Korean history dates back over approximately 6,000 years, and so does the famous soondubu jjiggae that arrives at my table in an individual-sized cauldron. To give you some background, the dish is called “soon-du-bu” and this essentially means soft tofu. Now as an East Coaster from the United States, at first I hesitated to eat tofu. We are relatively new to the idea of what tofu really tastes like. My town has no concept of what tofu is because of the lack of knowledge about soybeans. Coming from a very rural area, we grow corn and I believe the farmers have a scheme against their crops. If you want to buy a package of tofu at my town’s local Wal-mart it will cost you at least $3 and you might struggle to find it with only one brand to choose. In comparison, to West coasters, Asian areas, or health-conscious west coasters, maybe a pack of tofu runs about $1. In any case, as an East coaster I was relatively averse to trying a dish with the main ingredient being tofu. It will be bland, and have a strange slippery texture. What I found was that, if anything, the title soondubu jjiggae’s English-equivalent name of Tofu Stew is a tad misleading.
Anyway, back to the part where the mini cauldron is soon arriving at my table. I can see the cook boiling it straight on the cast-iron grill over the bright orange and blue flames. The pot has been bubbling for several minutes and the cook uses metal tongs to quickly lift it up out of the flames. Just as fast as it was taken off, the waitress grabs her gloves and tray and delivers it to me. I can hear it bubbling vehemently, as loudly as if were the sound of Mexican fajitas sizzling. I can’t touch the pot because it’s too hot. Instead while I wait I am brought some Korean peppers (고추 gochu) and I can dip them in red-pepper paste (고추장 gochujang) . I watch others eat this the raw peppers and I follow without hesitation. Then I realize my foolishness is more like stupidity and self-inflicted punishment. How could I do this? I cannot feel my tongue. My eyes are tearing. I try to drink water. I am dying. I begin to sweat in a restaurant where everyone still has their winter jackets on. Ten minutes later I can feel my tongue and I realize that I am American once more.
The stew has stopped boiling in front of me, and I can begin to add the rice. It’s red and at first you could feel intensely afraid to eat it. ‘I ordered a tofu dish, so I thought I avoided kimchi?’ you may wonder. But then you see the chunks of tofu and you add the rice and the taste is not spicy, at first. You can taste the saltiness of the Korean anchovies and the smooth velvety texture of the tofu. But then after your taste buds have adjusted and been tantalized by the dish you go to take your second bite. It is only after you have let your guard down and began to enjoy the soup that you begin to taste something new. You can feel the fire of the peppers slowly creep up on you, as if the appetizer peppers were just a joke. And the worst part is that if you slow down, the taste will only be spicy and cold. The challenge is to eat this soup hot. There is no other choice.
After I finish the dish, I take the time to reflect upon this stew and how a dish could have survived all these years. There was an article years ago when the Avian flu broke out and Koreans claimed the only reason they had resisted this disease was because of the substantial benefits of kimchi, the national fermented spicy cabbage dish which has its own museum and it is served with every meal at every table anywhere in Korea. Fermentation is a rather unpleasant word. It sounds as if something sits and grows furry mold and then we decide to blame someone for not cleaning the refrigerator. But in Korea, this is the word for the gods. Fermentation, or 발효 balhyo, is like waiting for the best wine to ripen or the best beer to brew. Alcohol has fermentation processes, but so do those pickled foods like sauerkraut and I am convinced spam might be an off shooting of this whole food making process. In any case we get certain flavors from Korean food that is best associated with the balhyo process. It is usually heavily salted and if it is Korean food, it is usually spicy if it is red. Like make a good stew that sits a day, the flavors have melded together so beautifully that soondubu jjiggae has deep, rich flavors that you probably have never tasted anywhere else.