A tumultuous tale of tofu.

The following message is brought to you by the Tofu Anti-Defamation League.

Tofu fights cancer. Tofu causes cancer. Tofu gives you the gift of flight. Tofu forces you to grow a second head. Tofu is the only food that can drive back the skeletal armies of the undead should the devastating curse of Demon Grrbstzittooofolo ever haunt us. Tofu is the devastating curse of the Demon Grrbstzittooofolo and is haunting us as we speak. Here’s my personal favorite: Tofu makes you gay. I’m not linking to the site on that one because I refuse to bear any responsibility for increasing its Google ranking.


[Making Music: Soft tofu with chili oil, roasted sesame oil, sesame seeds, and scallion. Snapped for Lara’s January “White” challenge over at Still Life With….]

I have friends who would never offend me by telling me that kimchi stinks (it does), but these same friends won’t hesitate to tell me that tofu is evil (it’s not). The science on soy is complicated, contradictory, and confusing. But really, what it comes down is whether you like tofu at all. If you don’t, it’s likely that a well-meaning non-Asian health nut tried to foist it on you in a sandwich or a salad. Well I don’t like tofu in my sandwiches and salads either. That’s what bacon is for.

I love tofu piping hot, drowned in a scarlet sauce full of fiery chilies and strips of tender beef. I love tofu soaked in beaten egg and fried until brown and crisp then dipped in sweet soy sauce and sesame seeds. I love tofu soft and gelatinous, swirling in soon tubu broth bubbling up its pungent fragrance of pork and kimchi. I even love tofu plain with aromatic Asian oils and the piercing bite of slivered scallions.

Tofu is as woven into my existence as pasta in the Italians, butter in the French, chilies in the Mexicans. My parents ate it, my grandparents ate it, my great grandparents made it. In a nation where meat has long been a luxury, tofu provided vital and delicious protein. There’s not one single documented case of tofu sucking the blood out of babies as they sleep in their cribs and creating armies of vampire infants flapping through the night in search of more babies to drain. Isn’t calling tofu evil just a bit much? Please, tofu-haters, you’re hurting my feelings. Leave the poor white goop alone. It can’t rape you, rob you, or even appreciate Barry Manilow. It’s just bean curd.

As for the newly formed two-headed gay men out there now plagued by the curse of the unholy Grrbstzittooofolo, admit it: things are much more interesting than they used to be. So what if it takes twice as long to floss? Thank tofu for infusing some much-needed excitement into your lives.

It takes a village to start a perilla seed bandwagon and make it drink.

Let them eat perilla seed cake.
— Marie Antoinette Kim

I’m predicting the Next Big Thing. In a year or two, big restaurants will pounce on deulkkae and turn it into the trendy new food ingredient of the decade. Why wouldn’t they? It tastes like nothing else, few in the west have heard of it, and it’s hard to pronounce. Uniqueness, obscurity, and built-in humiliation when ordering from the waiter—a hot chef could ask for nothing more.

Perilla seed pound cake[Pictured: Mini perilla seed pound cake]

Deulkkae is better known as the seed of the pungent perilla plant, which bears minty, highly fragrant leaves. The leaves of Japanese varieties known as shiso are often served with suishi or sashimi. We all know how sushi has taken off; it’s only logical that perilla seed will too. Then you can point to this post and say that I was cool before my time. That would be a great experience, because so far I haven’t even managed to be cool during my time. I blame the pastel lipstick in junior high.

Perilla seeds are poppy seeds on steroids, sesame seeds with balls, nuts with Kung Fu grip. The slightly bitter oil of the seeds is sometimes used like roasted sesame oil in Korea and prized for its healthy qualities. My mother says that like the perilla leaves, the seeds have a “cleansing” effect. Whether she meant toxin cleansing or bowel cleansing, I can’t say, but they definitely make me glow after I eat them. They have some traces of the leaf’s distinctive flavor, but mostly you taste the oils and feel the seeds crackle between your teeth. I use them whenever possible, like in this buttery, lightly sweet, moist-as-a-jungle pound cake.

Super moist perilla seed pound cakeFind perilla seeds labeled as perilla, beefsteak plant seeds, kaenip seeds, or deulkkae in Asian markets at reasonable prices. There’s a photograph of the seeds on a previous post here. (Note: That post inaccurately refers to deulkkae as shiso seed, which I’ve since learned is incorrect because the Japanese do not generally consume the larger, fuzzier, Korean variety.) Sort through the seeds to remove small leaves and twigs. If you find that you don’t like the flavor, you can always plant them and pickle the leaves. But really, that’s like, sooooo 1997.

