A life in flux. Soon to be immigrant to Japan. Recently migrated this blog from another platform after many years of neglect (about March 6, 2017). Sorry for the styling and functionality potholes; I am working on cleaning things up and making it usable again.
On a wet and rainy April 28, Hiromi, Hiromi's mother and I trekked to Meiji Jinguu, then briefly toured Shibuya's Tokkyu Foods Show depachika madness. We were planning to have dinner at Hiromi's home that night, so we actually wanted to pick up a few things to take home.
The nifty thing about department store basements in Japan is that you can assemble a fairly elaborate meal without ever needing to whip out a spatula or your handy kitchen saibashi.
Not one of the dishes required more than a bit of reheating, although for one of the two grilled eggplant dishes (far left, middle) I chose to make a quick nerimiso to help the two variations stand apart from each other. Even in that case, however, the department store had a ready-to-buy sauce you could take away to remove even this tiny step of production.
I also made a quick seasoned soup stock for the big ganmodoki (upper left), but everything else was just a matter of heating, at most, and plating.
Among the other dishes: Fresh yuba with soy sauce, an okra ohitashi with yuba, two kinds of vegetable croquettes, supermarket sushi, blanched kogomi (a spring mountain vegetable similar to warabi), a vegetable aemono, dashi-maki tamago (a broth-seasoned omelet), takenoko gohan (bamboo shoot rice), and four kinds of inari-zushi. One variety had a wasabi-seasoned rice, another was gomoku, another might have been made with azuki, and the last one had age puffs made from black soybeans.
It wasn't all easy, though... A fair amount of time unwrapping, plating and transporting foods from the kitchen to the table made preparation take almost as long as making a simpler dinner might have taken. Of course, the quality was much better than the average takeaway meal at a US supermarket, and everything was nicer than most of what you might find at even upscale urban specialty shops.
April 28: Just after my first brief visit on opening day, Hiromi and I made our way back to the Shin-Marunouchi building again in search of a late breakfast. It was still a madhouse.
Point et Ligne Bakery, Shin Marunouchi Building, Tokyo
We couldn't help but buy a lot of bread here. Point et Ligne bakery carefully illuminates the bread, but prefers to keep the staff as a background feature, assiduously assembling your order.
Yes, you want these olive-oil anko-filled baguettes
Many bakeries in Japan skip over the savory breads in favor of sugar-laden pastries... There's some sweet stuff here, but I was pleased that even the sweet treats like these olive-oil laden sweet red-bean paste baguettes avoided sugar in the bread itself in favor of an ama-sioppai experience. And there are some savory mini-baguettes just to the left of these for those who want to go straight for the butter...
Point et Ligne's extremely open format doesn't hide the guts of the operation. I wouldn't want to be the one responsible for keeping those beasts sparkling clean...
Contemporary wagashi at Kanou Shoujuan
Ume zerii presented at Kanou Shoujuan, Japanese apricot jelly, available for takeout in a bamboo-shaped cylinder. We took some home to Hiromi's parents, along with a matcha jelly.
Monaka, typically sweet bean paste-filled crispy cakes (the outside texture resembles an ice cream cone), also from Kanou Shoujuan.
14 Juillet Debutante
All dressed up for 14 Juillet's second day of courting new customers.
Cassis eclair at 14 Juillet Tokyo
Black currant eclair. You must have one. We did. We will never be the same.
14 Juillet Sorbet
In case pastries don't suck you in...
1F Cafe that spells like Emeril
Although the photos of their coffee look pretty, I can't bring myself to go inside a place that spells espresso like this. And no, I don't think it's a Japanese mistake... it's far more difficult to make an "ekkuspuresso" sound in Japanese than to say "esupresso." Some highly paid consultant is clearly responsible.
An Indian restaurant may not be the most obvious place to eat one's first meal in Tokyo.
But this is far from my first time in Tokyo, so I can dispense with the ambition to eat the best possible Japanese food every meal I have in this city. Tokyo is kind of a part-time home for me... Since 1999 or so, I've averaged very close to two Japan stamps in my passport every year, sometimes several weeks per trip.
Besides, the tempting Italian-Japanese fusion inches from our weekly mansion was completely booked for the night. It was already rapidly approaching 9pm, when most restaurants start winding down in Tokyo, so we settled for another small temptation just a few hundred meters away.
We ordered a pair of papadum, lentil-based crackers. Each papad was topped with marinated onions and other vegetables.
We were originally tempted to order a spinach dish but then noticed an okra curry on the menu. We've often had a simple okra and tomato masala, which we're huge fans of. This was a heavier dish with okra and potatoes along with a tomato-based sauce, which was not incredibly exciting, but was pleasingly comforting.
After a few minutes, we received another dish of what appeared to be the same okra curry, and we were told this was saabisu (free). We didn't quite expect it also to be studded with bits of lamb and chicken, but Hiromi made use of the animal bits. Based on the hodgepodge of ingredients, Hiromi surmised this was likely meant as part of the makanai (staff meal).
