"It always seems like such a waste preparing a meal for one," Nakajima said. "A waste of food and a waste of time. But I don't feel that way at all when I'm cooking for two."Banana Yoshimoto's characters really seem to value the importance of cooking for loved ones, and then sitting down to eat together. I couldn't agree more; this was always a really important ritual in my family as well. Growing up, my family didn't really eat at sit-down restaurants very often, maybe because the closest (good) Chinese restaurant was about an hourlong drive away. By the time we moved to an area that was positively teeming with Asian restaurants, my parents had become such excellent chefs that going out to eat only seemed appealing if we could order something we wouldn't be able to make at home. Until recently, one of the dishes I thought it would be best to leave to the pros was Korean tofu stew, or soondubu jjigae.
I stepped up from the apartment's entryway and peeked inside the kitchen.
"Thanks for cooking," I said. "Wow, look how neatly you cut the tofu!"
The tofu in the pot was divided so precisely it looked as if he had used a ruler.
--The Lake, Banana Yoshimoto
I've discovered that the dirty little secret (and shortcut) to successfully recreating Asian restaurant food at home is buying the right kind of sauce or "paste" (reminds me of those children's books in which some poor kid talks about eating library paste...). For certain Chinese dishes, fermented black bean paste is a key ingredient. And recently I realized what the Korean equivalent of this was: red pepper! For kimchi tofu stew, red pepper paste is a key player. Use it and you'll be surprised at how it transforms your homemade broth into something that could have come straight out of a Korean restaurant.
Everyone has their own style of cutting tofu -- some, like Nakajima's, are more precise and ruler-like, others, more free-form. One of my coworkers proofreads by using a ruler to cross out unwanted lines of text. My pages always look sloppy by comparison. Similarly, my tofu cutting style is rather imperfect, but it's consistent: I always cut tofu into triangles, except when making mapo tofu; that always calls for cubes. Sometimes I get 24 triangles out of one block; other days, I opt for 48. Any way you slice it, the tofu will be delicious in this broth.
Spicy Korean Tofu Stew
4 large leaves of Napa cabbage, chopped
3 large button mushrooms, quartered
1/2 cup sliced fish cake
1 tomato, chopped
1/2 large onion, chopped
1 clove of garlic, minced
3/4 cup cabbage kimchi
1 box of soft or medium tofu, cut into your signature tofu shape
2 medium cucumbers, chopped
1 tbsp soy sauce
dash of dashi powder
1 tbsp red pepper paste
1 pinch of red pepper flakes
1-3 white fish fillets, cut into large chunks*
3 hard-boiled eggs
salt and pepper, to taste
In a large pot, saute the napa, mushrooms, fish cake, tomato, onion, and garlic until the Napa is softened. Add in the kimchi, tofu, fish fillets along with the rest of the ingredients/seasonings and about a cup of water. Bring to a boil and turn down the heat to low and let simmer for about 20 minutes. If you want, skip the hard-boiled eggs and do it restaurant-style by dropping the eggs directly into the hot bubbling broth right before sitting down to eat.
*Any kind of meat or other type of seafood can be substituted for the fish fillets and fish cake.