Life in Korea: Zen and the art of tofu

THIS post is dedicated to the omnivore Westerners who say “tofu? What do I do with it?” then buy some at the store to try it out. I’m here to tell you to give it a try, especially if you’re a meat eater. The flavor and grease of meat isn’t always appetizing, and sometimes you want something a bit different.

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to cook at home more often. Since the kitchen use in 2012 was mind-bogglingly low, even once a week would be an improvement. A result from this has been more grocery shopping in aisles where things don’t come pre-boxed or pre-bagged (the subject of another post to come). And tofu.

Call it 두부 (du-bu) in Korean. The bean curd dish may not have the most appetizing manufacturing process – but then again neither do sausages.

Step 1: Purchase.

That there’s more than one kind or brand of tofu should not be surprising – this is the country that sells an aisle’s worth of ramen noodles. The two kinds can be considered ‘soft’ and ‘firm’,  but the catch is that you won’t always see it on the packages.

A good example of a ‘firm’ tofu, although it can also come in a small clear plastic tub.

Your Korean vocabulary word of the day: 부드라운 (bu-deu-ra-oon), or soft. Inside the red circle are two of the most common ways to use soft tofu: 국 (guk, or soup) and 찌개 (jji-gae).

Apologies for the blurry picture – 단단한 (dan-dan-han) means firm, while 부침 (bu-chim) are vegetable pancakes. It should go without saying that each brand will label stuff in their own way.

As far as pricing goes, tofu is about as cheap as protein sources get – I’ve seen three tubs of soft tofu for 1,000 won, though even at 2,000-3,000 won a brick of firm tofu is still a good deal. As with other products in Korea, the more lavish-looking labels charge a higher price.

Step 2: Prepare

Dubu / tofu doesn’t have to be cooked for safety reasons, but eating it raw is about as appetizing as eating flour straight out of the bag. Think of it as an ingredient, not necessarily the final food that goes on a plate. Three common options to consider: stewed,  in a soup, or stir-fried.

If you’re making a stew or soup, you want the soft kind of tofu. If you’re going to use it like meat (stir-fried, in cubes, slices, or other meat-like sort of pieces), get the firm kind. Pretty simple, right?

Both kinds are packed in water. The soft kind merely needs to be drained, while the firm kind needs to be pressed to taste better and absorb the flavors from other foods.

Squeeze, baby, squeeze!

If you’re looking to go tofu and don’t have enough kitchen stuff yet, a tofu press is one way to press the tofu. Since this is Chris in South Korea, you can safely assume there’s a cheaper way. Go to Daiso and pick up a couple of small, square, plastic bowls that nest closely inside each other. Make sure the bottoms are thin, then go home and cut some small holes in the bottom of one of them. This’ll be the one you put the block in. The other one goes on top, and something heavy goes on top of that. Set this in the sink or on some paper towels, and leave it there for 10-15 minutes.

Finally, marinate – tofu is like a sponge, and it’s full of water when you buy it. Now that you’ve pressed out the water, it’s ready to absorb something else. Again, plenty of recipes out there, but most sauces will work.

Step 3: cook!

This, again, is not turning into a food blog, and there are plenty of recipes using tofu out there.

If using drained soft / silken tofu, it’s generally cut into cubes and added to the soup or stew after it’s been started.

If using firm tofu, stir-fry it baby! Some soy sauce or olive oil works great, and deep-frying is always an option. There’s an infinite number of combinations – put together a veggie (or two) and a starch, and you have a meal even picky eaters will enjoy.


Any favorite recipes? Ways of cooking?