Great for a rainy day, an easy weeknight dinner, or as a classic Korean hangover cure, kimchi jjigae is a deeply red, rich, and spicy stew of pork belly, kimchi, and tofu.
Kimchi jjigae means kimchi stew in Korean. It’s a dish made in Korean homes and restaurants to use up surplus kimchi. While the stew can be made mild, it’s meant to be as spicy as it is vibrant red.
Thick slabs of firm tofu are gently bathed atop a stew infused with gochujang (Korean chili paste) and gochugaru (Korean chili flakes) then finished sliced scallions. Though not traditional, I like to garnish the stew with sesame oil and sesame seeds just before serving.
Some like to throw all the ingredients into a pot at once, cover it, and let it cook, but I prefer to build the flavors by adding the ingredients in steps. It takes a little more time, but I think it’s worth it.
Although I had eaten kimchi stew countless times, it wasn’t until I worked on my friend’s cookbook, Judy Joo’s Korean Food Made Simple, that I made it on my own. I’ve tweaked it over the years to a version my family likes best.
Well-Fermented Kimchi is Key
The best kimchi to use for making this stew is a napa cabbage kimchi—one that’s been sitting in the fridge for a while. It should be nice and sour, funky, and sometimes even fizzy. Both the green napa leaves and the red chili powder will have darkened.
Kimchi continues to ferment as it sits and over time its flavor develops to something considerably more complex. This fermented flavor is essential to kimchi jjigae.
Hopefully you have plenty of kimchi brine left in the jar to flavor the stew too. Homemade or store-bought kimchi are both perfectly fine to use.
Working with Pork Belly
A trick for slicing the pork belly, which can feel slippery and sticky at room temperature, is to stick it in the freezer for about 20 minutes before cutting. It won’t freeze, but it will firm it up, making it easier to handle.
If your pork belly is fatty take some extra time to render it, which means to cook some of the fat out of the meat before adding the rest of the ingredients. I recommend cooking it over medium heat for about 10 minutes. Don’t rush and cook the pork on a high heat or it may get tough.
The Best Tofu for Kimchi Jjigae
Firm tofu is what’s often used in kimchi jjigae because it won’t break apart easily, although I have used softer tofu.
I buy a Korean brand of organic tofu called Pulmuone, which I’ve only seen in Korean markets. However, I see other brands of firm tofu available these days at my local supermarket. Feel free to use any brand you like.
How to Serve Kimchi Jjigae
A bowl of hot rice is de rigueur for eating with kimchi stew. It’s also common to serve this stew with a variety of Korean side dishes called banchan. I especially like to pair kimchi jjigae with this easy Sigeumchi Namul (seasoned spinach), which is light and refreshing, a great contrast to the rich fatty meat and spicy broth.
This recipe makes enough for four main course servings, if served with just rice and banchan. It can serve six if served with another main dish in addition to the rice and banchan.
A Note on Cooking Rice
I grew up using a rice cooker but with my small family, it’s just as easy and a little quicker to cook it on the stovetop.
My method: Place the rice into a pot and cover it with cold water. Swish the rice around with your hand until the water becomes cloudy. Carefully pour the water out. Repeat this twice until the water is no longer as cloudy.
Cover the rice with water and place the pot over medium-low to low heat, cover the pot with a lid, and set the timer for 25 to 30 minutes. You’ll need to keep an eye on the rice as it may boil over.
Ingredient Swaps and Substitutions
Kimchi jjigae is a flexible dish. You can use certain ingredients that are already available in your pantry.
- If pork belly is not available, use a cut of pork that has some fat like pork shoulder or pork butt. Some people even use Spam or bacon.
- If your kimchi doesn’t have a strong, funky smell when you open the jar or there isn’t enough kimchi brine left in the jar, add some apple cider vinegar to make up for the lack of sourness.
- While firm tofu is the standard for kimchi jjigae, you can use tofu of varying degrees of firmness, from silken to extra firm.