Makes 1 bundt cake

· 1/2 cup perilla seeds
· 12 ounces unsalted butter (3 sticks), soft but still mostly firm
· 1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
· 3 eggs, lightly beaten
· 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
· 3 cups all-purpose flour, spooned lightly and leveled
· 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
· 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
· 1/2 teaspoon salt
· 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
· Powdered sugar (optional)

1) Toast the perilla seeds in a medium pan over medium heat. Stir and shake pan frequently until seeds start to pop and release their distinctive fragrance. Remove pan from heat and let seeds cool completely.

2) Preheat oven to 350ºF for light-colored pans, 325ºF for dark and heavy pans such as cast aluminum. Grease and flour a 10 to 12-cup bundt pan.

3) Cream the butter and sugar together, adding the sugar slowly until the butter is light, fluffy, plasticky, and almost mousse-like. If the butter warms too much, put the bowl in the fridge for 15 minutes. More on proper creaming here. Drizzle the eggs in very slowly or just a bit at a time while beating to prevent curdling. Beat in the vanilla and the toasted perilla seeds.

4) Whisk the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt together in a medium bowl. Add half of this flour mixture to the butter and beat gently until blended. Add half the buttermilk and fold until just mixed, then add half of the remaining flour and fold until just mixed. Repeat with the rest of the buttermilk and flour. Fold only until everything is well mixed and no streaks remain.

5) Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake until a long wooden or bamboo skewer comes out clean, about 1 hour. Cool 15 minutes on a rack. Carefully invert the cake onto the rack and cool completely before storing. Sprinkle with powdered sugar, if desired.

Growing up Weird or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the tentacle.

Eating animals with more than four legs didn’t seem Weird until I turned ten. I often played with dried cuttlefish, a popular Korean snack called ojingo, the way that most kids play with string cheese. Ojingo’s powdery dried flesh has a horizontal grain that easily shreds into feathery strands that paint your tongue with a fishy briny flavor or rips into leathery strips that require determined chewing to swallow. While I liked the leathery body best, the addictive snap of the tiny sucker feet on the shriveled legs provided fun textural appeal too.

Three dried cuttlefishI know, I know, I’m romanticizing the tasty cephalopod and making you drool. Sorry about that. But before you run out and buy bushels of dried cuttlefish to devour and tuck into gift bags for your closest friends, you should know the cons of cuttlefish consumption:

1) Cuttlefish breath
2) Occasional hard bits
3) Social suicide, kamikaze style, with flames and shrieks and everything

I learned #3 the hard way.

Imagine a ten-year-old Korean-American girl named … oh let’s say Annie, snacking on cuttlefish while cheerfully playing in her yard and minding her own business. Three children in the neighborhood stop by—not the paragons of neighborhood children either. One girl routinely steals all the fruit from Annie’s garden, the other girl is a fifth grader who reads at the first grade level, and the boy taught Annie the definition of a crass phrase that will not be described here except to note that it was wankawful.

The three children wanted a taste of whatever it was that Annie ate so eagerly. “It’s like squid,” Annie explained, and ripped off strips to share. A considerate child, Annie avoided giving them the crunchy legs because she felt that the novel texture of cuttlefish tentacles might be too much for cuttlefish newbies. She didn’t know that cuttlefish bodies would be too much for cuttlefish newbies too. After the howling, spitting, and name-calling stopped, Annie had learned that tragic lesson that all children learn so well: Don’t be Weird.

Dried cuttlefish tentaclesLiving and working in smaller communities rather than large cities has forced me to mind that hard lesson to this day. I’ve modified it since I’ve grown up, trying to gently (okay, sometimes testily) educate where I can. But while things have improved as ethnic cuisine has risen in popularity in the U.S., kimchi fans are still few and far between around here, and the only Korean dish I inflict on hesitant newbies are the marinated grilled beef dishes because they so rarely offend. But Weird isn’t just a Korean problem. I’ve cajoled people into eating fruit compote on chicken (“It’s okay to eat fruit on poultry, really!”), learned that some co-workers had never knowingly consumed olive olive, and taught friends that just because Chinese people prepare food in restaurants proclaiming Chineseness doesn’t mean that the food is especially Chinese. I fail a lot.

Well now I have a Weird blog, and it actually has some Weird readers. Take that, fruit-stealing, illiterate, hairy-palmed ruffians! To celebrate Weird, I will be blogging mostly about food inspired by Asia during the month of January. Except posts heavily influenced by Indian, Korean, and Thai tastes this month. You know, Weird food.

So check back soon, and thanks for keeping me company. You’re a bunch of huge Weirdos. I mean that.