We ordered a chickpea curry as our primary protein source for the evening, which looks perhaps a bit similar to the okra dish but was fortunately seasoned somewhat differently. Sometimes Indian restaurants in Japan serve the same base for almost every dish, especially if they're financed by Japanese owners. This place doesn't seem to commit quite that sin, although there are only a handful of vegetarian mains so it's a bit hard to tell.
This is a little different than the parathas I'm used to, as the dough seems to be twisted into a spiral. It was quite addictive, though... After everything came, we did order a bit of an unremarkable saffron rice, partially because we never received any tori-zara to set small portions of food, and maybe partially because it didn't quite seem like dinner without rice. Like many Indian restaurants in Japan, they used expensive but texturally and aromatically inappropriate Japanese rice rather than basmati. I don't really know if this is meant to accommodate local tastes or if the import tarriffs on rice make real basmati too expensive.
We also had some inexpensive but rather mild "cocktails", one made with mango, and the other meant to be a gently spiked sweet lassi, which tasted suspiciously like Calpis brand syrup (we liked it anyway).
Anyway, we were reasonably pleased with our choice to eat here. The food was slightly above average for a Tokyo Indian restaurant, and the staff was exceedingly nice to us, even offering us a complimentary salad before the rest of our food arrived.
During a trip to Osaka in Japan about 7 years ago, I visited an Indian restaurant run by a friend of a friend, who confided... no... broadcasted... that he gets tired selling the same setto combo meals one after another to 80% or more of the Japanese customers who walk in to the restaurant. He said loudly, in Japanese, that people who order set meals get much more boring food and that people should try to be adventurous "like these two" and order various things from different parts of the menu, as it would be much more delicious. After his gentle tirade, the couple sitting next to us brustled a bit, and proceeded to order two of that night's setto specials...
Phone: 03-5298-2036 Tokyo-to Chiyoda-ku Gai-Kanda, a 5-minute walk from the Ochanomizu station Hijiri-bashi exit, straight across the bridge.
I don't remember how long ago it was, but probably about four or five years ago I was staying somewhere in Nishi-shinjuku... Several times on the way to somewhere more interesting than Shinjuku, I found myself walking right past a tiny bakery called Rappopo. I was tempted by the aroma of constant baking, and by a shockingly long line for a train station bakery.
Most people were walking away with a Rappopo Pie. It's built on a foundation of pie crust, or perhaps what in Germany is called Biscuitt-Teig. Above that, there's a thin layer of something like pound cake, followed by a thick layer of sweet potatoes, and a layer of apples, and then topped with some sort of lattice-pattern piped streusel.
At about 700 yen, give or take, it seemed like too much to indulge in all by myself, so I kept waiting until I had a good excuse to buy one... maybe a chance to split one with a friend or three... well, such an opportunity never arose on that trip, so I finally grabbed one on my way to Narita airport.
Once I arrived at the airport, I set out to eat one quarter of the pie while it was still a bit warm, thinking I'd snack on some of the rest during the middle of the 9 hour flight.
Narita airport is a really boring place to be trapped for a couple of hours, especially if you've been there a dozen times or so and you've seen all of the duty-free shops, convenience stores, and gift shops. Even more so if you've already done all your gift shopping before leaving.
So after due consideration... Do I want to walk around the airport aimlessly for another twenty minutes? Or have another slice of this nice pie? I chose the more comforting, fattening route.
Every 20 minutes or so I repeated this internal conversation, until the pie had completely disappeared.
Friday afternoon when I arrived in Tokyo, I had some time to kill, so I spent an hour or so at Shin-Marunouchi building on opening day, but I avoided every temptation to try one of the many fantastic-looking new shops.
But when Hiromi and I met on the Yaesu side, we passed another location of Rappopo, and our fate was sealed... we had to have one of those pies.
Reunited with both Hiromi and Rappopo, the three of us made our way to the Ochanomizu weekly apartment we had arranged for this stay in Tokyo. Hiromi and I each tucked into a small wedge of the pie shortly before we started hunting for dinner, some towels and some knee supporters for my increasingly temperamental legs.
My last reasonably complete meal in Seoul was a late lunch last Thursday... Somehow, after a week of sleeping six hours a night I didn't have quite the energy level required to search for something more substantial, and I was only moderately hungry that night... I ended up just grabbing an overpriced smoothie and some more of those addictive but deadly hoddeok.
Anyway, Thursday afternoon I found this little spot, Waelbing Buchu Nara, just a short stretch from Namsangol Hanok Village. It's extra tiny, and only has room for a bit more than a dozen people to sit. But I was drawn in because of the short, simple, reasonably healthy-looking menu. More importantly, they had gimchi-jeon (kimchi jeon), which is one of the few vegetarian-ish jeon I hadn't indulged in on this trip.
