Fire in the Hole!

Good Bite

BY ANDREW FABIAN SRQ DAILY FRESHLY SQUEEZED CONTENT EVERY MORNING TUESDAY JUN 16, 2020

“Do you like spicy food?” asks Charlie Chi, who owns and operates Charlie’s Bulgogi on Bee Ridge. It’s a difficult question to answer. I can enjoy a little bit of heat in the context of an entire dish, maybe even appreciate the physicality of an occasional spicy experience—tingling lips, runny nose, eyes aglitter with tears. But I am by no means a capsaicin connoisseur, one of those spicy food athletes that can down hot wings until their face goes numb. Chi can sense these deliberations churning in my head as I attempt to answer the question in a way that implies a willingness to try something new but expresses a healthy regard for the well-being of my mouth. “Korean food is kinda like Thai or Mexican food,” he says, “it’s hot but there’s still a lot of flavor.” “I like a little bit of heat,” says I, a diplomatic response that does not really answer his original question. “Then I think you’ll like this,” says Chi.

“This” refers to budae-jjigae, a spicy stew whose name translates into “army stew.” The dish, or, rather, the title “Korean Army Stew,” caught my eye when browsing the extensive menu of the small Korean restaurant. The next two words intrigued further— “kimchi” and “Spam.” A Google search was in order to try and make sense of how kimchi and Spam could conceivably have ended up together in a dish. As it turns out, the dish materialized in response to food shortages in South Korea following the Korean War. When the U.S. abandoned its army bases following the armistice, they left behind all manner of canned goods and processed meat products like hot dogs, sausages and Spam. These ingredients combined with the native cuisine to yield a hearty stew of mystery meats, kimchi and spicy, gochujang-flavored broth. Variations of the stew continue to be enjoyed widely in South Korea. “It’s my favorite,” says Chi, whose smile beams through his mask.

The meal is bagged and paid for and only when I get home and gaze at the container of broth do I start to worry about the aforementioned heat. The broth is fire-engine red, Tabasco red, red like a glass stove-top set to high. I shake the container and warily watch a turbid swirl of cabbage and red chili flakes and chunks of meat. A second container holds rice and four small accompaniments of corn salad, bean sprouts, pickled daikon and kimchi. Piling the ingredients into a bowl, I sit down with a tall glass of ice water and spoon the first bit into my mouth before my nerves get the better of me. Chi was right. The broth is spicy but not fiery, hot but not at the expense of flavor. Between the rice and protein chunks (sausage, spam, tofu), this eats much like a Brunswick stew but with more tang and less acidity. The small bit of dairy from the corn salad turns the broth a less menacing orange, while the cabbage adds a nice crunch to the more pliable textures.

The stew was delicious, but I still don’t know how to answer the question, “Do you like spicy food?”

Pictured: Charlie's Bulgogi, 4567 Bee Ridge Road, Sarasota, 941-554-4806; courtesy of Andrew Fabian

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