Food Story: Korean Soondubu

My First Soondubu

When I lived in Gyeongju, one of my good friends Jikyung wanted to introduce me to the best restaurants in the city. She was fiercely proud of her hometown. She is a food connoisseur and thought that life was too short to eat bad food. One of the first places she took me to was at a famous soondubu place in Gyeongju’s Bomun lake resort area. This restaurant, Metdol Soondubu, was a landmark restaurant and it always had at least a 30 minute wait for a table. Jikyung assured me that it was worth it. The inside was quaint with wooden floor tables all around and the interior was a Korean hanok (traditional) style. The table was empty except for some container with some sauce and there was a little bowl of brown shelled eggs. Jikyung and I had a busy day hiking so I was a tad peckish. Jikyung had gone to the bathroom. So I thought, “ok, these hard-boiled eggs must be the appetizer.” I took one of the eggs cracked it on the table and I discovered the egg was raw. This egg started to ooze over my hands and then over the table, it was dripping through the wooden cracks and onto my feet below it. It was gross and I was trying to get tissues to clean up the egg and find a trashcan to put it in. As I had this huge mess before me, Jikyung and the waitress came. Both of them must have thought I was mentally handicapped. What I didn’t know then, but I know now, is that I was supposed to add the egg to the bubbling broth. The creaminess of the tofu and the egg yolk calmed the spiciness of the chili broth.

Metdol Sundubu Shikdang
Gyeongsangbukdo, Gyeongju Bukgungdong 229-1

What is Soondubu

For those unfamiliar with soondubu, it is uncurdled and unpressed tofu in a stew. It is similar to silken tofu. The classic dish is just plain tofu boiled in broth. This is called chodang sundubu. The popular version of this dish is a seafood soondubu (haemul soondubu). In this version, first a chili oil is made and then a seafood broth, seafood such as clams and shrimp, garlic and blocks of silken tofu are added. As the dish is bubbling, a whole egg is dropped and the dish is immediately served. It is a classic dish that is a staple meal that can be found at most Korean restaurants. However, the best places for these dishes are where they make the tofu fresh. These artisan tofu places place special emphasis on sourcing the best soy beans and to use seawater to curdle the tofu. 

The Origin City

The word soondubu translates to “pure tofu” and the famous city for tofu is on the east coast city of Gangneung in Gwangwondo. Here they have a village Here the tofu is curdled using fresh sea water instead of a salt brine. This was discovered by Chodang Heoyeop who was the magistrate of Gangeung City. He loved the taste of the local water from the spring in his yard so he decided to combine that with the local sea water to make the tofu. This combination of the local spring water and sea water created a pure tasting, fresh style of tofu that the area is famous for. The tofu here is not in whole silky blocks like you can get in the stores, instead it is crumbly like cottage cheese. In Gangneung City, the dish is served hot with a seasoned soy sauce. But it is also boiled with sour kimchi and seafood such as oysters and clams. In the tofu village of Gangneung there are restaurants that claim to have a 400 year history of making the tofu in the same traditional style.

Recommended Restaurants in Gangeung

400 Year House: Chodang Sundubu
Gangwondo Gangneung Eunjeongdong 256-3

Gohyangsanchon Chodang Sundubu
Gangwondo Gangeung Nanseolheonro 219bonji 34

Popularity Overseas

Soondubu is a food that is requested by my guests when they come on our private food tours. This is surprising since I thought non-Koreans are familiar with dishes like Korean barbecue and bibimbap. I have learned through my guests that Soondubu is a popular among young people after clubbing in Los Angeles and in New York City. This “international” version most guests are familiar overseas uses the packaged blocks of silky tofu and not the fresh made version in Korea. “J.K.” says on his Yelp review of BCD Tofu House in New York City, “Their spicy soup and tofu can’t taste any better after hours of clubbing and drinking.” “David Y.” wrote “A favorite spot to detox after a night out clubbing.” on his Yelp review of Tofu House in Los Angeles. “Jay K. wrote on her review of “Naru” in London, “The soondubu was unexpectedly rich…in flavor, which was great.” It looks like Soondubu is becoming as popular as barbecue and bibimbap overseas.

When I asked a food tour guest, Adrienne of Colorado, why she really liked Soondubu, she said, “It’s great because the tofu is so creamy like cheese and the restaurants have different varieties like bulgogi, sausage, or cheese soondubu. Plus there are some people in the group that are vegetarian so soondubu is a great option for everyone.”

Tofu House
928 S. Western Ave
Ste 139
Los Angeles, CA 90006
United States of America

BCD Tofu House
17 W 32nd St
New York, NY 10001
United States of America

230 Shaftsbury Avenue
London WC2H 8EG
United Kingdom
Covent Garden

Not to be outdone, you can find a number of great soondubu restaurants in Seoul. Here are some of my favorite places in Korea.

Cheongdam Soondubu
Seoul, Gangnam-gu Sinsadong 666-17

Jaedong Soondubu
Seoul, Jongno-gu Jaedong 84-11

Because Soondubu is versatile, flavorful, and unique; I feel that this is one dish that can become one of the representative foods of Korea.

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