The restaurant offered up a few simple banchan, though I skipped the one that involved a bunch of fried tiny fish.
Common enough, but this pretty daikon kimchi was quite nice.
I might be wrong about this, but I believe this is minari, similar to garlic chives.
Kong namul guk
The jeon comes with a bean sprout soup... It's fairly strongly seasoned with bits of what appears to be dried mackerel. Thanks to my vegetarian habits, it was a bit difficult to for me to eat much of this, but it was a nice touch.
The main event
I ate way more of this than I should have... but the kimchi jeon was pretty nicely done. On previous trips to Korea, at a couple of restaurants the kimchi jeon I've had somehow seemed slightly undercooked. I think that owed itself to the complexity of identifying how well cooked a very uneven batter covering copious amounts of kimchi might be.
At Waelbing Buchu Nara, however, I was pleased with my order. The surface of the jeon just teeters on crispness, while the pancake itself is almost fluffy. The kimchi adds a lot of flavor without being overwhelming.
Even with my almost nonexistent Korean ability I was able to make myself reasonably well understood, and they understood my badly worded request to make sure the jeon was devoid of meat. (It's not all that common to add pork or seafood to this type of jeon, but some places might).
Although I tend to make an effort to go to a place like Pulhyanggi whenever I get a chance to go to Korea, I've long wanted to try another Seoul institution which is also known for fairly high end cuisine.
Sanchon, located in Insadong, offers an elaborate prix fixe vegetarian meal somewhat comparable to what you might find at a place like Pulhyanggi, but more firmly rooted in the Buddhist tradition. Pulhyanggi, while it was influenced by monastic cuisine, focuses more on the culinary traditions of the Korean aristocracy.
On my sixth evening in Seoul, I invited a friend to join me at the restaurant, and we arrived in the middle of the evening's entertainment. The location is a bit more intimate, and the stage is located right in the center of the dining room, which makes the experience a little more like a dinner theater than the more restrained approach at Pulhyanggi.
In fact, it was a little overwhelming... Sudden dramatic shifts in lighting, fairly loud drumming, occasional chanting or call-and-response bits, along with bursts of amplified recorded instrumentals, all presented just centimeters from our table, made the show the center of attention. It had a slight Disney vibe, though I noticed a few diners got quite into the drum performance.
Thankfully the performance soon ended and the restaurant lighting settled into something more comfortable for dining and conversation.
Small parcels of wrapped vegetables
We start off with this small serving of juk (rice porrige) and something remiscent of the crepes wrapped in the nine-sectioned dish from Pulhyanggi. The pancake dish has a bit stronger flavor than the nine-sectioned dish, perhaps from the addition of buckwheat in the crepes batter. We also receive a dish of some Korean mountain fruit, which was reminiscent of either omija berries or sansho, but didn't seem quite like either. We also have a simple mul gimchi, which unlike the previous water kimchi I've shown from this trip, was made without chilies, and is closer to the one I first experienced several years ago on my first trip to Korea.
Seven mountain vegetables
It's spring, so mountain vegetables have been in full swing. We receive a basket of them, alongside with some dressed bitter greens. In contrast to Pulhyanggi's rich, complex flavors, Sanchon's preparations and choices of ingredients tend to have a more austere, almost medicinal character.
Gosari wraps with gochujang
Another simple crepe-like dish with fresh, blanched gosari, jp. zenmai, known as bracken in the US. The gochujang made this one more exciting than I expected.
Full of daikon, tofu, scallions, and enoki, this is a very hearty miso stew.
Bellflower root in a spicy sauce
Actually, this might be gobo, but I think this dish is bellflower root. It's very nice... a little sweet-spicy.
Peanuts and honey
Peanuts with a something sweet, probably honey.
This one could turn into a dangerous habit... it's fried kombu, crunchy and slightly salty.
Fried spring vegetables
We received a plate of fried vegetables, made with a fairly heavy batter. I think one of these was fuki, and there was some renkon. It was served just slightly warm.
After-dinner rice confection
These ubiquitous sweets have a puffy, slightly glutinous, slightly crispy texture, and are generally made with various nuts. For me, they're sort of a guilty pleasure, though they don't seem so incredibly indulgent since they're only moderately sweet.
I don't know what possessed me to go to Lotte World, the megalithic shopping center, in Jamsil, complete with indoor ice skating rink and a shooting range. But I did, and of course, I needed lunch.
While touring the food-laden Lotte department store basement section, I acquired some very nice artisanal gochujang, dwaenjang, and ssamjang, which may be responsible for my sudden urge to eat dol sot bibimbap.
But I walked over acres (hectares?) of shopping madness before deciding to do that, narrowly escaping a Disneyland-like hell of a parallel universe constructed inside the 3rd floor of one of the Lotte World buildings meant to resemble a traditional Korean village. When I saw photos outside the entrance featuring bizarre cartoon-like characters in big-headed costumes, I realized that this particular tourist trap was not for me.
