Making every bite count

18 December 2007

soon dubu jjigae

Korea was a country of extremes, sweet and sour, hot and cold, welcoming and isolating. In a strange land, I formed a life of routines punctuated by adventures. Before school, I walked to Kimbap Chungkuk (heaven) -- the one three doors down, not the one across the street or the one around the corner. Kimbap Chungkuks and Kimbap Nahrah (country) are the Korean equivalent of Starbucks. Some day a Kimbap Chungkuk will open in the lobby of a Kimbap Chungkuk.
The restaurant was always the perfect temperature, either warm and toasty with steamed-up windows in the dreary Seoul winter or adequately cooled by the air-con in the summer that left me dripping with sweat as I waited in the chair beside the door that was always in the way.
The waitress with the French ponytail, wearing a polo shirt and shuffling around in her knock-off sports sandals, always smiled at the other ajumas and then waited for me to order: "Soon dubu baek bahn, po jang-hae chusaeyo?" I'd say. "Nae, nae." It was the same meal every day.
Soft tofu stew, to go.
The counter blocked my view of the women who'd make the food, but I saw the ajuna as she packed it up. Kimchi and pickled yellow radish slices in one divided tray, then three side dishes in another. My favorites were the dried radish or squid, the sweet glazed potatoes, the sesame-flavored spinach. The best: Squares of cold omelet with bits of vegetables. The worst: Spam slices with a strange sauce.
All that, plus a bowl of bean paste broth, cloudy and salty, for 3500 won. And always the exact amount of rice, perfectly steamed and slightly sweet.
Wrapped in double layers of plastic, the pungent red broth stained the oversized foam bowl.
Still steaming no matter how cold the walk back to school, no matter how long I had to wait.
The spicy red broth was dotted with chili flakes, a handful of clams, some carrot slivers and green onions. A lump of soft tofu and my favorite: the egg that poached in the broth.
Spoon after spoon, the broth, sometimes a clam -- if it wasn't still closed -- tofu coated in the red chili oil. Dipping spoonfuls of rice into the broth, and finally, the creamy poached yolk.
Creamy, rich, spicy, hot, delicious. The perfect lunch.
Tonight, at Riverside in Covington, I had a soft tofu stew that rivaled the ajuma's.


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