Korean Cooking: Sundubu

I was a late bloomer when it came to Korean food. My first taste of Korean BBQ was in college, and I didn’t have bi bim bap until after I graduated. Then I started dating Andrew (who’s Korean in case you don’t know) and he showed me how varied and wonderful Korean food is. I’m pretty sure I fell in love with kimchi jjigae before I fell in love with him. I consider my late introduction to Korean food to be one of the greatest food tragedies of my life, second only to my extremely late discovery of shabu, which Andrew also introduced me to. Seriously, where would I be without him?!

Eating Korean food is one thing. Cooking it, however, is intimidating. It’s a lot of unfamiliar ingredients and techniques. Last year, when I spent Thanksgiving with Andrew’s family, I helped his mom in the kitchen to try and learn a thing or two. Joanne Kim is a force in the kitchen when it comes to Korean food. Not once did she reference a recipe. I can barely make oatmeal without using a recipe. She cooks with the grace and ease of any professional chef. So comfortable in the kitchen, measuring through experience rather than metrics, multi-tasking with the practiced steps of doing this a lifetime.

Watching her that weekend taught me that Korean food is 100% approachable. It’s really not difficult–you just need a few key ingredients. She even sent me home with some of them: a large bottle of fish sauce and a large container of crushed Korean red pepper. Despite this head start, it still took me a year to attempt my first Korean dish.

Cue Sumi Lee. She is one of Andrew’s best friends. A complete sweetheart, she gifted me with this cookbook…

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…and wrote this lovely inscription:

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If you know me personally, you know that I took full advantage of my wedding registry to get a bunch of kitchenware I didn’t want to buy myself. Included in that were stone bowls to be used specifically for Korean cooking. These are individual serving bowls that can be heated directly on the stove, enabling you to serve food that is practically boiling. Two of the most common types of bowls are dol sot and sundubu. Dol sot is used for bi bim bap (mixed rice bowls) and sundubu for soup.

While I’ve been wanting to make bi bim bap for a long time, I wasn’t ready to attempt that dish for a midweek dinner, so I decided on sundubu, a spicy soft tofu soup with pork, kimchi, Korean pepper, garlic, onion, and egg (sundubu means soft tofu). It’s a pretty simple recipe and the ingredients are not hard to find, especially if you live in a metropolitan area or near a Korea town. You also don’t need any special stone bowls to make it, but it certainly makes it more fun.

When I told Andrew I was going to make sundubu, he was very skeptical. He didn’t think I could pull it off and wondered why we couldn’t just go to one of the million Korean restaurants in San Francisco instead. Well, I’m happy to say that I proved him wrong. Isn’t that what marriage is all about? Here are photos comparing my sundubu and Maangchi’s.

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Mine

 

Maangchi's

Maangchi’s

Not bad for a white girl, eh? I used the recipe from the cookbook, but you can also find it on Maangchi’s website. Before embarking on your own sundubu (if you choose to do so), here are a few things to note:

  1. The website recipe calls for a kelp and anchovy stock. The cookbook recipe does not. I used homemade vegetable stock I had on hand (because I’m that kind of person), but regular store-bought chicken stock will do.
  2. The recipe has you cook the sundubu directly in the stone bowl. My bowls were too small to cook in, so I made the soup in a regular pot and transferred the soup into my heated sundubu bowls for serving. It worked just fine.
  3. I am not a tofu aficionado. I don’t even really like it except in this soup. So I did not really know what to look for when I was shopping for it. The package said soft tofu, but it ended up being firmer than I wanted and not the really soft, creamy tofu that you want for sundubu. The soup still turned out well, but the texture was off. So if you are making this, be mindful that not all soft tofu is the right kind and look for the softest you can, preferably in a tube.

Happy (Korean) cooking!

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