Cooking and culture: Korean soon doo bu, kimchee and the magic of YouTube

Soon doo bu, a spicy Korean stew with tofu, with chicken and kimchee

Erin and I made soon doo bu jjigae, a Korean stew for the first time the other day, and had a blast cooking it up. Food is a foundation of culture, so we love enjoying different cuisines from around the world. People who follow our Twitter tweets that are marked “#twEATs” which are copied to our Facebook updates tell us we eat out too much, but what can we say? We love food!

We don’t just go out — we eat in a lot more, to save money. We cook a lot of ethnic dishes at home: some Italian, Mexican … the usual. And of course, Japanese food. But we haven’t made Korean food other than cooking up pre-marinated bulgogi, the delicious thin-sliced beef that’s my favorite at Korean BBQ restaurants.

We just happened to have a gallon jar of spicy kimchee from my sister-in-law from Colorado Springs. Several times a year, she makes a jar of kimchee for us. We love it, though sometimes there’s so much it goes quite sour before we can finish it. Koreans use old kimchee as ingredients in soups and stews, so that’s what got us started.

So we got this crazy idea last week to try making soon doo bu jjigae, a tofu stew that we love. We were turned on to it at a restaurant in San Francisco’s Japantown called Doobu that specializes in the dish.

Soon doo bu is a rich combination of a lot flavors and textures, starting with silky tofu in a spicy red chili broth, with meat, seafood and vegetables added. We thought this would be a terrific way to use some of a huge jar of kimchee that my Korean sister-in-law, Pok Sun, had given us.

For those of you who are not familiar with kimchee (or kimchi), it’s napa lettuce and other vegetables pickled in a spicy brine of chili pepper powder and salt. It was traditionally buried in the ground to ferment. The end product is pungent and explodes with taste. It’s a staple as a side dish in Korea.

I posted a note about looking for a recipe for soon doo bu and mentioned we’d add kimchee to Twitter and to Facebook, and got some responses from people who love kimchee.

But I also got a comment from someone that got me thinking about food, cultural perspectives and cultural privilege.

The comment was by a longtime community activist in Boulder, a small city that is cloistered in college-town progressive values (which can be as righteously closed-minded as the extreme conservative end of the social scale) and the sense of privilege and entitlement bred by very expensive housing prices and extremely limited growth.

“Kimchee is definitely an acquired taste. I doubt I’ll live long enough to acquire it,” he wrote on my Facebook wall.

His note rubbed me the wrong way. He probably intended it very innocently as an immediate reaction: He doesn’t like kimchee. That’s fine. A lot of people find it stinky and think it looks gross. A lot of people don’t like spicy or very strong-flavored food. I assumed he’d tasted it, and if he had simply said “I had some once and thought it was awful,” I would’ve let it pass.

But his use of the phrase “acquired taste” raised up a whole bunch of thoughts and images in me, about “white privilege” and his self-centered view of the world.

Now a quick caveat: I understand that human beings are tribal and will always compare the world to one’s own experience and knowledge — the knowledge of one’s own tribe. So I’m not saying it’s not right. I’m saying that perhaps if we give it a little bit of thought when we’re confronted by experiences and things outside of our tribes, we might respond differently instead of immediately putting up a wall in self defense.

My response to this person was:

Isn’t saying something like “kimchee is definitely an acquired taste” a very parochial, closed minded statement? Just because you don’t have the taste for it doesn’t mean it’s an “acquired taste” — meaning it’s weird and a “normal person” wouldn’t like it. The fact is, millions of people , not just Koreans, love kimchee, and it’s a damned healthy food. Being in Boulder, I’m surprised it’s not a staple! (;-D — hah! a Boulder stereotype emerges!)

Now, natto — fermented soybeans — THAT’s an acquired taste because many Asians can’t even deal with it. But I happen to love it. And durian the “king of fruits” in SE Asia… I find it kinda tasty but a lot of people find it stinky and unpalatable.

That’s all understandable….

No offense (honestly), but to make a statement that posits you (a priveleged white male Boulderite) as the arbiter of what’s an “acquired taste” is pretty off-putting to me.

It was the subtext in his statement that bugged me: that his worldview was the right worldview, and if he didn’t like something, the rest of the world be damned. I know he’s a very liberal Boulder guy, so I’m sure he’d deny any such sentiment. But that’s the message that came across. I know plenty of other people, in Boulder, white, black, Asian, whatever, who don’t like things that I like, and most of the time, I don’t get that message from them. If he were a talk radio host or a lazy columnist and wanted to overstate things to make a point, fine. But this just slipped out as an innocent — and probably very honest — comment.

OK, enough of that. Back to the matter at hand: The food.

Erin and I did some searching and the best source we found for making this stew was Maangchi, a Korean woman who was living in Canada, not in New York City, who posts delightful cooking videos on YouTube.

We found her instructions for making Soon Doobu Jjigae and adjusted it a bit. We used the firmer tofu we already had in the fridge instead of buying silky tofu, used chicken instead of beef, and added the kimchee at the end:

The stew came out grand, and we had it for days because we made a huge pot of it.

Two Korean American friends at work were impressed that we’d made the stew, but then chided me wen I explained the extra ingredients. “That’s not Soon Doobu Jjigae, that’s Kimchee Jjigae,” they told me.

So it is. But we now have had an introduction to making Korean food, and we’re looking forward to trying out other recipes.

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