Friday, June 01, 2007

Dropping the F-Bomb in the Kitchen

And by "f," I mean failure.

After recently forking over $9.00+ for an inadequate bowl of soondubu at my staple Korean tofu house, I vowed to learn how to make soondubu at home. Soondubu is a hearty and spicy Korean tofu soup served bubbling hot in a specially insulated bowl. Soondubu always comes with two other components: 1) a bowl of steamed calrose rice and 2) a large egg that you crack into the soup, so that the egg solidifies into custardy wisps before your very eyes.

After receiving verbal soondubu instructions by a Korean friend who grew up making and eating soondubu, I felt ready to take on the challenge. My friend told me, "Honestly, it is not that difficult. You just make a soup of clams, green scallions, silken tofu, and add one spoonful of spicy Korean pepper powder per serving. Serve it with one raw chicken egg."

Easy enough. Her instructions sounded simple, and most importantly, difficult to screw up.

But I managed to do just that. Screw up, that is.

First, I was unable to find any pepper powder at the local Asian specialty store. However, an industrious scouring on the internet revealed an alleged substitute: for each teaspoon of Korean pepper powder, use one teaspoon of paprika and one teaspoon of cayenne pepper powder. I asked a Korean friend at work about the substitute, and she viscerally scrunched her nose in disgust and squinted at me curiously. Instead, she volunteered another substitute: crushed red chili pepper flakes.

Upon rushing home and inspecting my cupboard, I discovered an empty container holding a few lone crushed pepper flakes, an unopened vial of paprika, and a small pouch of cayenne powder. If I wanted to make soondubu that night, I didn’t have enough crushed red pepper flakes, but I did have enough paprika and cayenne powder.

As I stood in front of the cupboard debating with myself whether to use the substitute spices, I remembered a lesson I learned about paprika during a cooking class. My cooking instructor advised me never to substitute regular paprika for Hungarian paprika, because the paprika powder sold in stores is bland, pulverized dust that has been leached of all its flavor by the arid cupboard atmosphere and its musty particle board interior. I heard her voice echoing in my head as I peered into the dimly lit cupboard. Deciding to go against my better instincts, I justified to myself, "Well, the paprika will only lend a deep crimson color to the soup and not any discernable flavor, so I might as well try it anyway."

After methodically adding the ingredients according to my friend's instructions and bringing the soup to a bowl, I diligently watched the gurgling pot with the tofu cubes bobbing up and down.

However, it honestly appeared grotesque. There were tenacious specks of red powder that resolutely refused to dissolve into the boiling soup and the soup became thicker and thicker. As I stirred my imitation soondubu, I thoughtfully noted to myself, "Gee, this opaque gravy looks nasty."

One sample sip and my mouth was taken aback by the simultaneous shock of the bitter and sweet overtones of the soup.

But I continued to saunter forward.

"Maybe the taste will boil away," I told myself reassuringly.

When the soup and the clams inside finally finished cooking, I ladled portions of the soup into bowls for the beau.

It looked better and smelled much better. In fact, it looked downright edible! I served the beau his portion of soup and expectantly waited for his vehement approval. Instead, upon one slurp, he spat back into his bowl and shrieked in an accusatory tone, "Did you use sour milk in this?!"

Dissatisfied and humiliated, I threw up my exasperated hands in disgust.

Less than a few seconds later, the soondubu ingredients sloshed down into the abyssal void for unbearable foods: the garbage disposal. As the churning, whirring, and grinding mastication mechanism of the garbage disposal brought my meal to a close, I realized, "I hate wasting food." But when it tastes like that, "I hate eating it too."

Lesson learned: Do not substitute paprika and cayenne chili powder for Korean chili powder.


  1. Hee hee...I'm like you...after the soondubu(yummy!) I've had in my local korean tofu house, I wanted to make my own too. My safer option was to use pre-packed korean tofu broth seasoning. It was quite good in terms of taste and what's good, this pack has got no MSG and no preservatives. The seasoning ingredients has clam extract, beef extract etc. I found them in a nearby korean supermarket.Check them out if you get a chance. Also, I read in other blogs that can use korean hot chili paste -gochujang.

  2. I just hate learning things the hard way. But it seems that I always have do it wrong before I get it right! Not that this is you, of course.
    But I do get a laugh at others cooking mistakes!
    I have never had soondubu but it sounds very good. I'll make sure there have been no substitutions made, if I get to try it someday!

  3. Ah, I use kimchee since it already has the proper Korean chili in it. :P

    But hey, you don't know until you try.

  4. I love soondubu too

    awwww dang and the pictures looked so promising! A shrieking BF is never a good thing...

  5. Actually the pictures do look pretty good. And it must have been pretty good for Soondubu-Goulash! If only I was so brave as you to share my really bad cooking failures.

  6. This dish is new to me, I'll have to try it sometime. I hate throwing away food too but sometimes there's no other choice. :( The pic looks really yummy. :P

  7. You are FUNNY! Lesson learned the hard way! I think I've had soondubu before. Does it sometimes come with fish roe?

  8. oh no! i hate that so much too, sometimes things cant be salvaged :( i love the picture of the white tofu against the chili and paprika though, its really pretty!

  9. haha! well, i certainly applaud you for even attempting this. i love korean food, am half korean for crikey's sake, and have never made korean food!!! it seems quite daunting to me. one of my favorite lines in the kitchen: "maybe it will just boil away."

  10. Thanks for the great tips friends! I'll have to try it with the pre-made packages and with kimchee!

    Steamy Kitchen, I don't think it comes with fish roe, but from the way that this recipe turned out, I am not sure that I am the one that you should be asking! :)

    I agree with you friends, the pictures did come out relatively nicely, but the taste did not! :( As always, I appreciate your friendship and taking the time to leave me such kind comments. :)

  11. Awww... When I meet your beau, I'm going to kick his ass. Even if it tastes bad, you don't react that way. You thank the loved one for her efforts and soldier your way through the food.

  12. It took me a couple of times to come up with something decent (exactly the same story). Putting kimchee in it makes it more like kimchee jigae, but I think it tastes better (use some of the juice, too--though I think it gives it more of a sour tinge than what it should, I think it's kinda nice). The korean chili flake powder is a must, I found some in the Koreana market in Oakland.

    A friend of mine recommended using some minced up dried anchovies and also some salted tiny shrimps (the korean kind).

    I finally had a version that was decent a little while back, so if you want to try again and compare notes, let me know. =)

    Oh yes, and using fermented chili paste, as someone else had suggested, would be considered cheating by Korean mom's. But I'm neither Korean nor a mom, so I'm all for it. I think it makes it taste better, too.

    P.S. The soft tofu in the tubes is the best.

    P.P.S. It's worth trying again. I can't stand the $9 hit, either.

  13. I too use the prepared chili powder, if not the kimchi powder. Love the look of that egg on the 4th pix. :)...slowly, slowly solidifies in my mouth, and wash it off with that rich soondubu broth, and a scoop of two of the steamed rice, yummy !:) Btw, did you use one of those korean stone pot thing ?

  14. ^^; I'm sorry that your soondubu cook was failed..
    A Soondubu pot stew is usually very delicious so I like the one !! :D
    but I can't cook that either. ^^;;

    - JeeHee

  15. just use kimchi , and some red chilis. korean chili powder is mostly just red chili powder


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