Soon Dubu: Book Bites with Madeline Ashby

Book Bites is Cooking the Books‘ more easygoing cousin. Authors talk about their book and share a recipe, all in one tasty bite. 

Madeline Ashby Photo credit: Kayleigh McCollum Photography

Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer, futurist, speaker, and immigrant living in Toronto. She writes a column for the Ottawa Citizen. She has written narrative scenarios and science fiction prototypes for organizations like Intel Labs, the Institute for the Future, SciFutures, Nesta, Data & Society, The Atlantic Council, and others. Her short fiction has appeared in Nature, FLURB, Tesseracts, Imaginarium, and Escape Pod.

Today, she’s joining Book Bites to talk about her latest novel, Companytown – out today!


I first thought of Go Jung-hwa, the character of my new novel Company Town while watching a Korean cooking video. Specifically, it was a Maangchi’s recipe for hwa-jeon, a Korean rice flour pancake adorned with edible flowers. If using the traditional azaleas, the flowers form a pink or purple stain on the pale surface. Idly, I wondered if “hwa-jeon” was an insult in Korea, their equivalent of “pizza face.” I wondered what it would do to a person to hear that. Then I put the idea away for later.

I didn’t think about Go Jung-hwa again, and didn’t discover her name, until I started watching Korean dramas. A former professor of mine got me hooked on both Coffee Prince and You Are Beautiful, and I started watching Boys Over Flowers and other gender-flipping dramas afterward. Much like anime had when I was a teen, Korean dramas scratched an itch I didn’t know I had: for a romantic dramedy in which the straight tomboy is actually desirable.

I’m a lot more comfortable in my femininity now that I’m past thirty, but in my teens and twenties I was loath to describe myself as feminine. I associated femininity with a kind of performance of which I was incapable. It wasn’t that I was a bad girl, it was that I was bad at being a girl. Being a girl required a skill set I lacked. Moreover, it seemed as though being a “girly girl” (and therefore, desirable in a mainstream straight context) meant sacrificing all your geeky interests. Even in university, I had a hard time finding other women who were geeks like me: all the people who got my Dune jokes were guys. Great guys. Amazing guys. But guys, and not girls. Eventually I found my anime club, and my anime girlfriends (after some rather enthusiastic Evangelion evangelism).

It’s not that these women didn’t exist. They had always been there. But mainstream culture had informed me otherwise. I knew how to find them online. But in real life? I felt femininity was a club I might always be bounced out of. And I let that feeling — that consensual hallucination that is culture — get in my way. In reality, I didn’t have it that bad at all. For example, I wasn’t there — not the way I should have been — for a trans friend of mine in university who was on a much harder road into womanhood than my own. That’s something I regret. And it’s something I’ve since tried to be better at. So even as I recount this sensation, I know I have little to complain of. I just want to share it, to tell you how it informed this book. Because while I loved those dramas, they weren’t drama — they were melodrama. I started wondering how one of those plucky tomboys would do in a science fiction context, or even in a hard-boiled noir context. How would Go Eun Chan, the gender-bending tae kwon do instructor from Coffee Prince, behave if she were given, say, Clarice Starling’s job? And so Company Town was born.

Company Town by Madeline Ashby

My love for soon dubu — soft tofu stew — was born from a trip to a Korean greasy spoon diner on Yonge Street. My friend Susan, a copywriter of Korean descent that I met at a rather terrible film festival afterparty, took pity on me when I was new to Toronto and introduced me to one of her favourite lunch spots. She insisted I order this dish. Later, that greasy spoon became a dinner spot for me and my future husband, before meetings of the fiction workshop we shared. Now, I make soon dubu at home, for both of us. My version has no potatoes and more vegetables.

Soon dubu is easy. Anyone can make it. It can be simple or complex depending on your taste. It’s good whenever you have to clear out a fridge, but especially good if you’re sick or not feeling well, thanks to the spiciness of the broth and the softness of the tofu. The only real hard and fast rules are that the stew must have soft tofu (it’s in the name!), it must have gochujang, and it must have a smoky, almost musky broth. You could used dried anchovies for this, but chicken stock with dashi granules works just as well. Here’s how I make it.

  1. Establish a mise en place. Bring out all your ingredients: 1 onion, 5 cloves garlic, 1 inch ginger, 2C broth, 1t dashi granules, 1 tube or block soft silken tofu, meat and/or seafood, vegetables, 1T-1/4C gochujang paste, 2T soy sauce, sesame oil, garnishes. Include fat for the pan, whether vegetarian or otherwise. Bring out wide saucepan with lid.
  2. Heat wide saucepan to medium. Add at least 1T fat. If vegan or kosher, add olive or vegetable oil. If not, add bacon grease, schmaltz, or duck fat. Combine with 1t sesame oil. Let fat spread. As you do so, peel and chop or dice aromatics.
  3. Add aromatics: diced onion, peeled and chopped garlic, peeled and chopped ginger, quartered mushrooms if any. Add between 1t-1/4C gochujang paste, according to taste. Bloom aromatics in fat until fragrant, about two minutes. While you wait, chop vegetables.
  4. Add hard vegetables first: carrots, celery, radish, squash, etc. Coat them in flavourful fat.
  5. Add soft vegetables next: zucchini, cabbage, eggplant, etc. Coat them in flavourful fat.
  6. If using raw meat, add now. Coat meat in flavourful fat, and brown it briefly.
  7. Deglaze pan with enough broth to cover meat and vegetables. Scrape saucepan for fond and stir in. Add 1t dashi granules.
  8. If using leftover meat instead of raw, or frozen seafood, add it now to aromatic broth. Stir. Bring heat to low, to keep meat and/or seafood from toughening or turning chalky.
  9. Add soft silken tofu. Break into bite-sized chunks, but do not stir. The tofu is delicate and will disintegrate if you stir it too much. You want to preserve its texture.
  10. Simmer until vegetables are softened and meat and tofu cooked through. If foam develops on surface, skim off with wooden spoon. The foam acts as an insulator that keeps the stew from boiling properly.
  11. If adding an egg, add now. Cover egg with simmering broth, as though making shakshuka.
  12. Serve into bowls exactly one minute later. Once plated, add garnishes: nori seaweed, sesame seeds, more sesame oil, scallions, etc. If serving with rice, serve separately. Plain short-grain rice is fine, but seven-grain rice is better. Also serve kimchi or other banchan separately.

Visit the whole Book Bites larder… and the Cooking the Books pantry!

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