Posts Tagged ‘tofu’

When tofu almost happens

March 22, 2011

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.


Heart-shaped leaves

May 12, 2009


I’ve just realized that two of my favorite leaves in the world are both heart-shaped.

Hierba santa in Oaxaca is one of the most delicious leaves I’ve ever tasted.  It tastes a little like anise, a little like mint, with an incredible strong and calming fragrance.  When it’s wrapped around quesillo, Oaxacan string cheese, and then heated in a pan…what I would do to eat that again at La Biznaga!

The other one is 깻잎, kkaenip, which is often translated as perilla or wild sesame, and sometimes as shiso, though to me, “shiso” describes a Japanese variety, which has a very distinct and different flavor.  It’s in the mint family, but it doesn’t really smell like mint.  It comes on strong like fennel, but it’s not quite like fennel either.  The flavor just doesn’t exist in English.

As exotic as it sounds, it’s very common in Korean cooking.  You’ll see kkaenip in the basket of greens at most Korean barbecue restaurants.  I like to layer a piece on top of lettuce before wrapping it all around my grilled beef or pork.  My sister loves it as another layer between the rice and the seaweed in kimbap or Korean rice rolls.  You can slice it up and throw it in sautéed rice cakes.  And you can stuff it with seasoned meat and fry it all up coated in flour and eggs.  That is a particularly delicious way to eat it.

Bibimbap vegetables waiting for the barley rice

Bibimbap vegetables waiting for the barley rice

So when I decided to have a special vegetarian Korean Sunday dinner, I wanted to do something with kkaenip.  In general, I wanted to give my vegetarian friends a taste of something they’d likely never had before.  Since I couldn’t wow them with pork belly or glazed spare ribs, I wanted to feed them crazy roots and funny greens, the kind of stuff that Koreans love to gather from the mountains that cover the country.  So many Korean foods, when translated into English, sound like they would only belong at a store for health nuts and hippies—fern bracken, burdock root, crown daisies.  But in Korean, they’re as ordinary as “spinach.”

Acorn jelly tosed with sesame seeds and roasted seaweed.

Acorn jelly tosed with sesame seeds and roasted seaweed.

I made sure to have a vegetable bibimbap, or mixed rice, that was filled with burdock roots sautéed and glazed in syrup and soy sauce, as well as fern bracken, mung bean sprouts, bean sprouts, and tiny pin-headed 팽이버섯, paengi-beoseot, or enoki mushrooms.  I made acorn jelly from acorn powder, which somehow has mysterious gelatinous powers, and tossed it with roasted seaweed, sesame seeds, and sesame oil.  I stuffed tofu with portabella mushrooms and green onions, and then braised them in soy sauce with a dash of red pepper flakes.  The vegetarian seaweed soup was good, though now I wish I’d added more sesame oil to make up for the lack of beef stock.

Fried tofu stuffed with portabella mushrooms, waiting for their soy-sauce braising bath.

Fried tofu stuffed with portabella mushrooms, waiting for their soy-sauce braising bath.

But I was particularly proud of the vegetarian kkaenip-jeon, or stuffed perilla leaf pancakes.  The stuffed tofu and the kkaenip-jeon were the only dishes I invented, my special meatless versions.  I’m sure I’m not the first person to have come up with these ideas, but last night was certainly the first time I’d tasted them.

I started with the basic kkaenip-jeon recipe.  Instead of ground beef, I took firm tofu, crumbled it and strained it in a cheesecloth.  I added a ton of chives, some green onions, and chopped zucchini.  I seasoned it more or less the way I would have seasoned beef, with soy sauce, sesame oil, and garlic.  I stuffed each leaf as I would with meat, dredged them in flavor, and dipped them in egg before frying them in a enameled cast-iron pan.

I was so anxious to taste the first one and make sure it tasted okay, I burnt my tongue.  But it was good!  They weren’t as juicy as the beefy ones had been, but the contrast between the almost crisp, leafy exterior and the smooth tofu filling was great.  The relative mildness of the vegetarian version meant that it went better with the vinegar-spiked soy sauce I’d put out for dipping.  I’d like to try it again one day and replace the zucchini with shitake mushrooms, but given the mushrooms in the stuffed tofu, I was glad to have something with such a clean, green flavor on the table.  It felt like spring…with hearts.


