October 15, 2012
Fall is the season of comfort food. Even in southern California, where the leaves remain green and the temperature doesn’t drop below 65 degrees, pumpkin lattes and hearty stews abound. Most Americans, me included, associate comfort food with dishes like macaroni and cheese, chicken pot pie, beef stew, ice cream, apple pie, or pretty much anything loaded with fat and processed carbohydrates.
Conversely, most Americans associate unappetizing health food with things like tofu, salad, and any vegetable but potatoes (unless it’s a vegetable smothered in cream and/or cheese, in which case it crosses over into the realm of comfort food). But there’s definitely no American-style dish involving tofu that’s considered comforting. The very suggestion is enough to give children nightmares.
I always thought the American notion of comfort food was the universally accepted definition. Then I moved to Egypt and realized that comfort food in the Middle East generally involves rice, which was not on my comfort food radar at that point in time. Growing up, my family would eat rice for one of two reasons: either it was an accompaniment to some kind of “ethnic” meal, like Indian or Mexican food, or it was the only starch we had in the house. Potatoes, pasta, polenta and bread were always preferable to rice. So I associated rice with either foods outside of my comfort zone or as the undesirable substitute for much-loved potato dishes.
Then I ate Lebanese chicken fatteh. Chicken fatteh is a casserole made with toasted pita, rice, chicken, and a yogurt sauce on top. I didn’t need any childhood memories of my mom slaving away in the kitchen to know that this was comfort food. It’s warm and creamy with a little bit of tang from the yogurt to offset the heaviness of the other ingredients. Chicken fatteh is now my go-to comfort food dish. If I’m sick, chicken fatteh. If I’ve had a really rough week of work, chicken fatteh.
Living in Egypt also challenged my perspective on acceptable breakfast food items. Egyptian breakfast consists of ful medames and ta’ameya, both of which are bean dishes. Beans for breakfast? At first I was skeptical, but I soon became a convert to ful medames sandwiches. Something about the nutty mashed bean mixture enveloped in soft, sour whole grain bread improved my typically hostile morning demeanor. I quickly discovered—to the horror of my Egyptian friends—that the best ful sandwiches were to be found at the street carts with the most questionable sanitation practices. These were also the carts that no other foreigner frequented, so my presence was an anomaly that prompted one of the other loyal customers to nickname our ful cart the “international ful cart.”
Even after introducing beans into my breakfast repertoire, I was still unprepared for breakfast in Thailand. Asian breakfasts in general do not seem like breakfast food to me. From what I understand—and I am far from an expert on Asian food—many Asian cuisines don’t have distinctive breakfast food with the notable exception of congee, a rice porridge found in various Asian countries. The Thai version of congee is called johk and is made with pork. I didn’t even see this when I was in Thailand; for the most part I ate soup for breakfast.
I’m definitely not a convert to eating rice or meat dishes before noon, but considering cold pizza is in my breakfast top five, I’m not one to judge. Asian cuisine has, however, convinced me that tofu can be comfort food.
The first tofu comfort dish I tried was mapo tofu, or mapo doufu. Mapo tofu is a stew-like dish made with tofu, beef, and a spicy chili and fermented black bean sauce. It hails from the Szechuan province and is named after the pockmarked (ma) old lady (po) who, as the story goes, originally made the dish. While I enjoyed it immensely, I was not about to replace my beloved chicken fatteh (or any traditional American comfort food dish) with this tofu one.
Then I tried soondubu jjigae, which is the Korean cousin of mapo tofu. Soondubu jjigae, a Korean stew made with soft tofu, beef, seafood, and varying amounts of hot red pepper is perfectly warm, spicy, and hearty. It’s somehow decadent without the artery-clogging dairy products of American comfort food. I imagine eating it indoors on a cool, gloomy day—the kind of day where the darkened sky makes the trees a bolder shade of green and the rain brings out the smells of the forest. But since I live in Los Angeles, where there is neither forest nor rain, I’ll have to take comfort in eating soondubu jjigae after a long car ride or an epic night of drinking.
Soondubu jjigae is also a good weeknight meal. If you prepare the broth and sauce ahead of time, all you have to do is chop up a few vegetables, sauté them, and then throw in the rest of the ingredients. Since I don’t eat much meat at home, I created a vegetarian version of soondubu jjigae with mushrooms, zucchini, and spinach, but any vegetables would do and you can always add the more traditional items of beef and clams. Or to make it vegan, just omit the egg. The egg does thicken the broth a bit, so to achieve a similar effect you could add some cornstarch—just make sure you mix the cornstarch with a small amount of broth to get the lumps out before adding it to the dish.
I love this stew for its unapologetically bold flavors and colors, a hallmark of Korean food, and even more so for challenging my culturally ingrained view of comfort food. To me, eating is a cultural experience. Like all cultural experiences, I appreciate the ones that take me outside of my “comfort zone” the most.
Soft Tofu Stew (Soondubu Jjigae)
For the stock:
For the sauce:
For the stew:
Combine all stock ingredients in a large pot and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Mix together all sauce ingredients and set aside.
Heat the oil in an earthenware pot or saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the zucchini and mushrooms and sauté for a few minutes until the mushrooms release their liquid. Stir in the sauce and sauté for a few seconds until bubbling. Stir in the broth and bring to a boil. Add the kimchi and spinach and boil until the spinach wilts.
Drop the tofu into the stew in one block. Gently break up the tofu as you stir it into the sauce (don’t crumble it in because the stew should be chunky and the tofu is very delicate). Continue to boil until the veggies are soft.
Taste for salt and then add the egg. Depending on how hot the broth is, you can continue to cook the stew on the stove for another minute to cook the egg or serve the stew and let the egg cook from the heat of the broth. Serve with white or brown rice and garnishes.
*Note: Do not substitute with cayenne! Korean red pepper powder is coarse and has a different flavor. Also, the amount in the recipe will make a fairly spicy stew, so you may want to start off with half a tablespoon and add more to taste before stirring in the tofu.