And so I moved on in search of food.
As it turns out, most of the building suffers from the same chain-driven mediocrity that any other big shopping mall in the world aspires to, complete with TGI Friday's and KFC and Lotteria. But it looks like it's possible to eat a decent meal even in the cafeteria-like sections of the complex. One of said cafeterias was where I ended up.
You can walk around the cafeteria perusing short menus, then you place your order at a counter in center of things that serves as a hub. The cashier dispatches your order to the appropriate shop electronically. When your number appears on a mechanical sign, you go to the appropriate vendor and pick it up.
My dolsot bibimbap dispatched with the conventional raw egg in favor of a partially cooked one. That may be because they don't heat up the dolsot well enough to completely cook the egg as you stir it into the rice and vegetable mixture. The flavor was respectable, but I've actually had a better, spicier dolsot bibimbap in a department store basement quick-service restaurant in Japan. In a pinch, it works, but I prefer to eat this kind of thing at a small mom & pop place in a decaying old building.
It may not look pretty, but this pat guksu dish is packed with protein and it's very comforting. It's basically pureed azuki beans with handmade wheat noodles. When you receive your order, you have to make a small but fairly important decision: sweet or salty?
You then add sugar or salt to taste, stir to dissolve, and then start digging into the noodles. When the noodles are gone, you eat the red bean puree until you are full.
The water kimchi, this one with more variety of vegetables than ones I've previously featured, offers a bit of heat and tartness that contrasts nicely with the hearty but plain-tasting noodle dish. Of course there's also some ordinary kimchi to share, but this one is just for me.
More handmade noodle goodness
At the same shop, my friend orders a somewhat more elaborate noodle dish topped with gim (nori, aka laver).
* This pat guksu may have a more specific name that I'm neglecting... I'll post an update later...
After a little walking around Jongro (aka Jongno) on Monday, a friend suggested we go to this nice Korean ddeok cafe in neighboring Insadong. The cafe serves teas, smoothie-like concoctions and traditional and updated Korean confections.
Clockwise, from top: Yuja-flavored (jp. yuzu) ddeok with coconut, ssuk (jp. yomogi, mugwort) flavored rice cake, red bean filled, and apple with coconut.
I could swear I detected a slight hint of gaennip (perilla, shiso) in this red-bean filled ddeok but my friend was convinced that couldn't possibly be the case.
This fairly simple frozen persimmon shake was a delight, though in retrospect I think I should have ordered some bitter tea to accompany my sweets, instead of a sweet drink.
Jilsriru take-home souvenirs
In case you need something to take home with you...
One of my lunches in Seoul... These chewy, stretchy long noodles made in part from buckwheat (like soba) but with a very distinctive texture are known as reimen in Sendai, Japan, where a local version is quite popular. In Korea, the most popular preparation is mul naengmyeon, which is made with a chilled, slightly acidic and fairly refreshing un-beefy beef broth.
On a previous trip, I didn't even know I was being served something made with a beef broth because the friend who took me out for lunch on that occasion didn't know how they were made, and the beef flavor is deceptively subtle when the dish is served cold.
Bibim-naengmyeon is essentially ovo-vegetarian, but it is typically served with a warm version of that broth, generally without the vinegar that marks mul naengmyeon, on the side. Various shredded vegetables may be added to the top, and a spicy sauce most likely based on gochujang adds a big burst of flavor to the whole thing.
Note: The precision geek in my wants to write the name of this dish as "bibim-naengmyeon", which is closer to the actual Hangeul characters used, but typical Korean slurring makes the word sound closer to "bibim-naengmyun," which is probably the most conventional rendering in English romanization.
Sunday night in Seoul I was on my own, and incredibly jetlagged. After visiting a pottery gallery, I briefly met with a friend in Gangnam station, then I went back to my hotel near Seoul National University of Education to rest a bit... I researched some dining options, but most of the interesting ones required traveling 30 minutes or more across town and perhaps a bit more careful navigation than I was able to handle with my level of energy.
I was mostly inclined to sleep, but I was getting pretty hungry.
So I walked in the area surrounding my hotel for 20 or 30 minutes, and found a little place whose menu promised nokdu-jeon, a pancake made from shelled, ground mung beans. As I've mentioned before, I'm a sucker for jeon, so I went right inside.
They presented a few small side dishes, included a plain savory steamed custard, which we also had at a Gangnam station-area drinking establishment we visited on Saturday night.
These had a chewier than usual texture, so it's possible they snuck some meat inside, but I didn't recognize which one. The most common preparation of nokdu-jeon or binddaeddeok, as far as I can tell, is actually sans-meat, though many restaurants specializing in binddaeddeok serve some seasoned oysters or similar savory ingredients atop the pancakes in place of a dipping sauce.
