The first-ever cookbook written by a Los Angeles Koreatown restaurant owner will come from Monica Lee, who founded Beverly Soon Tofu in 1986. Though the longtime location on Olympic Boulevard closed in September 2020 (the original opened on Beverly Boulevard, hence the name), Lee and her two daughters, CJ and JJ, have been collaborating with food writer Tien Nguyen (who also co-wrote L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food with chef Roy Choi, and the Red Boat Fish Sauce Cookbook) to write the history of the legendary Koreatown restaurant and share its recipes.
Called Sohn-mat, a Korean reference to the flavor and seasoning of one’s hands, the cookbook will be released on September 19, 2023 from publisher Hardie Grant with 60 recipes, including for the namesake soondubu jjigae, or silken tofu stew, grilled meats, banchan, and other traditional Korean dishes.
Prior to Beverly Soon Tofu, the soondubu jjigae was a regular of Korean restaurant menus but never the main event. Serving in bubbling stone pots and filled with seafood, meat, and vegetables, these often spicy, but always umami-rich stews have become one of Korean cuisine’s most iconic dishes. Lee helped popularize soondubu jjigae in Los Angeles, spawning a number of competitors in BCD Tofu, So Kong Dong, and others across Southern California. Today, the restaurant format has been endlessly imitated across the United States and even back to South Korea. But the story of soondubu jjigae as a restaurant specialty started with Lee and Beverly Soon Tofu back in the ’80s.
Eater spoke with JJ Lee and Monica Lee about how Sohn-mat came together, the challenges of adopting traditional Korean cooking into usable home recipes, and the process of three generations of Korean women helping to create LA Koreatown’s first official cookbook.
Eater: What was it like writing a cookbook of traditional Korean dishes?
JJ Lee: We were really excited about the opportunity. We met [co-author] Tien Nguyen over Zoom and started working on this over the pandemic. My sister (CJ) and I were helping our mom with the recipes. A lot of Korean recipes don’t measure anything, so we actually had to sit with my mom and measure everything. We want my mom’s recipes to be accessible to a lot of people with ingredients people will have in their homes. A lot of the recipes were dishes my mom made for over 40 years at home, but the book will also have dishes from the restaurant as well. Soondubu is highlighted but there are also recipes for banchan. Easy and efficient is the theme of the book.
Can you explain sohn-mat and the challenge of adapting restaurant recipes for the home cook?
We translated it to “the hand that seasons or flavors.” My mom was in business for 34 years, and the entire time she was running the restaurant, purchasing ingredients, and making the food. But when she cooks, she doesn’t necessarily measure. She just knows how much to put in. That was a big adjustment for her in terms of adapting the recipes. Sometimes it was frustrating. One big difference is that restaurant stoves can get much hotter so we had to adjust things for the home cook. My sister and I would joke to my mom when she said, “I only bought a little bit,” and it was like 50 pounds of gochugaru (Korean chile powder). She still had that mentality of running a restaurant. But I think we did nail it in terms of taste and ease of making things.
What else does the book go into beyond recipes?
It talks about the history of how the restaurant came about. My mom started in 1986, so we go back and talk about the landscape of Koreatown back in the ’80s and ’90s. We go into how the restaurant evolved and also why it closed in September 2020.
What was it like writing a cookbook with your mother?
When we got approached to make the cookbook, we were really excited. My sister is a lawyer and I work for USC. We both have day jobs and for the first year working on the cookbook, we were also looking after my grandmother. So it was all of us at my mom’s house, testing recipes and tasting things for pretty much every weekend for a year. I think that my sister and I feel honored and lucky to be able to learn from her and for her to share the recipes with us — and now with everyone. It’s dishes that she made for us when we were growing up, and now I can look at the cookbook and make them for my daughter.
What does it mean to have your mom, who operated one of Koreatown’s most famous and beloved restaurants, tell her story? Do you hope to reopen the restaurant one day?
I think it’s a tremendous opportunity for us to document my mom’s cooking and her legacy. We definitely want to be able to share my mom’s food with everyone. She wouldn’t be able to run the restaurant, but we hope to have the chance to continue with Beverly Soon Tofu’s legacy. For her to be a pioneer of Koreatown, my sister and I are really proud of everything she’s accomplished for this community. Right now we just feel really lucky to have had this chance to work with our mom and get this all on record.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Sohn-mat by Monica Lee and Tien Nguyen will be published on September 19, 2023, with pre-orders available on Amazon.