Life-changing magic of sundubu captured in new cookbooks, restaurants

Pong-yun Kim, chef-owner of Kimchi Tofu House in Minneapolis, cooks sundubu through the lunch hour. (Tom Wallace/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

Pong-yun Kim, chef-owner of Kimchi Tofu House in Minneapolis, cooks sundubu through the lunch hour. (Tom Wallace/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

If someone ran a contest honoring people with the most dangerous jobs in Twin Cities restaurants, my nominee would be Jin-ee Kim of Kimchi Tofu House in Minneapolis.

Dozens of times a day, she risks her arms and wrists to deliver bowls of a stew called sundubu to diners in the small, 24-seat restaurant she and her husband run near the University of Minnesota. The thick, earthenware bowls bubble noisily as she glides them from tray to table, as the stew boils like a volcano.

As if she needs to, Kim tells customers to be careful as they take the next step: cracking a raw egg into the bowl. Some people quickly stir the egg to give the broth some creaminess. Others let it sit, watching it turn soft-boiled.

Korean cuisine has been growing more popular for years in the United States and other Western countries, prompted by its general healthiness, the experimenting of American and Korean chefs, and the rising awareness of Korean culture and products, from K-pop videos to rip-your-heart-out movies to sleekly designed cars and smartphones.

Over the past year, that popularity has led publishers to produce a small wave of cookbooks that make Korean cooking more approachable and inviting than ever. Having moved to Seoul in the summer of 2006 for what turned out to be 6 1/2 years, I wish these books had been around then. The canon of English-language Korean cookbooks at the time was small in number, formal in style and rigid in approach.

Now, beautifully illustrated books like Judy Joo’s “Korean Food Made Simple” and Maangchi’s “Real Korean Home Cooking” tell the stories behind the dishes. “Koreatown” by Deuki Hong and Matt Rodbard travels through the mashups and recipes of the New York, Chicago and Los Angeles neighborhoods dominated by Korean immigrants. “K-Food” is a British-Korean couple’s look at the street food as well as traditional recipes they offer in their London restaurant. And in the most fun of them all, “Cook Korean,” New York artist Robin Ha imparts Korean recipes in comic-book form.

All start with an overview of the ingredients that are commonly found in Korean kitchens, all of which are available in Asian markets in the Twin Cities and many of which are in regular supermarkets, too. Just a quick glance shows there is much more in a Korean pantry than kimchi, the fermented cabbage that most people associate with the cuisine.

“Korean food is never, ever, a boring time,” Hong and Rodbard write in “Koreatown.”

A typical Korean meal usually covers the gamut of temperatures, textures, sweet and savory tastes. And, in what is most appealing to me, it manages to be both communal and individual. Entrees are often shared but, with a huge variety of side dishes always present on the table, each person eats a meal that can be strikingly different from the person next to them.

An adventure in soup

In my first two months in Seoul, whenever I didn’t have an appointment for lunch, I’d drop into one of the mom-and-pop restaurants in the basement of my office building. When the first chill arrived that fall, Yu Seong-wha, the hostess at Kkang-jang’s House, the restaurant I visited most often, said, “It’s time for you to try sundubu.” I smiled and said yes. But having seen the boiling volcano, I wasn’t sure I could handle it.

Sundubu (SOON-doo-boo) means “spicy tofu,” but that just begins to describe it. There are many kinds of sundubu stews and nearly all are seasoned with a tablespoon or two of dried chili flakes called gochugaru. Some restaurants offer it “white,” which is without the flakes.

“You can make it almost non-spicy if you want,” said Ha, the cookbook author and comic artist, in an interview. “It depends on what restaurant you go to or what type of mother you have.”

In the Twin Cities, nearly every Korean restaurant offers at least one version of sundubu. Kimchi Tofu House specializes in it, with 12 versions, ranging from a basic one that has beef or pork to one based on curry and filled with vegetables. The Kims — husband Pong-yun does most of the cooking — allow customers to choose their spice level, with no-spice white an option for nearly every kind.

The soup’s popularity in South Korea underscores one of the culinary gaps between Asia and the West. In the rise of vegetarianism here over the past four decades, tofu became seen as a substitute, often a derided one, for meat. In much of Asia, tofu is appreciated for its variety, flavor and flexibility and mixed and matched with meats as well as vegetables.

“There are so many different kinds, textures and flavors of tofu and it’s so good,” said Joo, a Korean-American with Korean food TV shows in both the U.S. and U.K. and a restaurant in London. “It’s always a hard thing to get Westerners to like. It just gets a bad rap.”

Variations aplenty

Strikingly, each of the new Korean cookbooks has a slightly different recipe for sundubu. Joo says her favorite uses seafood, called haemul sundubu, but the sundubu recipe in her book is vegetarian and starts with a mushroom stock. Sundubu typically starts with anchovy stock, made from dried anchovies available in Asian grocery stores, though beef and chicken stock can also be used. Maangchi, who gained fame for her YouTube videos of Korean cooking, uses chicken stock in her recipe.

The distinctive ingredient is tofu, of course, the softest tofu you’ve ever seen. In Asian grocery stores, you can find it in tubes and, if it’s from South Korea, it’s actually labeled sundubu. The silken tofu in mainstream grocery stores will also do.

When I first tried sundubu, I added the egg and waited for the soup to cool down a bit before taking my first spoonful. Mine was the seafood kind, filled with whole, unpeeled shrimp, clams and oysters as well as zucchini and mushrooms. In typical Korean fashion, it came with a bowl of rice on the side and several more side dishes, called banchan, including kimchi, corn and seaweed.

The first few spoonfuls were hot, in both temperature and spiciness, and my brow quickly broke a sweat. But even for a then 40-something raised in small-town Iowa, the spiciness was manageable. And a few spoonfuls later, those chili flakes combined with the seafood and vegetables so deliciously that I found myself eating as fast as I could.

From its intimidating start and incredible middle, sundubu has one more surprise.

“It has a deep, rich flavor but it finishes lightly,” Ha said.

Joo said the vegetables that get mixed in with the broth pack sundubu with umami.

“It can get so cold in Korea that I think the food took on a hugs-you-back type of feeling to it,” she says. “When you really want to get warmed up, there is something that is so cozy about sundubu. To me, it’s the ultimate comfort food.”

To me, it’s the taste of arrival to a place and to things better than I imagined.