Korean side dishes are health trendy
As an immigrant child growing up in the Chicago area, my mom (a phenomenal cook) made sure we appreciated the wide spectrum of Korean cuisine. Most nights of the week we would have a spread of banchan, a menagerie of colorful side dishes comprised of various kinds of kimchi (fermented cabbage, cubed daikon, and cucumbers), kongnamul-muchim (seasoned, blanched soy bean sprouts), musaengchae (julienned daikon salad), gosari namul (seasoned, sautéed fiddlehead ferns), and sigeumchi namul (blanched, seasoned spinach). And those were only the side dishes.
Throughout a given week, we ate a balanced array of beef, pork, chicken, or seafood dishes. Of course, we didn’t eat all those tasty dishes at once. We sometimes enjoyed a bubbling pot of jigae (spicy delicious stew). My absolute favorite was the kimchi soondubu jigae – a mixed seafood and meat stew with kimchi, soft tofu, and veggies in a bubbling cauldron of deliciousness. During the hot summer months, my dad would fire up the grill and we would enjoy a feast of Korean barbecue, popularized by the kalbi (marinated short ribs) and bulgogi (thinly sliced marinated beef) always accompanied by banchan.
Back when kimchi was relatively unknown
Back in the ’80s, Korean food wasn’t something I could just tote in my lunch sack. For school lunches, I carried my brown bag of turkey, PB&J, ham, or egg salad sandwich. You couldn’t find Korean food in your typical American supermarket, and you had to shop at an Asian market for specialty items.
These were the days of Stranger Things fame where I revel in flash backs of Eleven’s Eggo waffles, toaster strudels that came with packets of DIY frosting, Chef Boyardee Beefaroni and Spaghettios, Little Debbie’s snacks, Gorton’s fish sticks, blocks of Velveeta cheese, and of course, Hot Pockets. The heyday of packaged meals and Happy Meal boxes.
I see kimchi everywhere
Now when I step into a major supermarket, I smile to myself when I see the many varieties of kimchi that are marketed as probiotic, gut-friendly, diet-conscious health food products. It’s the stuff I grew up with as part of my regular eating existence. Can I bastardize a line from The Six Sense? I see kimchi everywhere. That and Korean-dressed mashups.
Just the other day I walked through the aisles at Whole Food and was confronted with Gochujang Ketchup. Basically, ketchup infused with Korean-fermented chili paste. The mashup is intriguing to stay the least. Whole Foods now also carries its own brand of 365 Kettle Cooked Gochujang Chips. I have yet to try these. Save for a future post.
Kimchi makes the top 10 list except…
Aside from the now trendiness of Korean cuisine, kimchi has been sweeping the top 10 lists of gut-friendly foods. Men’s Journal proclaimed it as one of the top 8 probiotic foods you should be eating. Similarly, Dr. Axe ranked kimchi on his top 13 list of great probiotic foods. Healthline listed it as one the top 8 fermented foods that boost digestion and health, and Dr. Oz highlighted kimchi as one of the top 5 foods that TV chefs always have in their refrigerators. In a recent Time.com article published in April 2018, kimchi was lauded as a probiotic rich dish that may help reduce cancer risk. And, kimchi consistently makes the keto friendly list of foods, so check that off your ketogenic food diary.
Then you see conflicting advice from Dr. Michael Greger, author of How Not to Die, who cites epidemiological evidence that indicates that elevated consumption of kimchi (fermented vegetables) could possibly increase the risk of cancer. In a published 2011 study in the Journal of Gastric Cancer, the research revealed the average consumption of kimchi in Korea represents 20% of daily sodium intake. The case-control studies link high intake of kimchi with an increased risk for gastric cancer. A leading culprit may be the high daily intake of sodium, in which salt can damage the stomach lining thereby promoting the carcinogenic effects. Food for thought. Balance and moderation continue to be the keys to a healthy diet.
Chock full of vitamins and lactobacilli
Nutritionists generally regard kimchi as a good source of vitamins A, B, C and of course the probiotic gut-supporting bacteria called lactobacilli, which one finds in fermented foods. This aids in moving things along and in healthy digestion. Koreans are said to eat on average 40 pounds per person annually.
Kimchi has been around for +2,000 years
Whatever your impressions of kimchi are, it is a longtime staple dish in the Korean diet and a source of nationalistic pride. It dates back at least as early as 37 BC-7 AD. The process of salting and fermenting vegetables was one of necessity to preserve food throughout the year. I recall my grandmothers took pride in making their own variations of kimchi, which would ferment in large airtight glass jars.
