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Seriously Asian: Korean Soondubu Jjigae (Soft Tofu Stew)

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.

Seriously Asian: Korean Soondubu Jjigae (Soft Tofu Stew)

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About This Recipe

This recipe appears in: This Week In Recipes

Ingredients

  • 1/2 carton of extra-silken tofu, roughly 5 ounces
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil or cooking fat
  • 1 ounce ribeye steak, sliced thinly across the grain
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup of vegetables (seasonal)
  • 2 teaspoons soondubu paste, or to taste (recipe below)
  • 1 cup meat or vegetable stock
  • Seafood, optional (4 clams, a handful of chopped squid, or 3 medium-sized shrimp)
  • 1 egg
  • Salt to taste
  • Thinly sliced green onions as a garnish
  • Rice as an accompaniment
  • 2 tablespoons coarse hot pepper powder
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon beef broth, fish sauce, or water
  • Spicy Soondubu Paste:
  • 2 tablespoons coarse hot pepper powder
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon beef broth, fish sauce, or water

Procedures

  1. 1

    Slowly heat the clay pot over a low flame on the stovetop.

  2. 2

    In the meantime, have your mise-en-place ready: Sprinkle the slices of beef with a pinch of salt. Cut the vegetables of your choice into a 1/2-inch dice.

  3. 3

    When the clay pot is hot, add the cooking oil or fat and briefly heat. Add the slices of ribeye all at once. Do not stir around. Let the surface of the meat brown and char; once one side has browned, remove all of the meat with chopsticks or a slotted spoon. Set aside. Each slice of beef should still be fairly raw.

  4. 4

    Add the diced vegetables to the pot and let the juices deglaze the bits of meat sticking to the bottom of the pot. Stir occasionally with a wooden spoon.

  5. 5

    When the vegetables have browned, add the tofu paste to the pot. Stir it around with the vegetables, taking care not to burn the paste.

  6. 6

    Pour in all of the broth. The broth will simmer, then boil vigorously. Depending on the vegetables, cook for 2 to 7 minutes.

  7. 7

    When the vegetables are nearly tender, add the tofu by large spoonfuls, taking care not to break up the custard-like tofu into little bits. Any remaining tofu in the carton may be stored in an airtight container filled to the brim with filtered water, which must be changed daily. It can be kept for 3 days in this manner.

  8. 8

    Add the seafood if you're using any. Return the beef to the top of the broth. Let simmer for an additional minute. There should be enough broth to just cover all of the ingredients. Add more broth if necessary, and add more spicy tofu paste to taste.

  9. 9

    With heat-proof mitts, very carefully transfer the tofu pot from the burner to the table. Have the accompanying rice ready. Crack the egg into the tofu pot, stirring very gently to preserve the integrity of the tofu. Sprinkle green onions on top for garnish.

  10. 10

    For the Spicy Soondubu Paste: Thoroughly mix all the ingredients together in a small glass jar. Seal it tightly and keep in the refrigerator for at least 2 days and up to 3 weeks.

  11. 11

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