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.
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.
Sunday I visited Hanhyanglim gallery in the Heyri art village just northwest of Seoul. Riding in the car of the gallery owner, we saw a very intimidating-looking spirals of barbed wire fence along the river, across which lies North Korea.
The gallery owner, Jay, is a pottery collector who has made some money in the semiconductor industry, and continues to make that his day job while his wife Hyanglim, a ceramist, runs the day-to-day operations of their gallery and gift shop. I learned about the place thanks to an introduction from a member of a clay art email discussion group, and the owner was kind enough to take pick me up from a nearby train station.
Though I was mainly here for Korean pottery, the museum also featured the work of 90-year-old Sylvia Hyman, new to me but renowned for her visual deceptions.
Through Time and Space
This comes from a spiritual Arabic text, which actually apparently is something about time and space. My Arabic is a little rusty, though, so I just enjoyed the nifty curls.
This piece has convincing leather straps, canvas, wood, paper, and rope, all crafted from clay.
Currogated cardboard rendered with clay is even more surprising...
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...
Just a little note... I'm departing to Seoul on Thursday, April 19, where I'll be doing a little ceramics hunting, catching up with a few friends, and probably eating a little too much.
I'm flying solo on that leg of the trip, and then meeting up with Hiromi in Tokyo from April 27 to May 8, where I'll be staying in Ochanomizu. We have a side trip to Aomori planned in the middle of that, but I guess I'll be doing the urban thing most of the time.
Pursuing My Passions has always been focused on my life after Microsoft, about indulging my passions for good food, contemporary Asian craft, and travel while somehow trying to build a business around those obsessions. But except for the occasional comment on a restaurant here an there, I haven’t spent much time looking outward at what other people are doing.
I wanted to build a bit of a community focused on changing contemporary Asian lifestyles, as well as on food, crafts, and design. Of course, with my ever-increasingly insane schedule, I never put the necessary amount of time into the project. But I’ve decided I will bite off a little at a time, much like I did originally with this blog… and for now, I’ve decided to create a blog wholly focused on an assortment of such things, rather than just on what I’m up to myself.
The first couple of entries on that blog are now up on MoriAwase.com. If you have any sort of enthusiasm for rustic-contemporary Asian craft, contemporary Asian art and design, for Asian cuisine and travel, please take a look, and consider signing up to participate in the MoriAwase.com Forums.
Pursuing My Passions will continue, focused mostly on what I’m cooking, where I’m traveling, and what I’m doing with my business, as it always has… MoriAwase will be a bit more focused on the world around me, and perhaps more traditionally blog-like with links to interesting content outside of my narrow little sphere.
Last week Hiromi and I decided to take advantage of one of the packaged foods we picked up at Takaragawa-onsen called houtou, which are fantastically wide noodles typically served with fall or winter vegetables.
On the other hand, I didn’t want to completely ignore the fact that we’re already seeing the bounty of springtime. I picked up some fiddlehead fern fronds, and thought a simple warabi no nimono, simmered fiddleheads in seasoned soup stock, would be nice.
And then I thought I’d like to have a little protein in the dish, and my mind turned to a favorite oden classic, which is ganmodoki, a sort of tofu fritter. I started looking at packaged ganmodoki, and wasn’t inspired at all. I realized it wasn’t that hard to make ganmodoki, and so I decided to make it at home.
Ganmodoki often has some hijiki in it, but I discovered I was completely out. Instead, I used some shredded gobo or burdock root, along with the typical shredded carrots. Hiromi told me that she’s partial to ganmodoki made with sesame, so I also used some kurogoma (black sesame) and the slightest hint of sesame oil. The fried ganmodoki went into the seasoned soup stock, perhaps not quite long enough to get the incomparably oden-like quality of pervasive soupy richness, but just about right to bring out the freshness of the tofu.
Houtou is seriously rustic. You are probably less likely to find this nabe dish in a U.S. Japanese restaurant than you are to find a fortune cookie in China, which means the odds are almost infinitely improbable.
