Eating Korean "Kah-pae" Style – Kimchee Tofu

kimchee dooboo (tofu)
The popularity of Korean restaurants is the grill-your-own galbee, bulgogi, and other meats, along with an array of bahnchan, perhaps a gurgling spicy jjigae, and to finish the feast off cleanly, a bowl of naeng-myun (cold buckwheat noodles).

But Korean food isn’t always a big barbecue bonanza at the likes of Chosun Galbee in L.A.’s Koreatown, Sagan in Orange County, or even on the backyard patio at home. Often, Korean food is much simpler. At home, we have a bowl of rice with a few bahnchan pulled from the fridge, or a bowl of gook (soup), or a simple saeng-sun gui (broiled fish). And when we go out, we find other simple Korean foods at Korean cafés, pronounced “kah-pae” since there is no natural “f” sound in the Korean language ;) Way back in grade school Texas, Dad absolutely insisted we name our shih-tzu Buffy. At the time, I had no idea he was trying to get us to practice the “f” sound. Here, Buppy!

I don’t know what the official name of the group that encompasses these Korean café foods is. It would be similar to café and bistro foods in France, or perhaps osteria foods in Italy, but even these are too fancy to compare. I think it’s more along the lines of bar and pub foods in America like beer nuts and chicken wings. These are things we order when we sit down with a bottle of soju, a few jahn (glasses) since we pour it ourselves, and the waitress makes a little disposable “ashtray” out of a wet napkin, since technically, there’s no smoking inside. Ahn-joo are things like nuts, oh-jing-uh (dried squid), sweetened toasted nori, or even fresh cut fruit. And of course, there are things that are more substantial but ridiculously simple for what they charge on the menu, like kimchee dooboo – a simple stirfry of kimchee and perhaps a few slices of meat served with cold fresh tofu (“dooboo” is the Korean pronunciation for tofu).

A few months ago, I had quite possibly the worst kimchee dooboo I’ve ever tasted at a pan-Asian fusion restaurant on Sawtelle, Zip Fusion. It was odd to see kimchee dooboo done up so “fancy,” but then to have it taste so bad – I wanted to get GordonRamsay about it. The kimchee tasted so sickeningly sticky sweet that it couldn’t even be rectified with tofu because Zip served soon dooboo (silken, or extra soft, tofu), which was quite near impossible to pick up off the plate with chopticks. An absolute waste of kimchee that could have been good by itself and tofu that could have been made into soon dooboo jjigae.

So I went back to the original at a café in Koreatown, Bohemian, and I remebered how good kimchee dooboo (as well as tohng-dahk and uh, chamisul!) is supposed to taste. Bohemian had stirfried the kimchee with thick slices of pork and added just a touch of sweetness to stimulate the entire tongue, not just the sour and spicy. It was delicious, but it stung just ever so slightly knowing I had paid almost 12 dollars for raw ingredients that cost less than two. Delicious, but next time, we’re making it at home!

And so armed with a half bottle of over-ripe kimchee that mom has decided will either become homemade freezer packs-to-go of kimchee jjigae in her house or bestowed upon pathetic daughter who never has the time to drive to K-town for groceries, I went home and made kimchee dooboo myself. Mine didn’t have thick slices of fatty pork, but if I had a can of Spam, I would have added that in since it’s more traditional – LOL! Just a handful of kimchee sautéed in the pan with a swirl of sesame oil and soy sauce and a twinkle of sugar. The tofu can be cut in any manner, but I am partial to the simple (Bohemian made it “oooh, fancy” with triangles). Toasted sesame seeds are this season’s hottest accessory.

Spicy, salty, sour kimchee, with an added subtle sweetness, now warm from sauté, with a piece of silky smooth cold tofu is almost a perfect, complete bite. Only perfectly complete when it’s chased with a cold Hite ;)

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  • Anonymous

    [quote]So I went back to the original at a café in Koreatown, Bohemian, and I remebered how good kimchee dooboo (as well as tohng-dahk and uh, chamisul!) is supposed to taste. Bohemian had stirfried the kimchee with thick slices of pork and added just a touch of sweetness to stimulate the entire tongue, not just the sour and spicy. It was delicious, but it stung just ever so slightly knowing I had paid almost 12 dollars[/quote]

    Any other less expensive alternatives you can think of, other than making it at home?

  • sarah

    hmmm…there are a number of cafes all over l.a.’s k-ton, but i can’t remember eating kimchee dooboo at any of them recently enough to remember how much they cost. in the same plaza as bohemian, there’s a restaurant called toe-bang (HORRIBLE translation for what should be “toh-bahng” LOL). they may have it as well, but not sure how much. when i find out more, i shall report.

  • vox populi

    hate tofu

  • Clare Eats

    This looks great! mmmmm

    I managed to find a good korean restaurant ( I think, like I have a clue) and I had noodles with a chilli paste and raw marinated fish, it was good except I didn’t realise that you are supposed to chop the noodles with scissors for… alittle while *oops*

  • sarah

    hi clare! i know – um, i still think it’s weird that koreans take plain old scissors from a desk drawer to cut up noodles at the table – lol! it sounds like you had some version of naeng-myun, a cold buckwheat noodle that is really chewy. just had some last week and will beposting my thoughts about all this silliness shortly :)

  • Clare Eats

    I was trying to eat them, then I asked the waitress and she looked at me like I was soooooo dumm and cut them for me…. oops

  • hermz

    oooh… you just gave me an idea. Spam bi bim bap!

  • sarah

    now, would you do the Spam diced, or do julienned strips…and more importantly, would you fry them before hand?!?! ;)

  • foodnerd

    I never thought I could choose a favorite food, but it turns out kimchee dooboo is my absolute favorite food in the whole world, for just the reasons you describe — it hits all the flavor buttons you could ever want: spicy, sweet, savory, salty, warm, cool, rich, clean. It makes me happy every time. Well, not every time — some places make versions that aren’t so hot, but WuChon House in Somerville MA is the motherlode, source of the best kimchee dooboo in the world that I have found so far. They use (and when I make it at home I do too) gochu jang in the sauce, which I think is the secret to its extra-yumminess. Sigh. Now I want some…

  • milgwimper

    Sarah,

    I have been sitting here reading your entries, and laughing, and nodding my head in agreement. I have to say I love kimchee tubu, and I am really enjoying your blog. I will be adding you to my blogroll thanks. :D

  • Anonymous

    There’s a new octopus place, called moo-gyo-dong nakji, in the mall on the corner of Wilshire and Wilton. My favorite dish there is the nakji pajun, which can feed two or three people. It comes with regular kimchi, mool kimchi, seaweed covered with gochujang, and some other banchan Ask for cho gochujang, to dip the pajun in.

  • alwayshungry3580

    It’s a big question for me. I’ve been working in K Town for 11 years and desperately need to branch out beyond soon tofu and Soot Bull Jeep. where is the great kimchee tofu place? Where is any great lunch place here?

  • The Overworked Barista

    Oddly…this is the only meal my Korean roommates know how to make.

    It costs us about 2.00 to make, yet was wonderfully delicious. I would make it here, but if I were to buy one of those guargantuan jars of kimchee my parents would kill me. (no fridge space)

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