Korean cuisine has been growing more popular for years in the United States and other Western countries, prompted by its general healthfulness, the experimenting of American and Korean chefs, and the rising awareness of Korean culture and products, from K-pop videos to rip-your-heart-out movies to sleekly designed cars and smartphones.
Over the last year, that popularity has generated a small wave of cookbooks that make Korean cooking more approachable and inviting than ever.
Having moved to Seoul in the summer of 2006 for what turned out to be 6-1/2 years, I wish these books had been around then. The canon of English-language Korean cookbooks at the time was small in number, formal in style and rigid in approach.
Now, beautifully illustrated books such as “Korean Food Made Simple” by Judy Joo and “Real Korean Home Cooking” by the YouTube star known as Maangchi tell the stories behind the dishes. “Koreatown” by Deuki Hong and Matt Rodbard travels through the mashups and recipes of the New York, Chicago and Los Angeles neighborhoods dominated by Korean immigrants. “K-Food” is a British-Korean couple’s look at the street food as well as traditional recipes they offer in their London restaurant. And in the most fun of them all, “Cook Korean,” New York artist Robin Ha imparts Korean recipes in comic-book form.
All start with an overview of ingredients commonly found in Korean kitchens, all of which are available in Asian markets and many of which are in regular supermarkets, too.
“Korean food is never, ever a boring time,” Hong and Rodbard write in “Koreatown.”
A typical Korean meal usually covers the gamut of temperatures, textures, sweet and savory tastes. And, in what is most appealing to me, it manages to be both communal and individual. Entrees are often shared, but with a huge variety of side dishes always present on the table, each person eats a meal that can be strikingly different from the person next to them.
In my first two months living in Seoul, whenever I didn’t have a lunch appointment, I’d drop into one of the mom-and-pop restaurants in the basement of my office building. When the first chill arrived that fall, Yu Seong-wha, the hostess at Kkang-jang’s House, the restaurant I visited most often, said, “It’s time for you to try sundubu.” I smiled and said yes. But having seen the boiling volcano, I wasn’t sure I could handle it.
Sundubu (SOON-doo-boo) means “spicy tofu,” but that only begins to describe it. There are many kinds of sundubu stews and nearly all are seasoned with a tablespoon or two of dried chili flakes called gochugaru. Some restaurants offer it “white,” or without the flakes.
“You can make it almost nonspicy if you want,” said Ha, the cookbook author and comic artist, in an interview. “It depends on what restaurant you go to or what type of mother you have.”
Each of the new Korean cookbooks has a slightly different recipe for sundubu.
Joo, a Korean-American with Korean food TV shows in both the U.S. and U.K. and a restaurant in London, says her favorite sundubu uses seafood, called haemul sundubu, but the recipe in her book is vegetarian and starts with a mushroom stock.
Sundubu typically starts with anchovy stock, made from dried anchovies available in Asian grocery stores, though beef and chicken stock can also be used. Maangchi, who gained fame for her YouTube videos of Korean cooking, uses chicken stock.
The distinctive ingredient is tofu, of course, the softest tofu you’ve ever seen. In Asian grocery stores it is sold in tubes and, if it’s from South Korea, it’s actually labeled sundubu. The silken tofu in mainstream grocery stores will also do.
(On Oahu, sundubu — more often spelled soondubu — is on the menu at many Korean restaurants. The top Yelp pick is So Gong Dong on Keeaumoku Street.)
When I first tried sundubu, I waited for the soup to cool a bit before taking my first spoonful. Mine was the seafood kind, filled with whole, unpeeled shrimp, clams and oysters as well as zucchini and mushrooms. In typical Korean fashion, it came with a bowl of rice and several side dishes, called banchan.
The first few spoonfuls were hot, in both temperature and spiciness, and my brow quickly broke a sweat. But even for a then-40-something raised in small-town Iowa, the spiciness was manageable. And a few spoonfuls later, those chili flakes combined with the seafood and vegetables so deliciously that I found myself eating as fast as I could.
From its intimidating start and incredible middle, sundubu has one more surprise.
“It has a deep, rich flavor but it finishes lightly,” Ha said.
Joo said the vegetables that get mixed in with the broth pack sundubu with umami.
“It can get so cold in Korea that I think the food took on a hugs-you-back type of feeling to it,” she says. “When you really want to get warmed up, there is something that is so cozy about sundubu. To me, it’s the ultimate comfort food.”
To me, it’s the taste of arrival to a place and to things better than I imagined.
Evan Ramstad, an editor with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, is former chief Korea correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.