They were pleasingly crispy on the outside, but overall I wasn't as excited by these nokdu-jeon as I usually would be.
I figured, since the place I was in was mostly a drinking venue, the polite thing to do was to order something to drink with dinner. I had noticed they had o-sip seju on the menu when I was standing outside. I really like the basic flavor notes of baek seju, which is an herbal liqueur based on soju, but I find it a bit too sweet on its own.
Baek means 100 in Korean, and o-sip means 50. Baek-seju is therefore "diluted" with higher-alcohol, lower sugar soju in a 1:1 ratio.
That would suit me fine. Or so I thought.
It didn't occur to me that ordering such a thing means I was, for all practical purposes, ordering two full 500 ml bottles of soju. And I was by myself. Oops.
I didn't drink the whole thing. In fact, I barely made a dent, although I think I had about 300 ml in total. In terms of alcohol content, That's probably the equivalent of most of a bottle of New World red wine, which I am unlikely to consume in a typical evening. But I was jetlagged... it wasn't a typical evening.
Though I was still quite functional, falling asleep that night was no problem.
I arrived in Tokyo last night... There's still a lot to write about from my Korea trip, but I just wanted to post a quick update... Off I go to cause trouble with Hiromi.
My timing was fortuitous., or insane, depending on your perspective... right outside the Marunouchi exit of Tōkyō station, a brand new building opened up, the Shin-Marunouchi Building. Just as you might expect, it was crowded and bustling with activity... When something new and big comes to Tokyo, everyone wants to be there.
Shin-Marunouchi Building Opening Day Congratulatory Flowers
These flowers mark the opening of a new building or business.
Every restaurant or cafe had a long queue.
A new restaurant menu
Dashi-chazuke. Rice with various toppings and Japanese soup stock instead of the typical tea.
I just managed a glimpse of the goods at this fancy cake shop.
Coffee from my hood
Seattle's Iranian-American family-owned Caffe Appassionato gussies up their look for the Japanese market.
Fancy little gourmet shop
Too many salad dressings.
An upscale outpost of an ordinary supermarket
Somewhere to buy the essentials, and everyday splurges.
I'm usually craving coffee and bread in the morning, although I'll certainly dig into a heavy Korean or salt-laden Japanese-style breakfast from time to time. Fortunately, Seoul and Tokyo, more so than Seattle, have an insane number of mostly French-influenced bakeries, all with local touches, so I often have the chance to find such treats in the morning. The main caveat is that in Tokyo, bakeries often don't really open until 10am. As for coffee, both Japan and Korea are heavy consumers of coffee, but with big chains like Dottoru and various Korean Starbucks knock-offs, it's sad to say that quality is not usually a priority.
Tokyo, in spite of an extended reign of coffee superiority vis a vis the land of Maxwell House and Folgers, is really not that great a place to drink coffee. During the economic bubble, it's said that Japan had a number of cafes with owners fanatically devoted to the art of coffee, but these days it takes a special effort to locate anything substantially better than the ubiquitous "blend coffee" or watery "America coffee". Espresso, save for places like Macchinesti, is generally more a milk delivery mechanism, and tends to be bitter and undrinkable, often even more so than what Starbucks produces.
Seoul, in my limited experience, is even worse. Most places I've had coffee (and there haven't been that many even over several trips so I may not be fair) served something that was not only painfully bitter, but tasted stale and faintly metallic.
Paris Croissant latte, Gangnam-gu station
Fortunately, I've had just slightly better luck this time. A cute little flower-shop/cafe, just inches from my hotel, suffered only from having slightly stale coffee and oversteamed milk; it wasn't the bitter mess I had encountered on previous trips. Another bakery (Paris Croissant at Gangnam station, I believe) seemed to almost understand milk foam rosettas, though the milk was also slightly too hot and the coffee had that faint stale flavor I've come to associate with drinking coffee in Korea.
I was even more pleased yesterday morning, when, in my urge to caffeinate myself, I ended up buying coffee at a chain bakery, Tous Les Jours, also a stone's throw from my hotel. It wasn't as pretty as the one at Paris Croissant, but it was flavorful without being unnecessarily bitter, appeared to be made from reasonably fresh beans, and was well-balanced enough that I wouldn't have been surprised if someone told me it came from a local Seattle indie coffee place. Even better, the drink was notably cheaper than the Big Green Monster's Seoul offerings, from what I understand.
The one constant this time for coffee in Seoul, it seems, is that nobody ever uses a thermometer to check the milk temperature and it's always life-threateningly hot.
As for the pastries (because Roboppy always wants to know)... well, Tokyo still seems to have a slightly higher standards overall, but in Seoul prices seems slightly more reasonable. Both Korea and Japan almost always cheaper than Seattle when it comes to laminated doughs and such, thanks to saner portion sizes and higher volume.
I usually try to go for flavors that are hard to find outside of Japan or Korea when I come to this part of the world, and I certainly found plenty to choose from.
