When Beverly Soon Tofu closed due to the pandemic, the Los Angeles food community heavily felt the loss. The restaurant operated in Koreatown from 1986 to 2020. Over the decades, owner Monica Lee saw Koreatown grow into a dining destination, with her restaurant’s own high-profile media attention certainly driving visitors. In the new cookbook Sohn-mat: Recipes and Flavors of Korean Home Cooking, out now, Lee commemorates the restaurant that Eater LA’s Matthew Kang once called “legendary.”
“It was really bittersweet to close the restaurant, but this was one way of sort of reliving [it],” says Lee, with translation from her daughter CJ Lee. Sohn-mat, co-written with Tien Nguyen, offered Lee an opportunity to share her recipes with both longtime supporters and new audiences and, in doing so, to get a sense of closure in parting with Beverly Soon Tofu. The book’s title means “flavor in the hands,” a term that refers to a natural instinct for flavor and cooking; Lee realized her own sohn-mat as she cooked for friends as an adolescent.
Having immigrated to LA in 1977, Lee opened Beverly Soon Tofu in 1986 to serve soondubu jjigae, a tofu stew that she didn’t often see on menus in Koreatown though it was popular in Korea. Her restaurant was widely recognized as the first in the city to specialize in soondubu jjigae alone. Unlike many restaurants, which served their soondubu jjigae from a single pot, Lee wanted to offer each diner the chance to customize their filings and level of spice. She writes in Sohn-mat: “I wanted to focus on one thing and do that one thing very well.” As Lee’s concept took off, however, she added more dishes to her menu to give her regulars variety.
The first appetizer Lee added was tofu steak with kimchi, served in sizzling cast iron. Instead of the extra-soft tofu that forms the basis of soondubu jjigae, Lee uses firm tofu, which she dredges in potato starch and pan-fries into a light, crispy texture. That tofu is then served atop sauteed ripe or overripe kimchi. More sour and intense as a result of longer fermentation, the overripe kimchi is mellowed by the brief cooking. “We wanted people to enjoy tofu in a different way too,” Lee says.
Sohn-mat is a loving reflection on not just Lee’s restaurant but also her family. She writes of her 18-hour days and personal sacrifices, done in hopes of making better lives for her daughters, CJ and JJ Lee. Accordingly, the book offered the family a welcome opportunity. “We didn’t get a chance when we were kids to be able to spend this time with my mom when she was running the restaurant,” CJ Lee says. “This was an opportunity for all of us to not only share recipes but to spend quality time that we didn’t have, so I think we all enjoyed it really, really gratefully.”
Tofu Steak with Kimchi Recipe
For the toasted sesame seeds:
Untoasted white sesame seeds
For the tofu sauce:
3 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons rice cooking wine
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 ½ teaspoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons chopped green onions, green and white parts
1 tablespoon chopped bell pepper, any color (optional)
For the tofu steak with kimchi:
1 (19-ounce) package firm tofu, preferably House Foods brand, sliced into halves lengthwise
¼ cup potato starch
4 tablespoons vegetable or other neutral oil, plus more for frying
2 cups ripe or overripe kimchi
2 or 3 drops plus 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons Tofu Sauce (see recipe below)
2 tablespoons seasoned shredded seaweed or furikake, plus more to taste
1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds, for garnish (see instruction below)
To make the toasted sesame seeds:
Step 1: Place the sesame seeds in a fine-mesh strainer and wash several times under running water. Drain them as best you can.
Step 2: Place a dry skillet or wok over high heat. Once the pan is hot, add the seeds and stir. It is critical to keep stirring so the seeds toast evenly and don’t burn. As you stir, listen: once you hear the seeds begin to crackle, reduce the heat to low. Keep stirring.
As the seeds toast, the nutty aroma alone will tell you when they’re ready. Another sign is the color changing from pale white to golden brown. Depending on the quantity, it may take anywhere from just a few minutes to several minutes for the seeds to toast.
Step 3: Immediately transfer the seeds to a large bowl or plate. Cool completely, then store in small airtight containers for up to 1 month in the pantry and up to 3 months in the fridge.
To make the tofu sauce:
Step 1: Place 3 tablespoons water in a small bowl and add the soy sauce, cooking wine, sesame seeds, sesame oil, sugar, green onions, and bell pepper (if using). Stir to combine, then it’s ready to serve. Makes ½ cup.
To make the tofu steak with kimchi:
Step 1: Place the tofu in a colander set over a bowl and drain for 10 to 15 minutes, then pat the pieces as dry as possible with a paper towel.
Step 2: Place the potato starch in a medium bowl. Add the tofu and dredge on all sides. Line a large plate with paper towels and set next to the stove.
Step 3: Place a medium frying pan over medium heat and add 2 tablespoons of the vegetable oil. When the oil begins to smoke, place the tofu in the pan in one layer, being careful since any remaining moisture in the tofu will cause the oil to spatter. Pan-fry until golden brown then flip. Continue to pan-fry until all sides of the tofu are golden brown, adding more vegetable oil as necessary as you flip and rotate each piece, 8 to 10 minutes total. Remove the cooked tofu from the pan and place on the paper towel–lined plate to collect the excess oil.
Step 4: In a saute pan, add the remaining 2 tablespoons vegetable oil along with the kimchi. Saute until the kimchi is cooked through and its color is translucent, 5 to 8 minutes. Add the 2 or 3 drops of sesame oil and remove from the heat.
Step 5: Set a trivet on the table. Place a small castiron skillet or griddle over high heat and remove the pan from the heat once it is hot. Place the kimchi in the pan in one layer, then place the tofu on top of the kimchi. Add the tofu sauce and seaweed on top. Drizzle the remaining 1 teaspoon sesame oil over the tofu, garnish with the sesame seeds, and carefully bring it to the table and set it down on the trivet to serve.
Excerpted with permission from Sohn-mat by Monica Lee published by Hardie Grant Publishing, 2023. Photographs by Rick Poon, copyright © 2023.