Plenty of the foods people around the world eat today were, over the centuries, born out of neccesity. It may just have been a case of eating what they had at one time and the taste sticking, like war-torn Cambodians deep-frying spiders, or something more complex, like the inability to feed cattle through winter requiring the invention of curing for year long meat. This dish's origins fall firmly in the first camp although it tastes as good as the products of the second, drawing heavily on them for its flavour too.
The story goes that following the Korean War times were very hard for many Koreans and so they turned to handouts from the US bases to help. The Americans gave them their pre-packaged foods - like Spam, hot dogs and processed-cheese - and the Korean mixed these with local vegetables, spices and staples and Budae Jjigae/Johnson Tang was born. The names also give clues to the dishes origins, budae jjigae meaning '(Army) Base Stew' and Johnson Tang taking the US president's name and appending the Korean for soup to it.
The taste for it lasted well beyond the need for handouts though as it is still popular today, which is understandable once you taste a mouthful. It's a spicy noodle soup, sure, but look beyond the heat of the gochujang and the fermented overtones of the kimchi there are added depths - lingering smokiness from hot dogs and the salty-sweetness of Spam. Out of all the ingredients the processed-cheese slice seemed the most random and I'd love to say how it added something, how it brought everything together, but in truth it was totally lost on my palate, although I'd blame it for the cloudiness in the broth.
Obviously with such origins there is no fixed recipe. When it comes down to it this is a load of eastern vegetables and noodles with some western Spam and hotdogs, so don't feel too tied down to my version. I'd try and keep the gochujang and kimchi, the processed meats and the ramen - as these are the guts of it - but once that base is down go for whatever veg is in the fridge if you want. Whilst this may look like noodle soup it is served over rice, so with double carbs it is not one for the Atkin's diet.
Johnson Tang (Budae Jjigae)
250gr firm tofu
1 small can Spam
1 slice of processed cheese
750ml dashi (or chicken) stock
1 pack of ramen noodles, bin the seasonings
1 pak choi
2 spring onions, finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
4 dried shittaki mushrooms, soaked for an hour in cold water
1 medium courgette
100gr (a large handful maybe) of beansprouts
2 TB gochujang
1 TB light soy sauce
This is simple stuff, well simple once you've got together that mass of ingredients.
Cut the courgette into batons, take the stems off the mushrooms and cut into 1cm slices, roughly chop the kimchi, slice the Spam and tofu into similar sized pieces and cut the franks into 1cm slices.
Chuck everything except the ramen and the spring onions into a big saucepan, add the gochujang and the soy and pour in the stock, giving it all a good mix together.
Bring to the boil then boil for 5 minutes. Add the ramen and give another 3 minutes. Chuck the spring onions in, mix through then serve your Johnson Tang/Budae Jjiage over rice.