” CNN, April 21, 2016,; Cho, Haunting the Korean Diaspora, 34. [End Page 156]

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