Kimchi Jjigae, The Volcanic Korean Stew That Can Kill Colds

Kimchi jjigae at Holmes Korea in Chadstone, Australia. (Alpha/Flickr Creative Commons)

When the winter sun sets before 5 p.m. and you're nursing a nasty case of the sniffles, there's a piping-hot Korean stew that provides the perfect antidote to illness and hunger. Huge, hearty and volcanic red, kimchi jjigae can blaze the mucus out of your body better than a Neti pot.

The Korean dish is believed by some to have originated in the mid-Joseon era, during or shortly after the Imjin Wars of 1592 to 1598, when Japan invaded Korea and brought Portuguese traders' chili peppers with them. Others argue that the chili has been farmed in Korea for 1,500 years, after it was brought to the region millions of years ago by birds. Still others believe the chili came from China, thanks to Indian and Arab traders peddling the seeds along the Silk Road.

Whatever kimchi jjigae's origins, it lets thrifty Korean cooks use super-ripe kimchi that's not ideal to eat on its own. With the kimchi's intensity mellowed by pork, tofu, gochugaru (chile pepper flakes), garlic, ginger, scallions and broth, the spicy stew has become a year-round favorite. During long, harsh winters, like the kind we have here in Los Angeles, jjigae with pork has a reputation as an almost magical antidote to winter colds.

Whenever I was sick as a child, my mom made two things: yuzu tea, prepared with a jelly-like substance from a jar, and the spiciest kimchi jjigae my tongue could tolerate. I still seek out kimchi jjigae every time my throat gets scratchy, and I always ask the restaurant to make it extra spicy.

Sure, the best jjigae is made at home but we don't all have a Korean mom willing to do that at the drop of a hat. The thing about eating kimchi jjigae at restaurants is that every single version is made differently — some with pork shoulder, some with pork belly and some with a slab of bacon. It's a casual dish in a class of casual dishes, jjigaes, known as a springboard for improvisation.

My favorite homemade version includes canned tuna. It sounds gross but it totally hits the spot. There really isn't a wrong way to make jjigae — unless you use beef broth. (I once tried such an abomination in Koreatown Plaza, and I ran screaming in the other direction.)

If you're sick, kimchi jjigae is the perfect way to burn out those germs and, as a bonus, all of the spots on our list are available for carry-out, since you don't want to spread your plague.

Kimchi jjigae at Seongbukdong in L.A.'s Koreatown. (Dakota Kim for LAist)

Seongbukdong
When it comes to kimchi jjigae, the tenderness of the kimchi matters. Jjigae requires extremely ripe kimchi, which is more sour, more pungent and has a softer texture than fresh kimchi. You can tell when cooks rush a jjigae because they don't let it cook long enough for its base ingredients to transform into magic and the kimchi is tough to chew. Seongbukdong's kimchi melts in your mouth. With soft tofu and succulent enoki mushrooms, this is the lager of kimchi jjigaes: mellow, reliable and easy to sip. The decor is more thoughtful than usual for a Ktown spot that stays open until midnight. Warm wood paneling, orchids bearing well wishes from other Korean businesses and none of the de rigeur fluorescent lighting. The only negatives? A couple paltry pieces of pork belly are the only meat in the jjigae and the restaurant doesn't serve beer. It's easy and fast to order takeout from Seongbukdong although the small space can get packed after 8 p.m.
3303 W. 6th St., Koreatown. 213-738-8977.
$10.99

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House of the Chigae
Want to super-size your soup? House of the Chigae has you covered and the most magnificent stew in their menagerie is kimchi chigae. The fire-engine-red stew, served in a silver kettle, is packed with so much funky kimchi, fatty pork belly and slurpable ramen that you'll wonder how there's room for broth. The regular kimchi chigae, with enoki mushrooms, scallions and slabs of tofu, should satisfy the carb-avoidant. Those who prefer their stews less spicy can still get down with the milder fermented soybean stew, jang doenjang. If you're lucky, House of the Chigae will be offering its free soju deal to neutralize that throat-tingling spice.
3077 W. 8th St., Koreatown. 213-533-9499.
$28.99 for medium, $36.99 for large

Kimchi jjigae at Soban in L.A.'s Koreatown. (Dakota Kim for LAist)

