I first tasted gochujang because of a boy. We were in a busted strip mall, just west of Houston’s I-610 loop. A lot of things were changing in my life, and I hadn’t been home—home home—in a minute, and we were too broke to go most places. But, in the Korean restaurants across Bellaire Boulevard, we could afford to eat, and to eat well. So we did that—gluttonously, unapologetically, posting up around Chimney Rock Road and Dashwood and Fifth Street, and, occasionally, further north of Bissonnet, scarfing pajeon and kkakdugi and ssambap and hae-jang guk—scallion pancakes, radish kimchi, lettuce wraps, and hangover soup.
But the soondubu jjigae did something singular to me. It’s a stew of soft tofu, served in a spicy anchovy broth and sometimes embellished with meat or seafood. The gochujang is the thing: a bright-red fermented chile paste, tangy and scalding and sweet all at once. I’d tasted the flavor before, briefly, in a chicken stew, and then once again in a bowl of cold, lightly coated noodles, but I guess I’d never really paid the spice any mind; now it hijacked my tastebuds. But, when I asked my dude about it, he just shrugged. He’s Korean; he’d grown up with this. It was whatever. I knew I’d reacted similarly when I’d introduced him to the city’s one acceptable Jamaican jerk spot: Yo, that’s just how it tastes. You jerk the chicken. You end up with jerk chicken. But now, standing on the other side, the nonchalance seemed absurd: how could anyone not be excited about soondubu jjigae? The heat echoed the flavors that I’d grown up with and contorted them.
We bounced from diner to diner, slurping stew after stew after stew. Some were spicier; some were subtler. One was stuffed to the brim with mussels and shrimp. Another allowed the broth to take center stage, adorned with curds of creamy, silken tofu. My guy cooked it himself from time to time, cracking an egg into steaming liquid, watching as it settled into solidity. Eventually, after we split—blah, blah—I started bugging him for the recipe. But he told me that his process changed every time. Depended on his mood. I was a decent home cook. I’d fried some adequate plantain, crisped some reasonable pork katsu. But this seemed entirely over my head.
So I started frequenting those same Korean diners on my own, a little fanatically, and the women who worked there just sort of cocked their heads at me; their strip-mall restaurants weren’t exactly inundated with black dudes dining solo. Then again, my presence wasn’t totally fucking weird: we lived in Houston, where everyone eats everything. Crawfish pho. Food-truck jollof. But the more I went, the more familiar we grew, and the more casual they became, which is to say, less accommodating. Like, You already know where the paper cups are—just grab one. I’m on the phone, the pepper’s right there, are you really asking me for that right now? I’d become less of a guest than a regular, and the cuisine became more familiar. The heat wasn’t as barefaced; I noticed things. Once, a restaurant owner stood by me while I ate her stew, just watching and smiling.
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Maybe meeting a new flavor is alchemy. Today, you can’t stand it. Tomorrow, it’s all you can stand. At home, I cooked stews. Minced garlic. Read about blending the flavors—combining chilies and anchovies until the spice bloomed the way that I liked, simmering until the heat of the red pepper was present without screaming. It was a privilege, I guess, growing to care so deeply about something that had nothing to do with my life. Only now, it did.
I was overdue for a visit home, and I got it into my head to make a spread for my family. The night before the big meal, I went to H Mart, where there’s a cashier I’m friendly with. We’re about the same age. She’ll ask what I’m cooking and I’ll tell her, and we’ll both blush for no reason. This time, she smiled at my cart, which was lined with daikon and yams and cucumbers and kombu and rice cakes and sliced squid and two whole chickens and clams. She asked who I was cooking for—why so many people—and I told her it was my family, and that I wasn’t sure how it would go. She said, in case it helped, that the food looked delicious. Any fuck-ups would be on me.
I went home. Hugged everyone. To minimal fanfare, I prepared my meal—starting with a stir-fry of fish cakes and serrano chilies, and ending with the tofu stew—while my family members watched college football. My mother took a moment to process the scene: her wayward, weirdo son, first shacking up with other mothers’ sons, now cooking dishes from an ocean away. But again—it’s Houston. Her features softened as she watched me cook. We talked about the recipes. The fish sauce here adds umami. The toasted sesame seeds add nuttiness. Our time apart collapsed. Grievances receded. We were just in the kitchen, the two of us, and, when my mother finally took a bite of the soondubu jjigae, she told me she’d have to learn to make it, too. She asked how I’d learned, and I started to explain, but I couldn’t tell her, the same way no one could really tell me. I’d at least learned that much. So I told my mother that I’d show her some time. We’d try to figure it out.
8 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 Tbsp. gochujang
1½ Tbsp. mirin
2 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 14-oz. package silken tofu, cut into eight pieces
½ cup shiitake mushrooms, sliced
1 medium onion, diced
4 cups anchovy stock (recipe follows) or water
Kosher salt and black pepper to taste ½ lb. shrimp
1. In a medium bowl, whisk together garlic, gochujang, mirin, and soy sauce.
2. In a medium saucepan or clay pot, combine the gochujang mixture and anchovy stock.
3. Add the tofu, mushrooms, and onion.
4. Over a high heat, bring the liquid to a boil. Then reduce heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes. Add salt to taste.
5. Add shrimp and simmer for a minute or two, just until they turn pink.
6. Serve immediately with rice.
25 dried anchovies
½ cup daikon, roughly chopped
1 bunch scallions, trimmed
2 squares kombu
4 dried bird’s-eye chilies
1. In a medium saucepan, combine all the ingredients with 1 quart of water. Bring to a gentle boil over medium-high heat, then reduce heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes.
2. Strain the mixture and discard the solids. The stock will keep in the fridge for a few days, and in the freezer for about two months.