[Just a Tad] Problematic

There isn’t actually any “charm” to cooking no matter how many times you practice making a dish; mistakes, no matter how minuscule, are bound to happen. Although I can’t say the same for everyone, this seems to be what happens the majority of the time to me no matter what I’m cooking. Whether a cake is too moist or dry, whether a vegetable dish isn’t cooked thoroughly, whether a rice dish doesn’t have enough flavor, there will be at least something to criticize.

Maybe I just know how to screw things up, since I can be lazy and in turn a bit careless, but problems arose one time or another as I cooked through soondubu jjigae for the first time. My first try in making the dish involved ill-preparation while the second had a… different kind of inadequacy. Because I had watched several YouTube videos and made rounds in the Korean supermarket to gather ingredients, I thought I was set to recreate the soondubu in one try.

Image

Foundations for broth

And yet, that same thought always backfires on me when I end up with a dish that lacks in one way or another. This time around, my main problems came with not thinking ahead on the day I decided to make the dish. I had invited some friends over as my victims– I mean tasters and I had planned on cooking everything when I got home after class that Friday. However, as I starting gathering all the materials together for the broth of the soup, I realized that I hadn’t taken out the beef and seafood from the fridge to thaw that morning.

Image

what a tragedy

Luckily for me, I had some meat to spare in the fridge; and switching from beef to pork wasn’t a big tweak to the original recipe I had chosen. I was so focused the entire time on the timing of cooking everything that almost every other detail flew over my head.

Image

Image

Image

Image

make way; for soondubu is coming through

Image

I’m trying to make the egg visible. Please tell me you see it

The rest of my mistakes for the first time edged around forgetting an ingredient here and there for the broth and sauté, adding too much broth to the soup, not properly cleaning the slightly sandy seafood, omitting the extra needed hot pepper flavor in fear of hurting my spice-sensitive friend, forgetting to cook the rice on time that was supposed to accompany the soup, and even portioning the servings correctly to my friends.

Image

Image

friends, and one of their moms. thanks for being my guinea pigs. also, sorry.

Despite all those small little falling outs, the dish was still edible. Like me, my friends and her mother had to acquire their taste for the intimidating red soup. They had plenty small little dissatisfactions, which I readily accepted and actually encouraged as if I was fishing for criticisms, but they kept reassuring me that it tasted good overall. Nice try, guys.

Second trial. I decided to wait until Mother’s Day morning to have another set of individuals eat my soondubu jjigae. This time, I had the thawed the beef and cleaned the seafood, but I forgot other things like putting the mushrooms into the broth, and later discovered that the beef might have tasted better had I marinated it first. And because I was focused on getting the spicy flavor I didn’t get enough of the first try, the amount I added this time seemed to overpower the rest of the dish.

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

HA! You can see the egg this time!

My family knows nothing about authentic Korean food, so they had no idea what advice to give me. But they did their best in trying to aid me with some simple taste comprehensions that they believed should reflect on the Korean palate based on the store-bought kimchi that they’ve eaten before. At least it was a nice way to spice up their Mother’s Day morning.

Image

my sister just woke up and now I’m stuffing strange spicy soups down her throat.

Image

Mother’s Day flowers from my sister

But all in all, both meals were edible despite how they were lacking in some way or other. And considering that I did tweak the different recipes I used in several ways, the knowledge I gained outweighs the mistakes I made. Korean cooking is a complicated art, but I’m already looking up more foods to cook up and try out on my own. Gotta give it all another try!

Advertisements

Gave it Another Try

Korean food was definitely an acquired taste for me. Having only been exposed to traditional and American take out Chinese foods for most of my life, I was used to the static salty taste that came with most of the meat and vegetable dishes that graced my dinner table. Sometimes I would get lucky when my dad felt up to making something spicy like curry or sweet like a tomato dishes.

So when I went to a Korean restaurant for the first time, everything seemed different. I had recently joined Korean Club in high school and the Korean teacher was tight with a student whose mother owns the Seoul Garden restaurant in San Francisco’s Japantown. Members of the club and students from the Korean language class were able to go to the restaurant and eat a dish at half price one day of the semester. Despite how I had been learning about Korean culture and music already, I never really eaten real Korean cuisine before, so from when I first stepped into the Korean restaurant, I was anticipating everything.

JapanTownStoreFronts

Seoul Garden in Japantown

 (credit: japancentersf.com)

From the food, to the atmosphere, to utensils we used, everything was new to me. The spoon lying beside the chopsticks had a longer handle than the average ones I’ve used, which made scooping from a communal soup dish easier. The wooden frame of the booth we were sitting in was polished but still welcoming with the comfortable cushions that fell flat with the pressure of my weight as I sat on them. The entire room was pleasantly saturated with the scent of sesame oil and it felt comfortable, as if I was beside a home kitchen with a Korean mom preparing a nice meal for me.

What excited me was all of the small side dishes set up for our table. There was a range of cooling vegetables, a variety of spicy kimchi dishes, and my friends’ favorite spicy pressed fish cakes. I learned through my meal of spicy pork and rice that the side dishes were a perfect complement to the hot food I was eating when I needed to cool off between bites. There was a strange harmony with the switches from spicy, to savory, to sour and salty. My first experience was enough to send me back to another Korean restaurant soon.

My first time at a tofu house was a shocker because when I ordered a spicy tofu stew with rice on the side, I didn’t know to expect a bubbling ceramic iron pot of angry red soup to be set in front of me. The soondubu jjigae was like a small stew volcano, the boiling red broth overwhelming the clean white tofu and darkening the green onions. And the smell, my gosh, the smell. I wondered if I would really be able to eat a soup that was so spicy that it was red!

Image

(credit: yelp)

Plenty of caution clouded the experience of my first bite as my spoonful of rice reemerged a brilliant red-orange after I dunked it into stew like I had observed my friends doing. The (temperature) heat was overwhelming and my ears were popping from the sensation, but the meal became less and less intimidating as it cooled and I ate on. It wouldn’t be my first choice on a Korean menu, but it sure appealed to my wallet’s eye.

What I felt differentiated Korean food from all the other Asian foods I’ve eaten in my life was the heartier taste of everything in the meal. Although some Korean meats aren’t marinated like most of the Chinese meats my family makes, Korean food has its own charm in its strong, savory smells, fermented essences, and incorporation of many, many ingredients into one dish. Despite how too many ingredients can be overwhelming sometimes, Korean food ties all the different scents and flavors together into a distinct family of cuisine.

Since my first exposure to Korean food, I’ve visited many Korean restaurants and tofu houses (get to like it like I have! My Tofu House is a cool place for soondubu jjigae!), trying soondubu jjigae with many different ingredients – from ramen, to dumplings, to seafood. The soft texture with a startling spicy taste stuck with me, and I’m hoping create the same zapping taste in my own soondubu.

Discovering Tofu: The Origins of Soondubu Jjigae

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.

Image

(credit: yelp)

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.

Image

(credit: bcdtofu.com)

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.

Image

(credit: kimchimari)

Image

(credit: zenkimchi)

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.