Kimchi for every palate
With all the store options, you can have the pick of the litter. My favorites always involve the delectable, crunchy daikon and refreshing cucumber. The nappa cabbage version is the most popular kind of kimchi. If you cannot stomach spice, you can try the milder white nappa cabbage version. Of the store-bought varietals, I like Sinto Gourmet brand for its clean flavors and pretty, resealable packaging that keep the aromas airtight inside.
Kimchi Soondubu Jigae recipe for home
As there are a plethora of kimchi options at your local supermarket or Asian market (i.e. Ranch 99), you can arrange your own colorful tableau of banchan. To create a savory soondubu jigae, I’ll give you my version of a favorite comfort food. As with all cookery, you can experiment to make it your own.
Soup Starter Hack
If you happen to shop at Ranch 99 or equivalent Asian market, a great hack is to buy a carton of House Foods BCD Soon Tofu Soup Starter. It’s an easy hack and all you need to throw in is veggies and whatever meat or seafood you so desire.
The Non-Hack Recipe
Now if you don’t have a soup starter, don’t fret. I’ve got you covered. You’ll need some store-bought kimchi, soft silken tofu, veggies, seafood (optional), and a bit of imagination. The following is enough for 1-3 servings depending on your appetite, and if you plan to share.
Ingredients (seafood version)
Kimchi (one cup)
Soft silken tofu (12 to 16 ounce carton)
Can of clams (littleneck clams)
Can of tuna (responsibly caught, tuna in water vs. oil)
2 cups of beef or vegetable stock
1 large zucchini
2 green scallions, or chives
Couple tsps of Gochujang (Korean chili paste)
1 tsp of minced garlic (or smash a glove)
1 tsp of sesame oil
1 tsp of soy sauce (or tamari sauce for GF sensitivities)
1 Tbsp of extra-virgin olive oil
Open the carton of silken tofu, and carefully cut into large blocks or chunks to make it easier for placing in a large saucepan. Chop up the zucchini and scallions, and place on the side. If you prefer your kimchi to be in smaller pieces, then you can chop that as well.
Heat up a large sauce pan
In a large sauce pan over medium heat, pour in your olive oil, gochujang, and sesame oil. Toss in your minced garlic and zucchini. Give that a good stir for a minute. Then add the kimchi and stir it around for a minute or two.
Add the broth (boil then simmer)
After a couple minutes, add the broth and soy sauce. Bring your stew to a boil. Then lower the heat to a simmer. Add salt to taste.
Add the canned clams and tuna
Make sure to drain the canned clams and tuna before you drop them into the simmering sauce pan.
Incorporate the chunks of silken soft tofu
Remember that the silken tofu is delicate and breaks apart easily. Using a large spatula or large ladle, add the pieces of silken tofu into the simmering pot. Give it 3-5 minutes, and keep the pot covered.
Lastly the eggs
While the jigae is simmering (and still bubbling), drop in one egg at a time. You want the lovely stew to cook up the yellow yolks nicely. Keep the simmering pot covered for a couple minutes. Once the eggs are nicely incorporated, you’re ready to serve up your soondubu jigae creation.
Garnish with scallions or chives
Garnish your finished soondubu jigae with scallions (or chives) and ladle them into bowls.
Steamed white rice (or brown rice).
Invest in a good rice cooker to get the perfect consistency of rice. An Asian rice cooker generally makes a perfect pot of moist rice, more so than an Instant Pot. I like medium grain white rice like Kokuho Rose white rice. If Kokuho Rose is unavailable, I’d recommend Nishiki’s premium white or brown rice version. When using a rice cooker, I rinse and use 2 cups of medium grain white rice with nearly 3 cups of water in total. As a rule of thumb, for every 1 cup of medium grain white rice, use 1.5 cups of water. For brown rice, you’ll need to double the water otherwise the rice is super hard. So for every 1 cup of brown rice, use 2 cups of water.
Depending on the make/model and setting of the rice cooker, your rice can take anywhere from 30-50 minutes to cook rice. The great thing about leftover rice is that you can leave it in the rice cooker as it has a “warm” setting.
I now leave you with this boomerang video of bubbling kimchi soondubu jigae. I recently enjoyed this stew full of belly-pleasing probiotics. Enjoy some adventurous eats!