PRESTIN MCHUGH WRITES — At a coffee shop on a Tuesday afternoon last month, I started talking to a young woman named Kaitlyn, a Marketing major at Loyola Marymount University. We went out to dinner a couple of nights after we met. We exchanged stories, compared music, and discussed our favorite foods. We stumbled across many mutual obsessions, but the thing that shocked her the most was our shared love for soondubu, a spicy tofu stew.
Several days later, Kaitlyn and I were on the hunt for a late-night snack, but almost everything was closed on West LA’s Sawtelle Street, which is home to many Asian restaurants and markets. She called her mom for recommendations, who told us about BCD Tofu House, which has locations in Southern California, Texas, and across the Tri State Area. We went to the one in Koreatown, near central downtown Los Angeles.
Eating at BCD with Kaitlyn, who is Korean, was unlike any of my previous dining experiences. She knew exactly what to order, how to eat it correctly, and the proper etiquette. The food was amazing. We ordered the spicy pork and seafood soondubu. The soondubu was served with many traditional side dishes like kimchi, pickles, salty soybeans, and an uncracked egg. We cracked our eggs into the soondubu. She informed me that for the egg to fully cook, you should cover it with the stew’s ingredients.
At the beginning of the dinner, she told me to avoid eating the rice that is stuck to the bowl-just eat from the middle. I didn’t ask any questions. Soon the only thing left was our rice bowls lined with rice. Our server, noticing that we were done eating, walked up to us with a jug of tea and exchanged words in Korean with Kaitlyn. Before I knew it, the server was pouring tea into our rice bowls, and Kaitlyn was eating it like I would eat chicken noodle soup. She explained that this is a post-meal tradition in Korean households. The rice is crispy, and the tea gives off a unique flavor. She also mentioned that the soup is supposed to soothe your stomach. I looked around to see many other customers doing the same. I would have never known about this tradition if Kaitlyn hadn’t shared it with me.
I will be back to BCD Tofu House, hopefully with Kaitlyn. While at dinner, Kaitlyn was kind enough to answer the following questions about Korean cuisine:
Q: In Los Angeles, what Korean hot spot offers the most authentic foods?
Q: What makes a Korean restaurant authentic to you?
A: When the menu has both Korean and English and the food is served with lots of side dishes, called banchan, that’s a good sign. It’s traditional to have lots of side dishes pre-meal. Kimchi is usually a tell-tale sign. I would recommend going to restaurants that stand alone, instead of chains that are less authentic. I am not trying to say that non-authentic places aren’t good; they can be, but I associate authentic Korean foods with nostalgia. With that said, I always like trying places that are more of a “modern take” because it’s interesting to see new combinations of flavors or different takes on traditional recipes and dishes.
Q: What is a dish that you wish people knew more about?
A: I think sulungtang, just because it’s my favorite. It’s basically oxtail bone soup but it is made over hours and hours until the bone broth turns white, and it is so, so good. Some of my other favorites are pan fried yellow croaker, braised oxtail, and raw soy marinated crab. It is delicious but my grandma makes the best ones.
Q: Can you identify something that someone would do at a Korean restaurant that would come off as rude?
A: Lack of cultural appreciation comes to mind. Korean cuisine features a lot of different foods- for example, intestines. These are dishes that are normal for Korean people, but not for everyone. When people of different cultures go to a restaurant to experience the cuisine, it’s important for them to remember that just because they aren’t used to it doesn’t mean it’s gross. That’s common courtesy. If you try something and don’t like it that’s totally fine, but don’t call something “gross” or say, “what kind of people eat that?” When I was little, kids would always say my food smelled or when I brought a baked sweet potato this girl literally yelled out, “So gross!” I understand if you don’t like it, but no need to make rude comments.
Q: How would you describe the feeling of showing people a piece of your culture, like going to Korean restaurants with me or speaking in Korean around me? Can you explain your experience with people teasing you for speaking Korean, and how that’s impacted you?
A: It is a little nerve wracking because I’ve had a lot of experiences with people being either blatantly or passively rude. There were so many racist people where I grew up in Pasadena. Some things just rub me the wrong way; for example, sometimes when I speak Korean around people, they mockingly try to imitate me, which just makes me feel uncomfortable. Another example is when I meet someone for the first time, and they try to force me to speak Korean. I can tell they are just low-key making fun of me. Maybe that’s just social anxiety? But it does make me feel weird, like a monkey in a circus vibe. I think that some of this comes from traumatic experiences growing up. I was teased about things like speaking Korean or eating Korean food. I basically tried to become as white-washed as I could. I would eat school lunch, and avoid speaking Korean, because that was a way to avoid being teased. Now I am still aware of rude people, but I don’t care as much anymore. I can stand up for myself.