Serious Eats: Recipes

Seriously Asian: Korean Soondubu Jjigae (Soft Tofu Stew)

[Photographs: Chichi Wang]

The memorable meals in our lives take place in the presence of friends and family. Dishes we cook for those we love leave indelible impressions in our minds, like culinary timestamps. Even so, I eat some of my best meals when I'm alone in the kitchen, cooking something I've honed obsessively.

Nights spent in solitude demand a different approach. Cooking can take as little as half an hour or longer than two, but the pace is never hurried. Only one vessel is used so there's less to clean afterward. Ingredients are high in quality, but extravagant purchases seem beside the point. Every cook has such a dish: a meal that can be composed of disparate items, all gathered together to satisfy a singular palate. For me this dish is Korean soondubu jjigae, a tiny cauldron of bubbling, spicy, silken tofu.

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Roughly translating to "soft tofu stew," a pot of soondubu is possibly the silkiest tofu dish you will ever cook. A classic Korean tofu dish with countless variations, no two pots of soondubu are ever the same. Usually, the softest type of tofu we can buy at the supermarket is labeled "silken." The delicate tofu used for this dish far eclipses the standard level of silkiness. Quivering like a nearly-cooked custard, soon-tofu is gently lowered into a pot of fiery red broth spiked with hot chili and garlic paste. Simmered with meat, seafood, and vegetables, each pot of tofu is brought a vigorous boil and speedily moved to the table for consumption.

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Over time, my preparation of the dish has become ritual. Like all rites, mine employs a sacramental object: a small clay pot, specifically made for soondubu. The vessel, glazed with black enamel, remains stark and porous on the bottom. Just as treasured by cooks as cast iron, clay pots also possess the ability to change and improve over time. Heated slowly over a medium flame, the pot will never crack, yet it remains piping hot long after it's been brought to the table.

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Heating the clay pot affords time for preparation. If the protein is meat, then my favorite choice is thinly sliced beef ribeye. Seared quickly in the bottom of the vessel with just a bit of fat, I remove the beef when it's still rare and charred on one side. Vegetables follow. No matter the choice, the vegetal juices deglaze the bits of meat sticking to the interior of the pot.

Soondubu can be made with a diverse range of vegetables. Sometimes I want the body of a dense vegetable that becomes tender with stewing, like zucchinis, daikon or chayote. Other times, I prefer leafy greens such as bok choy or spinach. Kimchi has also found its way into the pot. After a quick sautée, I pour in a cup of meat or seafood stock. The moment the liquid hits the clay pot, the surface sizzles and steams with the aroma of the broth. When the vegetables are simmered through, various types of seafood—shrimp, scallops, clams—may be added to the pot.

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No matter the variations, the ritual concludes with one sanctifying act. Once the pot is brought to the dinner table, a single raw egg must be cracked into the tofu. Quickly, I incorporate the egg, thickening and enriching the bubbling red broth with each gentle stir. Rich in flavor yet light in body, soondub is a dish that nurtures the body and soul. As the spicy broth courses down my throat and fills my belly with lasting warmth, I am nourished.

Notes

Tofu for soondubu can be found in Korean and Chinese supermarkets. Generally, the tofu is labeled "extra-silken" to denote its custard-like nature. In addition to cartons, the tofu is also sold in vacuum-sealed tubes.

Clay pots for tofu and rice are readily available in Korean supermarkets. Mine cost six dollars and has given me years of solitary comfort and joy.

While Korean markets sell tubs of chili-garlic paste, the seasoning can be easily made with just four ingredients: hot pepper powder, soy sauce, salt, and minced garlic. Left to commingle in a jar, the ingredients become one: a thick and sanguine paste, especially pungent with the use of fresh garlic.

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