Cooking Korean by a Cooking Newbie

Despite the large population of Koreans living in Phnom Penh, finding good Korean comfort food has been difficult. The hunt all started with a typical night of partying in Phnom Penh and the inevitable hangover the next morning. I slowly dragged myself out of bed towards my refrigerator in search for anything that would make the sick feeling go away. To my dismay, the only items I found in my refrigerator were a nearly empty bottle of water, some eggs, and a box of arm and hammer baking soda. Staring blankly into my refrigerator, I started to reminisce about partying with friends back home in San Francisco and the Korean establishments that would be open until the wee hours of the night that served up some much needed hangover food. At that moment I wished more than ever that a bowl of soondubu (Korean soft tofu soup) would magically appear before me – soondobu is hangover’s best friend.

First attempt at making soondubu

I have yet to find a late night Korean restaurant in Phnom Penh to satisfy my hangover cravings. Sure, there are plentiful Korean restaurants in town, and at the hour I was partying until – often dancing to hip hop music until the sun came out – I could easily patronize a restaurant during lunch hours before passing out back at the apartment. However, slumping around in my high heels with half my makeup removed from all the sweat and heat from the night was not how I wanted to be seen in public. I decided to take whatever dignity I had left and go home instead.

One day, while shopping for groceries to fill my pitiful refrigerator, my friend gave me the perfect solution to my problem. “It’s simple, just get this brand of chili powder, some soft tofu, zucchini, and pork ribs and make your own.” Not only would it cure me of my hangover, but by making it myself in the comfort of my own home, I wouldn’t be subjected to the post-partying walk of shame in Phnom Penh. Genius.

Homemade kimchi

I consider myself pretty passionate about eating. I once travelled to Penang, Malaysia with a food trail map and a huge appetite. Visiting one hawker stall to the next were the only items on my itinerary. But, despite my love of food, I can’t cook. For the greater majority of my life, cooking meant sandwiching stuff between two slices of bread, to say the least.

I did a quick Google search for authentic soondubu recipes to use as a guideline. Like a mad scientist, I started concocting this seemingly intricate soondubu recipe. Attempting this soondubu was outside of my comfort zone. When I was young my mom would kick me out of her kitchen, claiming that my presence would only slow her down, further perpetuating my illusion of the complexities of cooking. My apprehension included not using the right ingredients (the recipes I found in my Google search were all different), measuring exact proportions of chili powder to fish sauce, or not chopping my vegetables small enough. After slaving over a hot stove I’d say my first attempt was successful. Although the pork came out a bit dry and the zucchini overcooked, I was proud to have produced something edible.

Dwenjang jjigae in the making

I’ve made soondubu countless times now, and my familiarity with cooking it has given me the confidence to modify the recipe to my preference – such as adding a tablespoon of miso paste or some enoki mushrooms for a fuller flavor. Slowly but surely, I am adding new recipes to my cooking repertoire of Korean foods. Just this week I made my own kimchi and dwenjang jjigae and invited my Korean friend over for lunch. He picked up a piece of kimchi with his fingers and bent it in half to check the texture. Then he proceeded to taste the soup accompanied by a bowl of steamed rice. The verdict: “Delicious, but next time try cooking something that’s not Korean” in his best attempt to let me down easy. I’m not ready to give up cooking Korean foods just yet, but I do hope to expand my cooking knowledge to other cuisine types, one recipe at a time.