Sweet potato roll
A pastry with sweet potato puree in the center from Paris Baguette, Gangnam-gu station...
Marron cherry puff
Puff pastry with the unlikely but pleasant combination of marrons glace (candied chestnuts) and cherries.
Tous les jours trio
Sweet potato-filled pastry, mini-croissant, and red bean stuffed soft bun with walnut.
Black sesame tapioca roll
Nice. Chewy, mochi-mochi, slightly salty, and, well, black sesame-y. Good with cream cheese. You want one of these.
Chocolate streusel bread
A lot less sweet than it looks, this one was a pleasant surprise.
One caveat to pastry and bread in East Asia, though: Savory, hearty breads are relatively rare, and even items that sound savory are often made with a sweet bread base or heavily sweetened laminated dough. Ham, processed cheese and sweet mayonnaise seem to be a favored combination in both Korea and Japan, as are things baked with sausages, and, of course, corn-mayo.
Rabokgi is the derelict pot-smoking cousin of ddeokbokgi, the ubiquitous Korean stewed glutinous rice cake dish.Ramyun (instant ramen), glutinous rice cakes, and spicy gochujang are the essential components in rabokgi; in this case, ours were served with a hard-boiled egg and some variety of fried hanpen, or fish cake, which is called odeng in Korean. I left the odeng for Hiromi.
Normally this is food that accompanies a late night round of drinking, but Hiromi and I didn't have any opportunity to do that before her Sunday morning departure to Tokyo. She had been craving it the entire trip, but we were so full from our three substantial meals on Saturday that even our shared hoddeok was pushing the limits of our stomach capacity.
It turns out, though, that a small restaurant in a building adjacent Gangnam express bus station not only offered rabokgi, but was open at 8am. So not all hope was lost...
We then had a small challenge getting the attention of the waitstaff (I was too polite), but service was quick, and we had this unlikely breakfast. If, however, we had been up all night drinking, like some ajeossi (middle-aged men) at the 24-hour kamja-tang restaurant who we spotted drinking soju with their stew at 7 am Saturday, it might have just been par for the course.
We did, however, observe a small part of the ritual after dinner at Pulhyanggi.
A little makgeolli
We met with a friend of ours who had studied in Seattle and his sister for a little makgeolli.
Makgeolli, sometimes rendered makkori, is sort of what beer would be if it were made from rice instead of barley or wheat, and devoid of hops. It's creamy white, and served with a ladle.
We were completely stuffed from our previous dining excesses, but this nice vegetable jeon was available for those needing a snack. I managed only a bite or two, but I wish I could have managed more. I'm a sucker for good jeon. (I'll try to remember what the highlighted vegetable was at some point and post a trivial update later).
We didn't really do much buying, aside from our Hoddeok, but Namdaemun is a crazy busy place full of tourists looking for visual drama and trinkets to take home (that would be us) and locals looking for cheap clothing and the occasional fish or vegetable.
These were stunning bottles of infused ginseng roots.
A small restaurant welcoming Japanese
We discovered that it is a very bad idea to speak Japanese in Namdaemun market.
No, there wasn't any overt hostility, but the merchants take the sound of Japanese as a cue to turn on the hard sell, and to charge higher than normal prices. Hiromi had the impulse to buy some gim (nori, a.k.a. laver) as a souvenir snack, but the price, for her, was always man-il-cheon-weon for a bundle, 11,000 Won, about $12. If I asked a shop for a similar item in the same size in English, it was 8000 Won, or about $9. The cost in Tokyo for most types of Korean seasoned laver is most likely cheaper than that.
We actually gave up on the market when we saw a sign targeting Japanese selling the exact same brand as one of our earlier overpriced places, atypically with actual price signs. I misread the sign as W2000, but was actually JPY2000; we thought we were getting a deal at about 1/5 the typical price, but it was actually almost twice as much as the same thing at other shops.
We found some very good gim at a department store adjacent to the market, for a very reasonable price.
Well, some sort of amorphous sea creature, anyway. As a vegetarian who gave up meat far before I started exploring the culinary world deeply, I'm not exactly sure how one prepares them. Perhaps like Japanese takosu?
The sea cucumber vendor hard at work
Presumably ready to grill...
Stewed silkworm larvae... not for the faint of stomach, the smell is overpowering even if you're just passing by. Hiromi spotted a little boy gleefully eating them one-by-one with a toothpick from a paper cup... She wasn't adventurous enough to try.
Inexpensive clothing, often with fake paper-labeled brand names or patched-on embroidered logos.
Ddeokbokgi and skewered fish cake stall
The ajumma at these stalls selling stewed foods always seem surprisingly relaxed.