As always, this is a draft recipe.  Everything in the cookbook will be much better. Feel free to play around with the proportions.  I think it’s really important in Korean cooking to be sure about your own tastes and season boldly and accordingly.

Stuffed perilla leaves

Meat filling
8 oz. of ground beef
1.5 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1 tablespoon chopped green onion
freshly ground pepper

Vegetarian filling
1 package firm tofu, crumbled and drained
½ cup chopped zucchini
½ cup chopped Asian chives
¼ cup chopped green onions
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
2 teaspoons chopped garlic
1 teaspoon salt
freshly ground pepper

20 fresh and tender kkaenip leaves
2 eggs, beaten, with pinch of salt
½ cup of flour

  1. If you’re making the meat version, season the ground beef with the soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, green onion, and pepper.  Let it marinate for at least 30 minutes.
  2. If you’re making the vegetarian version, crumble the tofu and then squeeze thoroughly in cheesecloth.  You can also just squeeze the water out of the tofu with your hands and let it drain in a strainer or colander, though it’s worth getting a bit of thin cloth and squeezing the tofu juice out that way.  Combine all the ingredients and mix thoroughly.  The flavors will meld better if you mix it with your hand rather than a spoon.
  3. Wash and dry the kkaenip leaves.  Each leaf is heart-shaped and about the size of the palm of your hand.  “Stuff” each leaf by putting about one to two teaspoons of filling on one side of the “heart” and then folding it over.  Press the two halves of the leaf firmly together.  Place the stuffed kkaenip leaves on a plate and set aside.
  4. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a pan on medium-low heat.
  5. Dredge each stuffed leaf in the flour and then coat it in beaten egg.  Be sure to get egg on as much of the leaf as possible.
  6. Fry the battered leaves in batches in the pan, about 2-3 minutes on each side, until golden in color.  Don’t crowd the pan, and add more oil as necessary between batches.  Set the cooked perilla leaves on paper towels to soak up some of the oil.
  7. Like all “jeon,” these pan-fried kkaenip leaves can be served at room temperature but they’re incredible when they’re hot.  You can make them ahead of time, and then reheat them in an oven set at 300 degrees for five minutes or reheat them in a pan.  Do not microwave them unless you like your jeon soggy.

Seawater-sundubu and the end of our trip

March 4, 2009


This was our last meal in Gangwon-do, the second-to-last meal of our trip.  It’s called “chodang sundubu,” “sundubu” being the soft curds at the stage right before tofu. The city of Gangneung is famous for making its tofu with the local seawater, which gives it a lingering but clean flavor of salt.  So they serve it like this, completely white and unadorned, with a little dish of soy sauce if you want it.  Diane and I didn’t.

It was the best thing we could have eaten at that point.

We had just met a woman who had restored and preserved her family’s 300-year-old home.  She had told us with a quiet passion about her family’s history, the way her grandfather used to welcome and feed wandering scholars, rich with education but nothing else; about the way she had come to decide the buildings were worth preserving in a style few others maintained; about the intense emotion, more complex than pride, that she had felt when she found a full-size replica of a Korean house, just like her own, at the British Museum in London.

We would go on to drive on a winding road through the mountains of Seoraksan National Park, leaving just before the sky got completely dark.  We would get back to our hotel late, tired but full of everything we had seen.

Now that I’m back in New York, the two weeks we spent in Korea feel almost like a dream.  We didn’t go thinking that we could learn everything we needed to learn to write a cookbook.  We hoped more for inspiration, for context, for a sense of history and tradition that was broader than the personal experiences of our families.

I’m more overwhelmed than ever.  I wish I had a lifetime to do justice to this subject.  But I’m also even surer that I want to write about this and not wait for someone more authoritative to come along.  In the end, for me, this isn’t just about food.  I just hope I can figure out how to do it.

My Friday ma po tofu lunch

February 22, 2007

Oh God, I’m going to make ma po tofu every week. If I had known the hardest part would be buying the ingredients in Chinatown, I would have done it years ago. I couldn’t stop eating, it was so good, until I remembered I would get to eat it again for lunch tomorrow.