If you watched Always Be My Maybe on Netflix this past week, you were treated to a healthy dose of food porn. Like Crazy Rich Asians and The Trip movies before it, Always Be My Maybe is a comedy in name, but cooking is its secret weapon. In fact, food is so important in Always Be My Maybe that they even had a food consultant: Niki Nakayama, chef-owner of n/naka in Los Angeles.
In the film, Ali Wong’s character — a Vietnamese-American who learns to cook with her Korean neighbors — goes off to become a celebrity chef-restaurateur. But there’s one dish in particular that basically forms the emotional center of the film, the one that Wong’s character learns from Randall Park’s character’s mother at the beginning, and then cooks later in the film when she’s getting back to her roots, so to speak. Kimchi jjigae.
The kimchi jjigae in Always Be My Maybe is not quite as front and center as the timpano in Big Night (I actually had to rewind it the first time to catch the name), but it’s definitely something you watch and immediately want to eat. Disappointed that I knew nothing about this apparently classic Korean comfort food, I brought in a Korean food ringer, Irene Yoo, to ask if I could pick her brain about the dish. Irene runs Yooeating, a Korean-American comfort food pop-up that highlights Korean home-cooking, street food, and drinking culture. She was born in Detroit to Korean-immigrant parents, and, she says, “raised on home-cooked Korean meals in California and street vendors in Seoul.” She currently lives in Brooklyn.
Okay, so what is the dish and how is it made?
The dish is called kimchi jjigae (김치찌개), or kimchi stew. It’s a spicy stew made by boiling well-fermented kimchi with tofu, pork, and onion/green onion, usually in an anchovy stock or meat stock.
What’s the history/cultural significance of it?
I would say kimchi jjigae isn’t the timpano of Korean food – it’s not this super impressive meal that takes hours and would seriously wow a crowd. It’s more like your classic red sauce spaghetti if I’m continuing in the Big Night theme (God I love that movie). It’s probably the most classic Korean stew, and almost any Korean mom will make it on any given weeknight.