Unlike Tokyo, Seoul still has a vibrant street merchant scene. Every subway station seems to have a few ajumma peddling some sort of medicinal mountain vegetable, bottles of some morning drinking yogurt concoctions, and the occasional roll of gimbap. The average newsstand/kiosk has a pile of popcorn or puffed barley snacks ready for the taking. And some stretches of sidewalk have an endless series of ddeokbokgi, odeng and skewered meat yatai.
In some cases, places housed in permanent buildings open up right out into the street, and these offer the best of both worlds: fresh, inexpensive street food, and access to refrigeration and handwashing facilities.
Streetside meat and sugar
We happened on this shop, where an efficient ajumma was constantly preparing fresh hoddeok while taking orders, exchanging money, and serving a steady stream of customers.
Pressing the hoddeok flat
You must have hoddeok at least once when visiting Korea. Essentially a yeasted pancake stuffed with brown sugar, often featuring peanuts, walnuts or sesame seeds, they are occasionally flavored with green tea or other ingredients. I'm almost always most impressed by the simplest versions. These are sold in molten form straight from the grill by various street vendors. Some use a flat teppan style griddle and a flat metal tamper, and a few use gas-powered waffle-iron-like contraptions that press the pancakes flat as they bake.
Assembling the next order
Each hoddeok gets a very brief rest at the side of the grill, but orders come in so fast that they still reach your little hands in a tempting but dangerously hot state.
The brown sugar-cinnamon filling bleeds right out of the broken pancake.
At 500 KRW per piece (about 55-60 cents), they are an ideal afternoon snack.
If you're properly royal, you save the rice for last. At Pulhyanggi (see part 1), you have two options: Typical steamed rice, probably also better than the average peasant mother will make, or, if you like, nurungji (scorched rice), which is prepared from roasted rice and added water. This is rice from the bottom of a metal pot that has browned from long holding. Almost all over Asia, this slightly "damaged" rice is regarded rather nostalgically because it has such a pleasing nutty aroma.
For the mass market, there are now any number of scorched rice products in Korea, sold dry or even as a microwavable product. Pulhyanggi does things the old-fashioned way, of course. We receive ours in a stoneware bowl, topped with a walnut and a couple of pine nuts.
Rice isn't complete in Korea without a suitable set of side dishes (banchan), and if you were suitably royal, and had an army of servants at your disposal, you'd expect to have something remarkable. I think we had a total of 9 or 10 side dishes.
Scallion wrapped vegetables with gochujang
Painstakingly wrapped, matchstick cut blanched and raw vegetables.
We wanted more of this lotus root dish.
These mushrooms were served very lightly seasoned and almost dry in texture.
Daikon, carrot and nori
Probably the most strongly seasoned dish in this set, this daikon and carrot dish, mixed with gim and the whites of scallions, has a bit of sesame oil, something like the muk from the previous set of courses.
This is a surprising treatmeant of the devil's tongue tuber, konnyaku... minimalist but flavorful.
And a little something sweet
After we look suitably defeated, the waitstaff comes by with a few small things to settle our palates. The meal ends with some wedges of surprisingly good Korean pears, a small serving of a sweet Korean herbal drink, and this nice little confection.
On my two previous trips to Korea, I've been to locations of Pulhyanggi at least twice. (A friend once took me to a similar style of restaurant for lunch, but I wasn't quite sure of the name).
It's easily the most remarkable place I've eaten in Korea.
I couldn't imagine going to Seoul without eating there again, and I really wanted Hiromi to have a chance to try it, so we made plans to eat dinner there on Saturday night. With the help of our hotel staff, we obtained written instructions to give to the taxi driver, and we went on our way.
The most stunning location of Pulhyanggi is located in Gangnam, a short taxi ride from COEX mall. There are at least a half-dozen branches around the city, including one in the basement of Seoul Tower, but this location, in Samseong-dong, is housed in a building designed with a classical Korean architectural aesthetic, and also features a stage for live musical and dance performances using traditional Korean instruments.
The style of service is reminscent of kaiseki-ryouri in Japan, and Pulhyanggi itself was founded by a former mountain temple monk. At least part of the appeal for me is that I can look forward to having an extravagant, memorable vegetarian meal, although there are certainly more meaty selections on the menu. Ordering is roughly table d'hôte; you select from one of perhaps five multicourse menus, organized by price, and then proceed for the rest of the evening to try to keep pace with the dozens of dishes that come to your table.
Hiromi and I respectively ordered an omnivorous and vegetarian version of the same menu, at roughly KRW 55,000/person ($55-60). There is a more budget friendly choice at about KRW 39,000, and certainly the option to treat yourself to one of several even more extravagant menus, but this price point strikes a good balance.
Some of the early dishes were familiar to us from other Korean dining experiences, but somehow the quality beat almost every humble rendition we've tasted.
No matter how fondly one esteems one's Korean mother's chapchae, it's hard to imagine anyone outdoing this version. I don't know what made it better, but we were surprised to see such a simple dish turned into something so memorable.
