Dubu, Korea’s tofu

Written by on January 28, 2011 in Lifestyle

It’s not tofu, it’s dubu (두부). The word is easy to pronounce, soft and friendly. Dubu, dubu, dubu, dubu. See how the word rolls?

Dubu, i.e. the healthy vegetable protein bean curd, is a staple ingredient in Korean cuisine. Originally of Chinese origin, the first mention of dubu in Korea is from the lines of a poem in a mid 17th century Goryeo Dynasty document where it praises the taste of dubu.

Yes, the taste of dubu. I’m surprised when watching certain western cooking programs where they make vegetarian dishes out of dubu while desperately trying to disguise it as something else, mostly because dubu has “no taste”. Really? No taste? It’s quite baffling.

Dubu has taste. It has its own unique flavor. There’s a subtlety to the taste, perhaps, a subtlety that manages to blend with and enhance other flavors with ease; a great characteristic to have as a flexible and multipurpose ingredient.

There are many varieties of dubu, but the common categorization is by texture: sundubu, yeondubu, and dubu.

A standard sundubu jjigae setting

A standard sundubu jjigae setting

Sundubu (순두부, pure dubu) has the softest texture among dubu. It is popular as a spicy jjigae, with many different varieties. There are many restaurants specializing in sundubu jjigae only, although you’d find the dish at cheap eateries as well. It’s usually served with rice and side dishes called banchan.

Yeondubu as banchan

Blocks of yeondubu (연두부, soft dubu) with a red pepper paste sauce. This dish is usually served as a banchan. Yeondubu’s texture is similar to the Italian gelatin pudding panna cotta and is mostly eaten uncooked, either plain or together with a sauce.
I like to eat it in the mornings (protein, darling!) with a splash of soy sauce when I’m not in the mood to make breakfast. The recipe is truly for the lazy: 1) Take dubu out of package. 2) Place in bowl. 3) Pour wanted amount of soy sauce over the dubu. 4) Eat.

The regular “firm” dubu, which may be eaten as is, is more commonly used in jjigae (찌개, stew), guk (, soup), jeongol (전골, stew usually cooked tableside), tang (, soup usually meat or fish based), or served pan-fried. The textures and consistency differ even within the same category, so some dubu brands kindly specify the best use of the dubu on their packaging: for jjigae or for frying.

Dubu kimchi, the standard anju

An example of dubu eaten in its natural state: dubu kimchi. Dubu kimchi is probably one of the most popular dubu dishes, being the standard anju (안주, side dish for alcoholic beverages) to pair with soju or makkeolli.
The dish is usually composed of either pan-fried kimchi or mugeunji (묵은지, cabbage kimchi that has been slow fermented for 6 months or more) with slices of dubu. Recipes vary; some like to slightly fry the dubu, some add pork while frying the kimchi, some add other vegetables, some sprinkle sesame seeds, and some add a drizzle of sesame oil.

Slices of dubu in daegutang

 Slices of dubu in daegu-tang (대구탕, clear cod stew) with clams, water dropwort, chopped green and red peppers.

Doenjang jjigae

Dubu in the basic jjigae of a Korean meal: doenjang jjigae (fermented soy bean paste stew). It’s very rare to see doenjang jjigae without dubu in it.

Mandu and its inside

Dubu is also used in mandu (만두, dumpling) stuffing by crushing it and adding it to the other ingredients. The photo above is Pyeongyang style steamed mandu.

There are other varieties of dubu which are made with additional ingredients in the curds such as heukdubu (흑두부, black dubu), which is made with black beans and has just the slightest gray tinge. Some restaurants offer orange dubu (carrots), green dubu (mugwort or spinach), brown dubu (walnut or black garlic) and many other innovative recipes are being developed.

The most famous place for dubu is in Gangneung city, where the dubu is made by using clean sea water instead of salt water as the coagulant of the bean curds. The dubu is called chodang dubu, named after the pen name of the governor of the region in the 16th century, Huh Yeop.

There is a district within the city of Gangneung dedicated to dubu, the Chodang Dubu Village. It’s a must-go course if you ever visit the city.

Chodang Halmoni Dubu

Luckily for me, one of the regular members of my wine group is from Gangneung, so choosing among the many dubu restaurants was an easy task – I just went with his recommendation, “Halmoni Sundubu”.
If the restaurant name has the word “grandmother” (halmoni) in it, it’s most likely to be good. Especially if there is no specific surname added on.

Inside Halmoni’s

The interior of the restaurant is like a country home, complete with a TV set in the room.

Dubu set setting

We ordered a soft sundubu set and an additional block of regular dubu. The set means you get rice, doenjang soup and banchan. The soy sauce with chopped spring onions, garlic, sesame seeds, and red pepper flakes is provided as condiment.

Spoonful of biji

You also get biji (비지), which is the residue left after soy milk is pressed to make dubu. The texture is a bit chewier than dubu, as it’s full of fiber. Unlike dubu, which has a unique “nutty” flavor, biji is usually seasoned due to its bland flavor.

Blocks of dubu

Unlike commercial dubu, homemade dubu is usually made in large portions and it is just cut up and scooped in the amount that you order. No additives whatsoever in chodang dubu, and if you’re a dubu connoisseur you can definitely taste the difference.

Pure sundubu

A spoonful of the tastiest sundubu you’ll ever get. The dubu was the perfect broken mess without being really broken; great texture.

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About the Author

Suzy Chung

Suzy Chung is a multilingual writer, editor, and translator with a marketing background. A coffee addict, bookworm, art junkie, foodie, oenophile, K-pop enthusiast, and occasional painter, she has been online since the mid ’90s when the internet wasn’t really the internet but a blue screen with text only discussions. She has lived in three continents but truly believes that Korea is the place to be and is willing to convince anyone who will listen!