This evening was not supposed to go this way. I had a reservation for another restaurant ready, but the companion was having none of it, chanting Yoogane at me until I gave up. So here we were in Bugis, in the queue poring over dishes spanning all the shades of gochujang crimson, sandwiched between excited groups of the beauteous youthful.
People say eating chilli makes your skin better but I think causation runs the other way – it is the taut-skinned and finely chiseled, who would simply glow if they sweat, that don’t mind hunching over jjigae or hotpot. That, or the very hungry, which I was.
Yoogane, if you don’t know the drill, is a doubly counterintuitive restaurant. Everything arrives at your table uncooked, but you are not supposed to do it yourself. So we spend our first minutes staring at a properly arranged budae jjigae, waiting for someone to start stirring it up, or to serve us the haemul pajeon.
The seafood pancake’s batter has crisped round the edges, while remaining supple and a little chewy in the centre. Reinforced with whole lengths of scallions and studded with bouncy little shrimp and squid bits, it is a joy for the hungry, though a little too heavy for the half-full.
And as for the stew, it is far removed in every way from what I intended for dinner – European vs. Asian, intricately cooked vs. thrown together on the table, Imperial and Royal luxury vs. post-war peasant deprivation. Made with ingredients scrounged from American army bases – Spam, hot dogs, baked beans, instant noodles – budae jjigae was basically conceived as a welcome alternative to starvation.
Thankfully, we are far removed from those dark days, and the army stew has got everything it was born with and much more. But the key aspects of Korean cuisine – the hard whammy of spice, with sweetness and umami below – still dominates in the broth, its flavour seeping into all the ingredients. Ramen soaks it up enthusiastically. Chicken retains the five-spice-like bouquet of its marinade, Spam is still a little salty and chemical, leeks sulphuric, hot dogs springy.
But they have always been that way, of course. It’s the broth which animates them and brings them together into some sort of a whole, capable of embracing and absorbing ingredients from half the world away. Where the broth is, things work. Where it isn’t – such as the ring of cheese and egg that congeals into an overly clumpy and bland mess – they don’t.
This embrace was born of dire necessity, but in our age of division maybe budae jjigae can show the way forward. So here’s to the inter-cultural embrace, the willingness to absorb and mix and create some whole from the most disparate elements. I’ll raise a glass of Yakult soju to that.
200 Victoria Street
Bugis Junction, #02-47/48
Contact no.: 6337 7337
Hours: Daily, 11.30am – 10pm