Our favorite nabe is sadly leaking a bit, but houtou would normally be prepared on top of a portable konro at the table. We had to improvise, and prepared it in a pot on the stove and transferred it into my largest Hagi earthenware bowl.
Houtou aren’t really substantially different than udon, except that they are cut thinner and substantially wider. The soup usually has root vegetables such as carrots and satoimo (small taro), along with Japanese kabocha squash.We also used strips of abura-age, loosely translatable as tofu puffs. They have a slightly spongy texture that just loves to absorb tasty liquids like broth. The seasoning base of our broth is miso, along with, of course, some dashijiru. Although the gift package Hiromi found at our ryokan’s convenient omiyage-ya-san includes some miso-based seasoning, she wanted some more miso intensity, and we used a blend of hatcho-miso and a lighter miso.
The result is rib-sticking comfort food. It’s the kind of food someone’s grandmother would make: not terribly fancy, but somehow incredibly satisfying. We look forward to devouring the other half of our stash of houtou sometime soon…
Hillel of Tasting Menu has issued a bit of a challenge to himself to elevate the average quality of U.S. dining experiences. It's a frustration I share... I know a few places in Seattle that make me very happy, but most of them are out of the reach of everyday dining prices, and it's incredibly hard to find things that do a few simple things very well, and make me want to go out of my way to get a modest lunch or dinner there.
In Japan, countless television shows will obsessively document what it takes to make the most perfect omelet, which soba places do the best job of making buckwheat noodles (a fundamentally simple, but deceptively challenging task), or which ryokan is best taking advantage of their local ingredients. In the U.S., the closest thing we have to that mentality on TV is Alton Brown, and maybe Cook's Illustrated in print. In Japan, it's pervasive.
In the U.S., we are more excited by drama than by perfection. That's why people like Emeril, unfamiliar towers of incongruous ingredients at trendy fusion restaurants, and big fat California rolls. In Japan, more often than in the U.S., the pursuit of perfection is the drama.
In my first few years cooking regularly, during college, I followed a predictably American pattern of rebelling against bland foods from my childhood and I overseasoned absolutely everything. It was an improvement over what I had eaten before, but it's not necessarily worthy of much praise. After 8 years of regular visits to Japan, I increasingly strive for minimalism, trying to find ingredients that do most of the hard work simply by being wonderful and fresh.
Often enough, when I give an example of this, it's something as simple as a blanched spinach dish with a little freshly grated ginger and a splash of good quality Japanese soy sauce. When I explain it, it doesn't sound interesting, but when it's done right, it's easy to understand its simple poetry.
To elevate the U.S. dining scene, we have to give appropriate due to small places with short menus that get the food right, and take what they are producing very seriously. I can point out a few examples in Seattle, but mostly in a liquid context: Vivace and Victrola coffee, Sambar's signature cocktails that often feature house-squeezed juices and purees, tea at Floating Leaves.
Every Japanese restaurant in Seattle seems to feel obligated to offer sushi, tempura, donburi, and an assortment of over-sized side dishes, all in the same place. Nobody does just ramen, just okonomiyaki, just soba, just kushiyaki, or just udon. It seems like there's some sort of unwritten law that, even if you've hired 3 decent sushi chefs at $80,000/year each and contracted with a first-class interior designer, the restaurant has to devolve into some sort of family restaurant style of having something mediocre for everybody.
And I can pick on most cuisines in this regard: we torture Italian food the same way, not to mention Thai, Mexican, and others. If I'm in Japan, I don't think "I want to go to a Japanese restaurant," I think "I want to go to an izakaya", "I'd like some good soba", or "I'd like to have a teishoku lunch at that little vegetable shop near the office for lunch."
