The popularity of Korean restaurants is the grill-your-own galbee, bulgogi, and other meats, along with an array of bahnchan, perhaps a gurgling spicy jjigae, and to finish the feast off cleanly, a bowl of naeng-myun (cold buckwheat noodles).
But Korean food isn't always a big barbecue bonanza at the likes of Chosun Galbee in L.A.'s Koreatown, Sagan in Orange County, or even on the backyard patio at home. Often, Korean food is much simpler. At home, we have a bowl of rice with a few bahnchan pulled from the fridge, or a bowl of gook (soup), or a simple saeng-sun gui (broiled fish). And when we go out, we find other simple Korean foods at Korean cafés, pronounced "kah-pae" since there is no natural "f" sound in the Korean language ;) Way back in grade school Texas, Dad absolutely insisted we name our shih-tzu Buffy. At the time, I had no idea he was trying to get us to practice the "f" sound. Here, Buppy!
I don't know what the official name of the group that encompasses these Korean café foods is. It would be similar to café and bistro foods in France, or perhaps osteria foods in Italy, but even these are too fancy to compare. I think it's more along the lines of bar and pub foods in America like beer nuts and chicken wings. These are things we order when we sit down with a bottle of soju, a few jahn (glasses) since we pour it ourselves, and the waitress makes a little disposable "ashtray" out of a wet napkin, since technically, there's no smoking inside. Ahn-joo are things like nuts, oh-jing-uh (dried squid), sweetened toasted nori, or even fresh cut fruit. And of course, there are things that are more substantial but ridiculously simple for what they charge on the menu, like kimchee dooboo - a simple stirfry of kimchee and perhaps a few slices of meat served with cold fresh tofu ("dooboo" is the Korean pronunciation for tofu).
A few months ago, I had quite possibly the worst kimchee dooboo I've ever tasted at a pan-Asian fusion restaurant on Sawtelle, Zip Fusion. It was odd to see kimchee dooboo done up so "fancy," but then to have it taste so bad - I wanted to get GordonRamsay about it. The kimchee tasted so sickeningly sticky sweet that it couldn't even be rectified with tofu because Zip served soon dooboo (silken, or extra soft, tofu), which was quite near impossible to pick up off the plate with chopticks. An absolute waste of kimchee that could have been good by itself and tofu that could have been made into soon dooboo jjigae.
So I went back to the original at a café in Koreatown, Bohemian, and I remebered how good kimchee dooboo (as well as tohng-dahk and uh, chamisul!) is supposed to taste. Bohemian had stirfried the kimchee with thick slices of pork and added just a touch of sweetness to stimulate the entire tongue, not just the sour and spicy. It was delicious, but it stung just ever so slightly knowing I had paid almost 12 dollars for raw ingredients that cost less than two. Delicious, but next time, we're making it at home!
And so armed with a half bottle of over-ripe kimchee that mom has decided will either become homemade freezer packs-to-go of kimchee jjigae in her house or bestowed upon pathetic daughter who never has the time to drive to K-town for groceries, I went home and made kimchee dooboo myself. Mine didn't have thick slices of fatty pork, but if I had a can of Spam, I would have added that in since it's more traditional - LOL! Just a handful of kimchee sautéed in the pan with a swirl of sesame oil and soy sauce and a twinkle of sugar. The tofu can be cut in any manner, but I am partial to the simple (Bohemian made it "oooh, fancy" with triangles). Toasted sesame seeds are this season's hottest accessory.
Spicy, salty, sour kimchee, with an added subtle sweetness, now warm from sauté, with a piece of silky smooth cold tofu is almost a perfect, complete bite. Only perfectly complete when it's chased with a cold Hite ;)