Monday, November 30, 2009

Tofu Jeon (두부전)

I love little savory Korean pancakes, called jeon (jun, juhn, whatever). I've blogged about kimchi jeon and green onion jeon, but somehow never really shared the type that my family eats most frequently: tofu jeon! (두부전)

My mom is famous for her tofu jeon (it's a lot more fun to say in Korean- doo boo jeon). People request it, they gorge themselves on it, and there are never leftovers when she makes it because people sneak off with all they can. I'm sure that I'm completely biased because I grew up around these, but they're not difficult to make (gasp!). Others just have some sort of weird preconceived notion that jeon, with all the mincing and mixing and frying into tiny patties, is really labor-intensive and time-consuming. It is time-consuming, but not all that labor-intensive. To me, it's easier than baking cookies or making meatloaf, and requires washing less dishes.

In my family, the tradition is usually that my mother will mince and make the batter and then I will sit and patiently fry the little buggers on a griddle that my parents have had since they got married. In 1981. The thing is ancient and still works really well, a testament to taking care of ones belongings. I love the avocado-green cover, which I forgot to take a picture of. It's so retro and 70's!

Anyways. No measurements for this recipe, because frankly, I've never measured when I made the batter. It's all based on taste and feel and that elusive "hand flavor" (손 맛). This is more of a method than a recipe.

Tofu Jeon (두부전)

1 brick extra-firm tofu, drained, crumbled, and squeezed dry (단단한 두부)
handful of mild green chili peppers (called Korean chilis in the Korean market), seeded and chopped (한국 고추)
1 or 2 eggs (계란, 2-3)
flour or jeon flour (부침가루)
salt or garlic salt (소금)

I usually also add imitation crab (krab! 맛살) to mine, but since my mother didn't for our Thanksgiving batch, it's not on the list. She also doubled or tripled the amounts indicated since it was a holiday. And since we're all piggies and love tofu jeon.

Also, my mom takes cheesecloth and wrings the tofu out. I, being the lazy American daughter, totally don't do that. I'm not washing out a tofu-y cheesecloth after I use it, after all, that's too much work. So I take handfuls of the crumbled tofu and squeeze, then drop into the mixing bowl. I don't mind adding a little extra flour to the batter to dry it out if needed, it's better than washing cheesecloth.

Anything can be added to this, of course. Just nothing too wet, and not too much of it. My mom likes chopped green onions. I like Spam. To each her own.

The batter should not be like kimchi jeon batter, which is loose and very liquid. Tofu jeon batter should look dry, crumbly-ish, but stick to itself well. Kind of like scone dough. Like so:

The liquid will pool at the bottom of the bowl, so between each batch of fried jeon, the batter needs to be mixed up to re-distribute the liquid. If done correctly, there should be no liquid in the bowl after the last jeon is made.

The way that we make tofu jeon is much like how quenelles are made. Quenelles, though, are made by shaping dough between two spoons, using the wells of the spoons to make a football shape. Jeon is made by using one spoon against the bowl. Jeon, with all the pokey little bits in it, needs to be gathered into a rough ball and smoothed out a bit, otherwise there will be small pieces of pepper or krab that get burnt on the griddle while the inside is still cooking.

I take the spoon, scoop a bit of batter, and press it against the side of the bowl. Then I move the spoon a bit, so that if it had previously been cradling the south side of the batter with the north side pressed against the bowl, the spoon then moves to cradle the east side of batter with the west side is pressed up against the bowl. Sounds confusing, even as I'm typing. The ball of dough is basically rolled so all its sides are smoothed against the bowl. But you can't roll jeon, as it's pretty sticky when raw, so it's more of a lift-and-press type of operation.

Having made thousands of jeon in my lifetime, this is pretty much rote by now. And it's very soothing. Because the spoon is an oval, our tofu jeon come out slightly oblong. I think that's more attractive than a perfectly circular jeon.

Fried jeon are placed on a wide colander that has a base to catch drips, the whole thing lined with paper towels to blot off any grease. Once they're cooled, they get stacked on a separate tray, that one also lined with paper towels- but to guard against moisture more than to wick away excess oil this time.


The tray holds three types of jeon: One with chopped shrimp and zucchini, at the very left, with tofu jeon on the right (just peppers this time, nothing else). Under the tofu jeon are fish jeon, a whole other creature that needs to be explained separately.

Jeon are really good when piping hot- the outsides are crisp and the insides scalding. They're great at room temperature, though the crispy outside will have yielded to the moisture of the insides. They're even good cold, straight from the fridge, dipped in soy sauce and popped into the mouth as one large bite.

These used to be my go-to food when I lived alone and felt a bit homesick. I know it's ridiculous to feel homesick when I go back home every weekend, but there were times when, after working for sixteen hours and speaking only in English and eating only crappy food, all I wanted was home.

Making the batter and frying up the jeon took a total of probably half an hour, something I could do even when I was dead tired. The batter can also be kept in the fridge for probably a couple days, though the longest I've ever left it is a day. Water will pool out from the tofu, which needs to be discarded before frying.

I'm still sick, though not as sick as a dog anymore, and definitely less congested. I still sound like I have both a frog and a coyote wedged in my throat and as if someone is holding my nose pinched together, making me completely incapable of pronouncing "nincompoop." Vitamin C and Theraflu are doing their parts to help me kick this thing, as is echinacea, but I fear that what I need most is rest. The one thing I'm really not going to get until February. Sigh.


Diana E. November 30, 2009 at 2:58 PM  

I haven't seen this style of tofu jeon (usually just the coated in regular batter and fried... also delicious), but I will definitely try this style at some point.

I am one of those people guilty of hoarding any kind of tofu dish and any jeon, so whenever there's dooboo jeon... damn...

Feel better soon.

jeanny November 30, 2009 at 3:07 PM  

My fear of frying does not extend to these, because there is so little oil involved. Especially if you use a nonstick or well-seasoned skillet.

Hope you try it- let me know how it goes!

Thanks, Diana- I hope your leg feels better soon!