I was surprised to hear that soondubu jjigae (순두부찌개), directly translated into English as soft tofu stew, was not actually a traditional Korean dish. The popular soup dish originated in California before it spread across the globe. I got clarification from a Korean American chef named Roy Choi who was a creator of a popular Korean fusion food truck call Kogi BBQ, who clarified that soondubu had developed in Los Angeles. He mentioned how he felt that it was a dish that tied Korean and American culture quite well.
As it turns out, soondubu jjigae is a relatively new dish, created in the 1990s by successful entrepreneur Hee Sook Lee when she was a new Korean immigrant in LA who decided to take a chance in opening a restaurant. To differentiate her restaurants from the many other Korean eateries in LA’s Koreatown, she specialized in an affordable tofu dish that had birthed into the very soondubu jjigae now served all over the world.
Kimchi stew and soybean paste stew were already more authentic Korean dishes, so when Lee simply added some tofu to the mix, it reminded me of one of those word unscrambling puzzles (ex. ATRITB → RABBIT) in which the answer seems obvious once it’s been revealed. Since soft tofu is relatively cheap, it makes (or keeps) the meal affordable, and seemed obvious that the dish would be popular and flexibly delicious after it was already created.
There are more than several types of soondubu, and it’s surely grown with more imitation restaurants through the last couple decades, but they all maintain the relative umbrella taste that I’ve noticed resides strongly in Korean culture – strong scents and appearances, but delicate tastes stimulate traditional Korean flavors. You can tell by the red/orange color and the hot pepper scent wafting from the soup that this it’s superlatively spicy, but once you taste it, it’s not as strong as you expected.
What I feel differentiates soondubu from the other stews is that the tofu soaks up the hot pepper taste to make the soup less overwhelmingly spicy, but simultaneously holds all the heat in the tofu itself so that none of the adventurous hot taste disappears.
Amidst the tofu, you can choose whether you want the wildly popular beef, or substitute it with pork, chicken or seafood; or rather omit the meat altogether in the soups with vegetarian alternatives. Soondubu remains relatively simple in that the foundational soft tofu and delicate hot peppered broth is still prevalent no matter what you add to it.
Having been to South Korea on vacation last summer, I can vouch first hand that soondubu is a popular dish, despite how it wasn’t born in Korea itself. It’s not the most luxurious meal, but it’s a good option for a simple and cheap lunch that matches the Korean palate soundly, with its spicy and clean flavors, whether you’re eating with a friend or alone.
Soondubu isn’t the first dish I would choose at a Korean restaurant, but it grew on me after exposure to several different varieties of it.