UIJEONGBU, Korea (Yonhap) -- In the city of Uijeongbu, about 20 kilometers northeast of Seoul, there is a small road named after a stew, with a sign above it that reads in capital letters, "Uijeongbu Budaejjigae Street."
According to the owners of many of the restaurants that line this street, Uijeongbu -- and by some accounts, this very street -- is where "budae jjigae," one of South Korea's most popular dishes, was invented.
"Budae jjigae started with leftovers from the U.S. Army in Uijeongbu, and Uijeongbu doesn't have any other food that it's famous for," said Lee Ok-hyang, who recently opened a restaurant called Ohmilak Budae Jjigae near this very street. "People associate budae jjigae with Uijeongbu."
Budae jjigae, or "army base stew," is a thick soup that combines Western meats -- like hot dogs, sausages, ham and Spam -- with traditional Korean ingredients -- like kimchi, red chili paste and various vegetables. Some restaurants add other ingredients -- instant ramen noodles, sliced American cheese, baked beans or tofu -- to increase the portion or enhance the flavor.
When asked to explain the secret to making good budae jjigae, many of the restaurant owners said it is the kimchi.
"First, budae jjigae is based on kimchi, so the kimchi should get fermented enough," Lee said. "It should be fermented for at least one or two years."
While there are many publications and web sites with various stories about when and how budae jjigae was invented, the restaurant owners say it was first created shortly after the Korean War (1950-53) when food, especially meat, was scarce. They said Koreans who worked in cafeterias at U.S. Army bases in Uijeongbu at that time would smuggle out leftover meat, which they would then combine with the Korean ingredients to make the stew.
"Some Koreans worked at the army base, and they brought out the leftovers," said Heo Gi-suk, the founder of Odeng Sikdang, a budae jjigae restaurant that opened more than 50 years ago on what is now Budae Jjigae Street. "We took the food from the army base by putting it in aluminum foil and hiding it under our clothes around our bellies. The soldiers couldn't eat all the food, so we took the leftovers... I was often arrested because it was illegal to get the food from the army."
Heo said Odeng Sikdang was Korea's first budae jjigae restaurant -- a claim that other restaurant owners along Budae Jjigae Street say is true. She started Odeng Sikdang in the early 1960s by selling odeng, a type of fish cake, from a food stand along the street.
One day, she was approached by a Korean soldier who worked with the U.S. Army, and he asked her to cook at an American army base. While working at the base, she took out leftover meat, which she would stir-fry and sell at her food stand.
"At first, I just stir-fried the meat from the army base," she said. "There was a government office near here. The people from the office said, 'How can Korean people eat rice with fried meat and no soup?' They told me to think about the recipe more. They suggested that I make stew, not fried meat. That's how it changed."
Inspired by the suggestion, Heo used the meat to create budae jjigae.
"I'm the inventor of budae jjigae in this country," she said. "Before I made it, there was nobody who cooked that way, only me."
Heo's budae jjigae became so popular that she was able to move her business from the food stand to a small building, where she still serves the popular dish. Odeng Sikdang continues to draw large crowds, with customers often waiting in lines outside for a chance to eat there on weekends.
"This place is small, but people keep coming in and out," Heo said.
As years passed, more budae jjigae restaurants opened along the same road as Odeng Sikdang; there are now about two dozen in the area.
Hanging on a wall inside Heo's restaurant is a picture of a ceremony that took place on Jan. 9, 1999, when the city officially named the road "Uijeongbu Jjigae Street," with the city's mayor. The city changed the street's name to Uijeongbu Budae Jjigae Street a few years ago.
Budae jjigae restaurants can currently be found throughout South Korea and in some other countries. While the popularity of the dish continues to grow, restaurant owners along Uijeongbu Budae Jjigae Street remain proud of the role their city played in creating the now-famous stew.
"Outside of Uijeongbu, the way budae jjigae is made is different," said Lee, the founder of Ohmilak Budae Jjigae. For instance, other areas use different recipes, with different vegetables, according to Lee.
"But on this street, we don't use the vegetables that other areas use. We don't make any rules or promises with each other to make budae jjigae a certain way, but when people think about Uijeongbu budae jjigae, they think about a certain taste. That's why all the restaurants in this area cook budae jjigae in a similar way -- to give people the taste that they expect from here."