You could say I haven't exactly been the kind of daughter-in-law a Korean mother would have wished for.
I can't speak Korean. (I don't think being able to say "kalbi" and "bulgogi" counts.) And while I'm awfully good at eating Korean food, well, making it is another matter entirely.
I'd never attempted many Korean dishes simply because they seem terribly complex — each stew, each grilled meat I sample is always bursting at the seams with complicated clusters of flavors. How could I ever replicate those tastes in my little Brooklyn kitchen? No, no, it was always far easier to just throw in the spatula and hop on a train to New York's Koreatown.
After spending some time in the kitchen with my mother-in-law in Honolulu for book research last year, however, I started to come around.
Since she lives in Hawaii and I live in New York, it's been impossible to keep the lessons going. So I've been turning to a blogger whom I deeply admire — and adore — who's essentially a one-woman Korean cooking school: the irrepressible Maangchi.
Many of her recipes are incredibly simple — foolproof, almost — and watching her videos helps you figure out whether you're chopping things the right size or grilling meats to the right doneness. Recently, I had her to thank for a lovely tofu and seafood stew I'd been craving …
It all began when Maangchi invited me to judge a kimchi contest this summer in Brooklyn. (Which, believe me, was not easy — try sampling 22 kinds of kimchi before noon, my friends. You'll see.)
At the end of the contest, Maangchi pressed a bag of food on me. In this bag was this plastic container of fermented soybean paste, which I managed to figure out because these were the only few English words on its labeling.
There was also an intriguing bag of "Baby Anchovies for Kids" — something I'd never seen.
What to do with them? I decided to try making doenjang jjigae, a traditional tofu and seafood stew that's regarded as commoners' food in Korea because everyone eats it.
The recipe is crazy easy — you basically chop up a zucchini, chili pepper, peeled potato, onion, peeled shrimp and toss that all in a pot. Maangchi's recipe for this dish calls for large anchovies but since I had the kiddie version, I decided to just use that, sprinkling a handful on top of the mixture.
Next, you fill the pot so water just covers the ingredients, bring that to a boil, then you add soybean paste, cubed tofu and chopped scallions.
After a little more boiling — until the potato is tender — the dish is done and you're ready to eat.
As you can see, I wasn't lying about the "crazy easy" part. The hard bit is the chopping, but if you have a trusty (and hungry) sous chef at your mercy like I do, this stew truly is a cinch. Just make some rice (or not) and dinner is ready to go.
Be forewarned, however — this is a very pungent dish. If you don't like anchovies, this may not be for you. And if spice isn't your thing, leave the peppers out. The overall flavor, though, is complex and hearty — salty, fishy, earthy and slightly sweet all at once. And healthy, to boot.
Most important, though, it's a stew that I'd like to think would make my mother-in-law proud.
A Singaporean Daughter-In-Law's Doenjang Jjigae
Adapted from a recipe by Maangchi
1/2 or 1 potato, peeled (optional)
5 cloves of garlic, minced
1 green chili pepper
1 green onion, coarsely chopped
12 oz or 16 oz firm tofu
4 shrimp, peeled
1/4 cup baby anchovies
4 to 6 heaping TB doenjang (Korean soybean paste)
Dice zucchini, potato and onion and put them in a cast iron pot. Thickly slice green chili pepper and shrimp and add that to the pot. Sprinkle anchovies on top, add garlic and mix it all up then fill up the pot with water until the ingredients are just covered. Transfer the pot to the stove and bring its contents to a boil. When you put the pot on the stove, you can add the doenjang right away and stir up the mixture or wait until the liquid is fully boiling.
Once the liquid is boiling, add tofu and green onions, stir it up and bring the mixture to a boil. Once the potato cubes are tender, the stew is ready. Serve with rice.