We need to reward the places that are obsessive about getting details right, from perfectly cooked pasta sauced with just the right amount of liquid, to serving just the amount of food that makes you wish you had just a little more, rather than making you feel guilty that you don't want to take the inedible leftovers home. Japan does have a certain level of uniform expectations that means there's far less variation in what's considered "perfect", and the benefit of generally high population density, but in the U.S. we usually have lower rents and more tolerance for idiosyncrasy, so the restaurants can be more maverick-like if they build a passionate audience.
Japanese cooking shows typically show professional cooks as careful, serious, diligent and avoiding wasted motion, respectfully repeating orders and executing them, and the guests are the ones who get all excited. In the U.S. the same kinds of shows have clanging pots, chaotically moving employees trying to avoid bumping into each other, kitchen staff telling jokes of questionable taste, and often haphazardly tossing food onto plates, often portraying the dining room is an ocean of calm customers. We want our celebrity chefs to be exciting; Japanese would rather the food and the guests do the talking.
Restaurants also have to get better at telling their own stories, explaining why they don't have 300 menu choices and why they serve their zarusoba with just a little bit of dipping sauce and a few pickles. The story-telling is part of what makes unconventional restaurants succeed in the U.S.; they have to teach their guests to do their marketing.
We can improve the taste of average restaurants by expecting better... When one place starts making the perfect taco, stop spending so much money at the big-as-your-head burrito place. More realistically, I imagine we will have to take more incremental steps, since we might be trapped in a part of town where we don't have better lunch options... So I'll give more money to places that make me happier, even if they aren't flawless.
And hopefully the occasional web rant or rave will help people find better food, so I'll spend some time writing about the good stuff...
A weekend ago we made a trek to Washington Park Arboretum to do Seattle-style cherry-blossom viewing. That means completely devoid of public drunkenness, which would of course be de rigeur in Japan… Seattle style cherry-blossom viewing involves a moderately brisk trek across a large, uncrowded park, perhaps after a dose of coffee.
Seattle’s cherry blossoms tend to be a bit earlier than most of Japan, but April 4 is sort of the officially appreciated day for cherry-blossom viewing, so my sluggishness in posting these works out to have a slightly commemorative effect.
Now, if only we had a little blanket, a lot of shochu, some cold snacks, and no laws against drinking in public parks, we might have a complete hanami experience…
We departed Japan on Sunday, but not without a valuable trip to Takaragawa Onsen, a hot spring ryoukan in Gunma prefecture.
After a quick lunch at a Meguro-station cafe on Saturday, Hiromi drove us through a mysterious maze of toll highways about three or four hours, but I managed to sleep through about two hours of road time, oblivious to my surroundings. Only when traveling internationally do I seem to magically acquire the ability to fall asleep anywhere, anytime.
For me, a stay in a ryokan is an opportunity for an extravagant simple meal, but it also offers an ideal bathing experience…
We stopped briefly at a highway service area for a snack, and after resting a bit upon arrival, we made a quick trip to the rotenburo (outdoor hot springs bath). This hotel’s rotenburo is one of the largest konyoku-buro (mixed baths). Although in other konyoku-buro, people generally enter the onsen naked, people at this onsen are advised to cover themselves with a towel (men with a tiny towel, women with a larger towel), as one sign indicated, so that “nobody has to be embarrassed” using the konyoku-buro.
We didn’t feel comfortable really photographing the baths themselves, of course, but here’s what we found along the way…
Lukewarm spring water
The irouri as ashtray
In old Japanese houses, people sat around the irouri to share dinner and discuss the day’s business. For the contemporary onsen-goer, it seems to be a destination for an ippuku (rest, but actually a euphemism for a smoking break).
This hall is filled with tengu and tanuki, mystical creatures with exaggerated body parts.
In the ryokan eating area
After soaking a bit we sat down to dinner. In this particular ryokan, most floors have two or three eating areas, at least in the steerage class, although in the most expensive rooms they serve fancier meals in the room.
The apertif seemed to be some sort of shiso-based shochu infusion, heavily sweetened and only lightly alcoholic.