- As an alternative to using water as the base, many Koreans make an anchovy stock by simmering dried anchovies and dried kelp in water. The result is something similar to dashi, a Japanese broth used to make miso soup.
- If your stew needs more salt, add soy sauce or fish sauce to taste instead of salt.
Fish or Vegetable Variations
Because I have a teenager with a bottomless pit, albeit only for the foods that he likes, I prefer to bulk up my stew with a lot more pork belly than the versions I’ve seen elsewhere.
My version is also brothier so that it can be stretched for a couple of quick and easily reheated meals. I have a Korean friend, who shakes her head dismissively at me because my stew is a tad sweeter than she feels is properly Korean. Here are some other Korean versions:
- A classic variation, which is both easier and cheaper, uses canned tuna fish instead of pork belly. Drain it well and add it to the stew at the end—cook it just long enough to warm it through.
- Make your kimchi jjigae vegetarian by using a mix of mushrooms and onions. Cook the vegetables first with a little canola oil. Then, add the seasonings and liquids. Check that the kimchi is vegetarian too as fish sauce, salted shrimp, and even oysters can be used in making kimchi.
How to Store Kimchi Jjigae
Kimchi Jjigae will hold well in the fridge for three to four days. You can also freeze it but do so without the tofu as its texture will change when frozen. You can add fresh tofu when reheating the stew in a pot on the stovetop over medium heat.
More Delicious Korean Recipes
- Korean Spicy Cold Noodles
- Dwaeji Galbi (Grilled Korean BBQ Pork Ribs)
- Kimchi Bokkeumbap (Kimchi Fried Rice)
- Mak Gimchi (Quick Kimchi)
- Sigeumchi Namul (Spinach Banchan)
Kimchi Jjigae (Korean Kimchi Stew)
Place the pork in the freezer for 20 minutes for easier cutting.
- For the rice
- 2 cups short or medium grain rice, washed and drained
- 2 cups water
- For the stew
- 1 pound pork belly, cut into 1 1/2 x 1/4-inch pieces
- 2 cups kimchi
- 1/3 cup gochujang
- 1 tablespoon gochugaru
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 4 1/2 cups water
- Soy sauce or fish sauce, to taste
- 1 (16-ounce) package firm tofu, drained and cut into 1 1/2 x 1/4-inch planks
- For the garnish
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil (optional)
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds (optional)
- 2 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced
Make the rice:
In a medium saucepan over medium-low to low heat, combine the rice and water. Cover the pot and cook for 25 to 30 minutes. Check the pot about 10 minutes in to make sure it’s not boiling over. If so, lower the heat and continue cooking.
Turn the heat off and keep the lid on until ready to serve.
Cook the pork:
In a medium Dutch oven set over medium heat, add the pork and cook, stirring occasionally, until it starts to render fat, about 10 minutes. It should lose most of its pink color but it should not brown. You can add a little oil in the pot to get it started but I don’t find it necessary.
Prepare the kimchi:
Using your hands, squeeze the liquid (the brine) out of the kimchi into a small bowl. You should have about 1/4 cup of kimchi brine. If not, scoop some out of the kimchi jar. Set the brine aside.
Chop the kimchi into bite-size pieces.
Add the seasonings:
Add the chopped kimchi, gochujang, gochugaru (add to taste if you prefer a less spicy stew), and sugar to the pork and mix well. Cook, stirring often, until the mixture looks glossy and saucy, about 3 minutes.
Add the liquids:
Add the reserved kimchi brine and the water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to maintain a simmer for about 20 minutes for the flavors to meld.
Taste the stew and if you’d like, add a drizzle of soy sauce or fish sauce to taste.
Add the tofu:
Arrange the tofu, slightly shingled, on top of the stew. They may sink completely into the stew but that’s fine. Let it heat through, about 3 minutes.
Garnish the stew and serve:
If using, drizzle with sesame oil and top with sesame seeds and scallions. Fluff the rice with a a spoon or a fork and serve alongside the stew.