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.