Here in Seattle, besides a few summer months, most of the year is soup and stew season. And if you need some inspiration, Monica Lee has you covered with nourishing and spicy jjigae and banchan recipes in Sohn-mat: Recipes and Flavors of Korean Home Cooking. (Note: Jjigae is also commonly spelled “chigae.”)
Korean food has been enjoying its ongoing moment of being “discovered” and mainstreamed in the world, a benefit to us all, but it took long enough.
Some dishes are very well known. Bibimbap is generally the bright and beautiful crowd-pleaser, kimbap is the cutie pie, kimchi pajeon is the “wow” dish that shows everyone that everything is better with kimchi… and pancakes are no different just because you associate them with sweetness, and people are generally delighted about banchan because it’s free — if you’re at a place that’s keeping it real.
But jjigae’s different. And if you aren’t familiar with it, although I should assume this readership is, jjigae is a hearty Korean stew that could become your new favorite comfort food.
Monica Lee refers to it as a working class dish. It’s served as a cauldron of red hot stew that often comes out still boiling and bubbling with various meats, seafood, vegetables, and kimchi rolling around in it. It’s usually served with a raw egg jiggling around in the center that eventually poaches in the heat if you can wait that long to break into it. Yes, it’s extremely photogenic and impressive in a social media post, but it’s not pretty so much as it is formidable.
The star of the stew is the tofu. It’s very soft, softer than silken tofu, a custard texture that mocks chopsticks and requires a spoon, and that fluffy texture is the pleasure of it all. There’s a very satisfying yin-yang feeling of balance between the red pepper hotness and the cooling cloud-like softness of the soon tofu. I personally like to scoop spoonfuls of the broth and tofu and other ingredients onto a separate bowl of white rice to further balance out the spiciness.
Lee has more than proven her expertise and authority on the topic of jjigae. In June 1986, she opened the first restaurant in all of Los Angeles, located in Koreatown, that was dedicated to this hearty spice beast of a dish. She writes in the book that it may actually have been the first restaurant in the United States focused solely on jjigae.
The restaurant, Beverly Soon Tofu, was modest — a 35-seat restaurant with just four jjigae dishes on the menu. Every dish came with white rice, banchan, and to drink, there was barley tea.
She sold out by 8 p.m. the first two nights in a row she was open and then continued to fill up night after night.
In the 1990s, legendary Los Angeles Times restaurant reviewer Jonathan Gold gave it a good review, and it also went on to earn accolades from Ruth Reichl and Anthony Bourdain. As tofu became a health trend among Angelenos at this time and celebrities began showing up, jjigae and Lee found themselves having officially arrived in city’s food scene.
Unfortunately, even the success of jjigae was no match for the COVID-19 pandemic, and after working to keep up with takeout orders, Lee decided to close Beverly Soon Tofu in 2020. Los Angeles’ loss, but fortunately it gave her time to share her jjigae-making talent with the world in this book.
Running the restaurant and serving jjigae were Lee’s passions for decades, and this comes through in Sohn-mat.
Co-authored by Tien Nguyen, who also co-authored Roy Choi’s LA Son and Red Boat Fish Sauce Cookbook by Cuong Pham, it’s a beautiful memoir, cookbook and photography book. Warning. The photography by Rick Poon induces drooling.
Sohn-mat should definitely be a staple Korean cookbook on your shelf. The recipes are comprehensive and easy to follow. The book contains a pantry and shopping guide, and dedicated sections of recipes for broths, soon tofu jjigae, banchan dishes that pair well with the 10 jjigae recipes, kimchi, “other family favorites,” large platters to share, and stews and soups beyond just jjigae.
Interspersed throughout the book are cooking and shopping tips from Lee, vignettes on her life as a Korean immigrant, a glimpse into ‘80s and ‘90s Koreatown, and her story in ambitiously and successfully creating and running her restaurant.
So, about that title, what is sohn-mat?
In translation, it’s “flavor in the hands,” explains Lee. In concept and practice, it’s using your hands and intuition to make the food taste good. Lee claims it’s passed down from generation to generation and that it means you have a natural instinct for flavor.
“If you have sohn mat, you probably don’t need to measure very much; rather it’s as if your hands know exactly how much of this or that the dish needs,” she says. Lee also shares that in her family, the sohn-mat is strong, and in fact her grandmother’s aunt was a cook for the royal family in Korea.
My mom was born and raised in South Korea, and an easy form of jjigae was a familiar staple in our home when I was growing up. It’s now a massive comfort food for me as an adult. But the term sohn-mat was unfamiliar to me before encountering Lee’s book.
The last time I was home, I asked my mom, “What exactly does it mean?” I’d brought the book home with me and we sat in the living room as she slowly turned through the pages, exclaiming which ones were her favorite dishes. (There was a lot of exclaiming. She had a lot of favorites.)
“Let your hands do the cooking,” she told me. “It’s not the food that is making the flavor, it’s how you handle it, like how you mix kimchi together or vegetable dishes and all the ingredients, you have to use your hands for that, and you have to know how to taste. That’s what makes it taste good.”
“I don’t have it,” my mom sniffed, meaning she didn’t have the gift of sohn-mat.
She revealed that when she was a girl and lived with her grandparents on their farm outside of Seoul, she found two dead mice, and she was delighted by these small furry treasures. So much so that she immediately picked them up by their tails, one in each hand, and ran to show her grandma, mice swinging by their tails, as she beamed and held them up.
Her grandma scolded her and told her she’d cursed herself by touching mice, dead ones at that, with her hands at such a young age.
“Now you’ll never be a good cook!” Her grandma lamented. This turned out to be not true. Everyone who knows my mom knows she’s dexterous in the kitchen, but the superstition is still amusing.
So, if you’re up for the challenge of trying your hand at sohn-mat, as well as some hardcore spice and the soft comfort of soon tofu and jjigae, pick up a copy of Sohn-mat, and get those hands and tastebuds ready to cook and taste with the intuition of both. Let sohn-mat and Lee guide you in warming your bones with a homemade bowl of jjigae.
Just try to avoid picking up any dead rodents before diving in.