One of the many starch-based jellies common in Korea, jealously guarded and consumed by Hiromi.
A surprisingly richly flavored salad, perhaps accented with a hint of roasted pumpkin seed oil.
A remarkably sappari "water kimchi," a variety of kimchi fermented in a large amount of liquid for several days. Although the vegetables in this variety of kimchi are tasty, mul gimchi is appreciated best by taking sips of the mild brine with a spoon. Lightly acidic, complex, and refreshing.
Grilled mushrooms and roasted ginko nuts
These seemed to be grilled matsutake, although I'm not sure where one finds pine mushrooms this time of year.
This evening's performers
Our meal is then briefly interrupted when the staff suggests we might like to pose for a touristy photo with the musicians and dancers.
Tofu with nori and matchstick vegetables
I receive tofu with a tasty sauce (perhaps ginger and a little dwaenjang, a.k.a. miso, though the particulars escaped me) and matchstick sliced vegetables, along with another couple of small vegetable side dishes.
Hiromi gets a dramatically plated shellfish dish.
I have a shiitake-stuffed tofu with a slice of sweet potato, deep-fried and served at room temperature.
We both share three types of jeon, pancakes with various vegetable fillings.
Both of us have a course of fried vegetables; Hiromi's had some meat or fish. This is the only not entirely successful dish we tasted, as the batter was heavier and oilier than we would have hoped. The best tempura in Japan is crispy without tasting greasy. These items seemed to be cooked at a lower temperature with a thicker coating. The result was crunchy but slightly tough.
Meatless "Steamed beef"
Apparently made with kelp, this temple-style deception was a surprisingly pleasant meat analog. I think it was fashioned from wheat gluten, but I'm not entirely sure. The server explained that this dish is unique to this restaurant. Hiromi received a parallel course made with actual beef.
Nine-sectioned dish assembled by our server
A classic dish of the royal court, the nine-section dish is simply thin crepe-like pancakes and various vegetable fillings (one is generally meat or seafood, but they prepare a vegetarian alternative for me). Our server prepares all four pancakes for us a la minute, though when I visited this with Korean colleagues several years ago, the staff only prepared the first one or two as a demonstration, as we could be expected to figure out the rest.
These are then eaten with a white-colored, slightly sweet and slightly acidic dipping sauce.
Seems like a lot of food, no?
We were already fairly satiated, especially after two other hearty meals on the same day. But we hadn't had rice yet...
Hiromi and I met in Seoul late at night Friday, and woke up insanely early (6am) after too little sleep. After a breakfast of al bap for Hiromi (tarako or cod roe on rice) and cool bibimbap for me, we got on the bus to meet an eGullet acquaintance in Icheon, a town I've only previously visited for its biennial pottery festival.
And we're off...
Our driver gets caught shoulder-driving and passing on the right...
He gets a little scolding.
Finally, we make it to Icheon, which, in addition to being a pottery destination, is also a major rice producing area. At Cheng Mok restaurant in Icheon, it's all about the rice.
Apparently, this particular rice and preparation, ssal bap, was considered suitable for royalty. But you might want a few things to accompany the rice...
Some simple pajeon (scallion pancakes)...
Ssam (lettuce and other leaves) for wrapping various treats...
I found these forest treats at the University District Farmer's Market on Sunday. The season is mercilessly brief for fiddlehead fern fronds... They'll probably be impossible to find by the time I return from my trip to Japan. So, even though I have been trying to reduce the perishable contents of my refrigerator as fast as possible, I couldn't resist picking up some fiddleheads before I go.
Warabi, as fiddleheads are called in Japanese, are typically briefly blanched in Japan to remove aku (roughly: bitterness, astringency, the "unclean" parts of food) before they are incorporated into other dishes. Often a bit of baking soda is used when blanching this type of spring mountain greens, which slightly softens them and also removes more of the traces of enzymes that, given long term heavy consumption of the plant, can lead to some health problems. This blanching technique is always used in Japan, though I think it's sometimes neglected in the US where we seem to want to immediately toss these in a pan with olive oil.
In the Pacific Northwest, my understanding is that the Chinook tribe traditionally cooked these with oil extracted from oolichan fish, which also run in the spring.
For me, I'm happiest with a simple Japanese-style preparation.
I like zenmai, a similar frond common in Japan, on top of a bowl of warm soba, but for warabi I usually just make a kind of simmered ohitashi.
This is just Japanese soup stock (dashijiru), seasoned with the typical combination of mirin, Japanese soy sauce, salt, and a bit of sugar, all done to taste. Once the sauce comes to a simmer, I just add the warabi and simmer for a few more minutes. The prior blanching will also help preserve the color during the second exposure to heat.
Warabi is a little bitter, but the overall flavor is reminiscent of asparagus, if perhaps a bit more intense in flavor. Unlike most ohitashi, I serve this warm. As a result, the dish is almost like nimono, even though it's not cooked quite as long.