Soban
The small restaurant at Norton and Olympic cranks out specialties like ganjang gejang (soy sauce-marinated raw crab) and galbi jjim (braised short ribs) but the undisputed scene stealer is its kimchi jjigae. Order one or two bowls for the table and savor one of L.A.'s most thoughtful, deeply-stewed kimchi jjigaes, brimming with chewy rice cakes and large hunks of pork belly. The baseline spice level is mild but, unlike other spots, they'll gladly crank up the heat. In a conscious effort to please pickier diners, their banchan goes far beyond kimchi and potato salad to include acorn jelly, odeng (fish cakes) and kkaennip (perilla leaves). This is a great spot for takeout but the decor is so cute, with its curio displays of toy cars and glowing orb lamps, that you may want to stick around. No wonder Soban made Jonathan Gold's 101 Best Restaurants in 2017.
4001 W. Olympic Blvd., Koreatown. 323-936-9106.
$15

Kimchi jjiang, a stew made with extra ripe kimchi, at Yangji Gamjatang, a restaurant in L.A.'s Koreatown. (Elina Shatkin/LAist)

Yangji Gamjatang
If you end up at this bare-bones spot known for its pork neck bone soup, it should be late at night, when you're bleary-eyed from too much karaoke and too many shots of soju. Yangji Gamjatang has the cure for that impending hangover with flat, chewy ovals of dduk (rice cakes), ripe kimchi and pieces of pork swimming in one of the fieriest broths in Ktown. The chef, who goes hard on the chile pepper powder, also spares no scallions. The whole thing is accompanied by a panoply of spicy banchan plates. Be sure to request the kind of kimchi you prefer, whether it's cabbage, cucumber or daikon radish. Yangji Gamjatang does a brisk takeout business, and you'll find it on all the major delivery apps.
3470 W 6th St., Ste. 6, Koreatown. 213-388-1105.
$8

Ham Ji Park
When it comes to kimchi jjigae, trust someone who understands pork. In Ktown, that means Ham Ji Park. The 6th St. spot is known for its pork spare ribs, which come on a sizzling platter, like fajitas. The kimchi in the jjigae is more crisp than the soft, ultra-fermented slices you'll find elsewhere and the cuts may seem haphazard (Korean cooks often use scissors to cut the cabbage), but the pork belly is a pure, fatty slice of heaven. You're not here for knife skills, anyway. You're here for a kimchi broth with maximum pork intensity. This is a great spot for groups, so when you've convalesced from your cold, gather your crew and order bottles of Cass and Hite beers, maple soju and Chamisul, Korea's most popular soju. If you've got any room, an order of the pork neck stew is a superb dish for your table to share.
3407 W. 6th St., Ste. 101C, Koreatown. 213-365-8773.
4135 W. Pico Blvd., Koreatown. 323-733-8333.
$9.99 lunch/$15.99 dinner

Kimchi jjigae at Chunju Han-il Kwan in L.A.'s Koreatown. (Dakota Kim for LAist)

Chunju Han-il Kwan
At this rustic tavern known for its budae jjigae, a crazy "army stew" made with ramen noodles and SPAM, kimchi jjigae is no consolation prize. Head to Chunju Han-il Kwan for lunch, when it's easier to slide up to a lacquered wood table solo or with a buddy. You'll want to dine in because you'll need second and third helpings of the banchan: pungent kongnamul (soybean sprouts), sauteed eggplant and japchae expertly balanced between soy and sesame. Nine sides of banchan is almost unheard of at such a casual spot, so when you want more, ask the kind ladies who bus the tables. Then comes the kimchi jjigae, in a huge earthenware bowl heaped with thick pieces of firm tofu, generous slices of pork and ripe kimchi. Thanks to the color, you can detect the spice level before you taste it. This jjigae is a touch on the sweet side and just spicy enough to clear your nose without giving you indigestion — like your Korean grandma made. For the uninitiated, it's the perfect introduction into the kimchi cult.
3450 W. 6th St., Ste. 106. Koreatown, 213-480-1799.
$10

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Genwa
Koreans often call it "Korean for non-Koreans" but Genwa's game is on point, particularly when it comes to the assortment of banchan and the rarely 'grammed kimchi jjigae. Beverly Hills needs kimchi too and you can find it here, in big earthenware pots, brimming with mushrooms and topped with jalapeno slices. Genwa's stew won't melt any mouths with its spice but it's clear the cooks have lavished attention on this stew. Get it with a bottle of makgeolli, a milky, unfiltered rice wine that's an ideal accompaniment to kimchi jjigae. The cavernous Beverly Hills venue, or its sister restaurant a few miles east, in Hancock Park, are great date night spots.
170 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills. 310-854-0046.
5115 Wilshire Blvd., Hancock Park. 323-549-0760.
$15.99 dinner; $9.99 lunch


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