Sumibi-yaki, char-grilled foods, seemed to be the theme of our stay. For a spring meal, the selections we were offered were surprisingly full of various “wild” mushrooms, but we had some fresh spring bamboo shoots as well.
Each table has a small shichirin, or clay grill, placed atop a concrete trivet with a wooden base to buffer against heat damage to the table.
Note to us
Each diner receives a note describing tonight’s menu. You can see from the “yamame” (small fish) and “joushuugyuu” (local beef) items that this is Hiromi’s menu.
A rare sweet-savory bean side dish, apparently typical for this area. Most of Japan prefers beans as a dessert, but this dish is prepared with enough salt to make it a pleasant side dish for a savory meal.
Maitake no itame-ni
Several standard side dishes, such as ohitashi (blanched vegetables), pickled vegetables (nozawana, for example), and other obligatory ryokan fare, such as nabemono, were also featured. I had a cold dish with a kind of abura-age in clear soup, as well.
After the meal, Hiromi became a bit sleepy.
On the banks of the river
We somehow managed to fall asleep around 9 in the evening, but the next morning, we awoke to this view outside our room’s window.
The bridge to the hot springs
We took advantage of the hot springs once more in the morning… a bit of snow started falling upon us while we were bathing.
Breakfast included miso soup, salad, bamboo leaf-wrapped nattou (fermented soybeans), more of the sweet-savory local beans, yogurt, an orange segment, and a soft-boiled egg, as well as some pickles and nori, not pictured.
Grilled potatoes, green beans and carrots
This marks the first time I’ve been served ketchup at a ryokan, but my breakfast featured a sort of Western-themed sukiyaki, in lots of butter, meant to be dipped in ketchup.
Shake no sumibiyaki
Salmon for Hiromi. We had a lot of fire at our table.
Breakfast window view
From our seats at breakfast, we could see the tall winter accumulation of snow that hadn’t yet sublimated or melted.
I’m guessing this irouri, not terribly well ventilated, doesn’t get much use in practice.
We had to rush back to Narita airport, where we met Hiromi’s parents one last time, and started the long journey back home.
A somewhat dry-fleshed, thick-skinned orange, possibly from Ehime prefecture, popular for its sappari or refreshing taste. It’s a bit bitter and perhaps a bit similar to a Seville orange.
Not quite shaped like a traditional madeleine, this was a conceptual sample from one of my green tea suppliers made with a madeleine-style batter.
This matcha dessert was more of a pound cake style.
Zundamochi and Ayamemochi
Zundamochi are daifuku made with edamame paste. They’d probably be more impressive in cross-section, but we were hungry already. We found them at Mura-kara-machi-kara-kan.
One of our smoked eggs, before peeling. We ate the smoked eggs for breakfast in the hotel.
A few years ago a chain of okayu restaurants sprouted up around Tokyo, even offering brown rice and multigrain versions. With modest 200–300 calorie portions and optional add-ins, the restaurants are popular with women in their 20s and 30s. There are no unaccompanied men in most of these, and I was one of perhaps two in the restaurant. Hiromi had the yuba and greens okayu in the foreground, which had 5 grains; mine was a brown rice okayu with fried onions and greens, with an add-on onsen tamago (soft-boiled egg).
Kabocha mushi cake
I’ve forgotten what they called it, but this is essentially a steamed cake with chunks of kabocha, and ever so slightly sweet. It’s actually in the “yum-cha” or dim-sum part of the okayu shop’s menu, rather than their dessert section.
Almond “tofu”, a flavored gelled dessert.
Sakura ice cream
Cherry-blossom ice cream, from an old-school kissaten near Meguro-station that serves average quality vacuum-pot coffee and various sandwich-like nibbles. The ice cream appears to be a lightly-flavored cherry ice cream served on a cherry leaf and topped with shiozuke, or salt-pickled cherry blossom. This one wasn’t terribly salty, so they may have rinsed it first.