Gratuitous cute photo of my father at a tofu restaurant in Gangneung.
The World Institute for Kimchi is a relatively new organization funded by the Korean government. The director, Park Wan-soo, has declared that it will determine how best to artificially insert bacteria into kimchi, so as to precisely control fermentation. If they know how to make kimchi taste exactly the way they want it to, they can create the ideal kimchi for export. For the US, the goal is to “tone down the spiciness and sourness,” for Japan, to “heighten the sweetness.”
It’s not really my place to say this to the World Institute for Kimchi, but I have to. They’ve missed the whole point.
As fewer people make kimchi at home, and in general, as fewer people cook at home in every culture, there are many things that are lost: family recipes, history, the taste of your mother’s hands.
But to me, the biggest reason to cook at home, and especially to engage in a process as amazingly unpredictable as fermentation, is to remember in the most fundamental way possible that there are some things we can’t control. In Wild Fermentation, Sandor Ellix Katz‘s manifesto on the human need for fermented food, he argues that fermentation is a way for us to combat a culture that is obsessed with “terrified of germs and obsessed with hygiene.” Katz, a white hippie and AIDS activist living in rural North Carolina, seems to get something Koreans, who practically invented fermentation, are maybe starting to forget. The flavor of kimchi depends on temperature, moisture, the sweetness of the cabbage, the brightness of the hot peppers, a thousand variable factors. It’s not hard to make, and yet my mother, with 50+ years of experience behind her, still never knows exactly how her kimchi will turn out. That’s why each batch is a minor miracle.
When life feels hard and tragic, the minor miracles are more important than ever.
So this is how I’ve broken almost six months of writer’s block. So sorry, I didn’t intend to write my own manifesto. Rather, I wanted to tell you about my attempt to make tofu with Youngsun Lee, an extraordinary chef and wonderful person, how it didn’t quite work out, but that it was fun anyway.
I met Youngsun, of whom I am in complete awe, about a year and a half ago, when he generously volunteered to teach a kimchi-making class for a KAPA fundraiser. I’m proud to say that I consider him a friend, and because he has done so much for me, I was happy to do something small for him: bring back some gansoo, or tofu coagulant, back from Korea. And last December, he and his wife Amie, along with my friend Danica, decided to try it out.
Tofu is essentially curdled soymilk. First, you soak dried soybeans overnight, at least 10 hours. Then you rub off their translucent skins. Puree the beans with water, at about a ratio of 1:2, beans to water. (I imagine my poor ancestors just pounding away without a blender.) Then you strain the pureed soybeans, and the liquid that exudes is soymilk.
Next, you heat the soymilk. When it’s at about 80 degrees Celsius, just before boiling, you add a tiny bit of gansoo. We experimented with differing amounts, but a little bit, about half a tablespoon for 5 cups soymilk, went a very long way. Then continue heating and bring to a boil, turn off the heat, and let it sit for a couple of minutes.
Gansoo is another example of something that traditionally, you don’t create through an industrial process. You can use Epsom salts, which are easily obtainable in the US, or Japanese nigari which is magnesium chloride, but traditionally, it’s what’s left when you extract salt from seawater. We tasted a drop each, and it was the single most bitter thing I have ever placed on my tongue. I would find it hard to believe that this magic coagulant is basically seawater, except that’s what we were told in Gangneung, a town on the eastern coast famed for their pre-tofu or sundubu. Everywhere we went, my mom asked the restaurant owner where we could get some gansoo. They just looked at her blankly and said, “Just go out in the middle of the ocean.”
As soon as you add a bit of gansoo, you’ll see the soymilk start curdling immediately. Our curds were small, but I imagine that by fiddling you could make those big, luscious curds that make me crazy at Japanese izakayas.
You then shape the curds into a block to set. Ideally, you would use a perforated mold. I just had a bamboo steamer and some cheesecloth, which didn’t faze Youngsun at all. He just bandaged up the curds into a neat blob, and then put a pot on it as a weight to press out the liquid.
After about 15 minutes or so, the block had solidified, but it wasn’t like the very firm tofu you see in grocery stores, the kind you could practically run over with a truck. It was still quite tender. It made me feel quite tender towards it.
The reason why we “almost” made tofu? For some reason, the soybeans I bought at Hmart on 32nd St. resulted in tofu with a bitter, very unpleasant flavor. When we skipped the soybean step and instead used very fresh soymilk Youngsun had bought in Long Island City, the tofu was much better.
Even so, our last batch wasn’t great. But Youngsun wasn’t too perturbed. He and Amie went off happily enough with the leftover gansoo, and I got the feeling they were going to go through another couple of rounds.
So this post isn’t one of those informative, “How to make ___” blog posts that will get many thousand hits.
(The most I can do for you are some how-to photos of photos from a tofu restaurant in Gangneung.)
Still, I really did have fun. We ate an impromptu lunch of leftover lentil-chipotle soup and homemade brown bread, and Amie praised both rapturously while teasing her husband about how he should bake bread at home, too. It is enormously gratifying to have the wife of a chef tell you that she likes your homemade cooking!
But more importantly, I saw a side of tofu I had never seen before. I love tofu, whether it’s custardy and pure with a dab of soy sauce or whether it’s mashed into pork for tender meatballs. But I hadn’t really appreciated how special it was until I saw that tofu doesn’t always happen. It’s strange to think making something that doesn’t turn out quite right can restore your faith in life. But it did and it does.