Published On: Sun, Mar 31st, 2024

Korean rolled omelet offers a lesson in cooking intuition and patience

Korean rolled omelet offers a lesson in cooking intuition and patience
Korean rolled omelet offers a lesson in cooking intuition and patience


From an early age, Monica Lee writes in her new cookbook, it was clear she possessed “sohn-mat,” the Korean term for a natural instinct for cooking that translates to “flavor in the fingertips.”

It’s such an important part of her story — she never saw (never mind used) a measuring cup or spoon even as she ran a Koreatown restaurant in Los Angeles for decades — that it became the title of the book. “Sohn-mat” is the story of Lee’s groundbreaking restaurant, Beverly Soon Tofu, which closed during the pandemic, and a guide to her intuitive style of Korean cooking (with measurements added).

The restaurant was pioneering in that it specialized in soon tofu chigae, a bubbling hot bowl of soft tofu stew, which Lee made to order. And over its decades of operation, Beverly Soon Tofu (named, like Monica herself, after an iconic L.A. place) introduced legions of diners to the dish and made them fans in the process. “If I close my eyes,” chef Roy Choi writes, “I can taste the thick spicy stew and see Monica cooking 12 of them at the same time over viciously bursting open flames with only a pair of pliers in her hand to grab the pot.”

Get the recipe: Rolled Omelet

The book includes more than 40 pages of recipes and tips for soon tofu chigae in almost a dozen varieties. But it also goes deep into other staples of the Korean table, such as kimchi and banchan, the latter the spread of small dishes that accompanies Korean meals. As much as I loved the soon tofu chigae that I tasted at her restaurant before the pandemic, it was one of the banchan recipes I couldn’t wait to try.

I’ve long wanted to learn the right way to make a rolled omelet, called gyeran mari in Korean and tamagoyaki in Japanese. A popular side dish in both cuisines, it’s often added to bento boxes, served on bowls of ramen or just presented among all the other delectable little plates alongside the main course or courses. In a Zoom call from California, Lee and her daughters, CJ and JJ, talked about how Lee would pack gyeran mari for the girls’ lunches along with multiple other banchan, something they loved but didn’t fully appreciate until they were older and, in JJ’s case, had a child of their own.

“We didn’t know at the time how much effort and attention my mom put into our lunches,” CJ said. “And this was on top of her running the restaurant! So when we were asked what recipes we wanted to put in the book, this one was a must.”

Lee said she learned the technique from one of her aunts, a much better cook than her mother. “I was always interested in whatever she made,” she said. “I pay attention, I remember, and then I try. So every time if I didn’t like what I make, I make it one more time, one more time, until I’m satisfied, you know? I see something, I have to practice.”

With its confetti of vegetables and distinctive sushi-like shape, it’s one of the most captivating ways to eat eggs I’ve seen, but I was daunted by the prospect of rolling the thin egg layer from one side of a pan to the other, pouring in another layer, and repeating, back and forth until the roll took shape. Would it hold together?

Turns out, I got the hang of it pretty quickly. After jumping at the chance to order a special rectangular tamagoyaki pan (yes, I love my job), I followed the book’s instructions expert guidance — finessed by co-author Tien Nguyen. It soon became clear that the most important instructions were to adjust the heat so that the egg mixture would be barely set on the bottom while still runny on top when I rolled each layer; that’s what creates one homogenous piece (or close to it, anyway). I tried to channel Lee’s philosophy, with which I absolutely agree, that being happy when you cook results in better food. My first attempt resulted in something not very pretty — but still delicious. My second came awfully close to hitting the mark, and by the third time I had nailed it.

When I reported my experience to Lee and her daughters, the matriarch was charmingly generous with her smile and her praise: “You must have sohn-mat!”

Get the recipe: Rolled Omelet


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