Before we flew off to Japan and Seoul, South Korea, I only had one Japanese cookbook which I haven’t even cooked anything from it. My tasting experience has been based on eating in restaurants in Canada –primarily Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary. And I don’t even eat out as often as others, for dinner.
After Internet surfing, I resigned to the thought we wouldn’t even recognize wonderful restaurants because streets and many establishment names would not be in English.
I was right. In my recent blog post on sampling machta tea and desserts, we nearly missed a heritage Tokyo teahouse because yes, we didn’t even recognize its frontage, as a teahouse.
So just loosen up your tastebud expectations and be armed with a vague idea of country’s key dishes, gastronomic curiosity and have table manners like locals.
Japanese Food Aesthetic: Visual Orchestration
Even a shopping mall restaurant meal in Tokyo and Kyoto, was served in neat visual little dishes and trays with small artful food details. A shiso leaf gracing a few cut veggie pieces or daikon cut-out by a some cooked meat. This is what it was like, even if the meal tasted half lousy.
It was lovely, though it’s a lot of little dishes for kitchen staff or to throw into the dishwasher. (Same can be said of Korean cuisine with the banchan — its famed side marinated condiments for each meal.)
Yes, we went to two different sushi and sashimi restaurants in Japan for ultra fresh stuff where it was made in front of you. First place was in Tokyo, at the famed Tsukiji Fish Market one of the world’s largest and busiest seafood auctions.
By coincidence, I sat beside Chinese ex-Calgarian, who now lives and works in Hong Kong. I had ultra fresh sashimi –my shrimp was grey, not pink-cooked. It was delicious. Until we got to Tsijuki, we had no idea there was also a small temple. There was a tiny garden war memorial dedicated to Japanese war dead who fought in China. The latter is still highly sensitive to other visiting Asians.
In Kyoto, at a recommended family-run restaurant just 2 blocks from our hotel, we learned the son spent a year cooking in Toronto. He knew enough English to welcome and help patrons, along with his busy, beaming mother and father. In addition to sushi and sashimi, I had chawanmushi, Japanese version of
savoury steamed egg custard. The egg dish was artfully graced with an herb like-flower on the surface. This dish is seldom served in Japanese North American restaurants. Unlike my mother and now what I cook at home, an eggy meat lumpy dish (but still delicious). To me it was an elegant, yet homey dish.
Craving For Heaps of Veggies
Several times in Japan, I saw food dishes from afar and wondered if it was veggies I was craving. The problem with most of our meals in Japan, the amount of veggies was actually small. When I walked closer to the photos, it was actually advertising for a Chinese restaurant. This happened to me several times, while in Japan. Darn. I vowed not have Chinese food while in Japan and South Korea. I stuck to this credo without much difficulty –even if meant less veggies.
Most likely there are areas of Japan where there’s lots of veggies served in a meal, we just didn’t encounter it. Suddenly I realized perhaps Chinese cuisine does offer diverse, centuries-old choices of large amounts of veggie creativity and in so many different contrasting dish flavours.
Hanging Out In All-Male Ramen Shop and Avoiding Smoking Rooms
During my first evening in Japan, we strolled down a side street about 4 blocks away from our hotel in Tokyo’s business district. The street was full of restaurants and some bars, heavily patronized by Japanese men socializing after work from their offices. If there were other Asian men, for sure they would have to understand Japanese. The cliques we saw, seemed tight and closed to outsiders.
Most of the men wore the same business garb –black or navy dress pants and a white or cream long sleeved dress shirt. It was a humid 25-30 degrees C. We saw this male attire in this district for the next few days. We saw less than 2% among the crowds were Japanese women. It makes workers in Toronto’s Bay Street area, Canada’s national hub for financial, consulting and law firms, look positively more colourful, diverse and creative in clothing.
In the ramen restaurant, we slurped from our tasty bowls of ramen chicken soup. The entire small establishment was crammed with over 40 men, chatting boisterously over soup and beer well into the evening. No female customers. The second evening, again no other female customers, we noticed a lingering smoke inside the restaurant. A guy took out a cigarette to light up. We left. Tokyo’s restaurants have not completely converted to non-smoking ban — unlike many big and small city places in North America.
Be aware that many Japanese big city restaurants and cafes may offer a smoking room which might be a completely enclosed separate room for smokers or only a two-thirds wall, for separation.
Seoul, South Korea: Giant Dumplings and Octopus Kimchi Pancake
Seoul is a sophisticated city of 10.3 million people. It offers a wide range of cuisine. Since we were there for only 3.5 days, it was barely enough time to understand and try some atypical dishes. I wanted to get past the kimchi-laced or chili marinated cabbage and cold dishes. I feared a stereotyped idea about Korean cuisine due to our lack of time to explore far.
We discovered during heavy monsoon rains in early July, some smaller mom and pop restaurants in heart of Seoul, simply shut down. Thankfully we did manage to squeeze in 2 visits to a tiny diner run by a mother and daughter, a block from our hotel.
This tiny clean place seated less than 18 people. For inexplicable reasons, there seemed to be over 5 security cameras rigged up in corners. I had bimbap twice –their version which was not in sizzling hot bowl. It was served in steel bowl, lighter with some lettuce, less heavier tasting white rice, thin beef pieces and fully cooked fried egg served in its separate container, instead of a runny egg to be mixed in like a sauce with hot rice mixture. Jack had kimchi octopus and leek pancake both visits.
During the first evening, we chatted with a Korean film-maker who was dressed in traditional raw silk indigo blue baggy pants, white linen shirt and sported a long ponytail. He believed in producing films to highlight Korean heritage or its modern fusion. He was visiting Seoul from a smaller district and found the restaurant via his foodie local friend who joined him later. He apologized to us for his basic but good English.
In Insadong, a gentrified retail area now frequented by tourists, we happily enjoyed steamed huge Korean dumplings. These dumplings were deliberately sized for tourists –after I confirmed with a Korean-Canadian work colleague later back in Canada.
Each dumpling was the size of your hand, filled with pork, chicken, fish, kimcheed veggies or less often, beef. It was a perfect lunch snack for us. A nice change from pan-fried, firm gyoza, which seems to dominate dumpling choices in Canadian Korean restaurants.
Tour Groups Speed Through Dinner
For Jack’s birthday, we had multiple dishes including at least 8 side dishes of bachan. I had initially pointed to a set meal that would have been around $50.00CAN for both of us. The restaurant owner persuaded me to go for cheaper combo. He was just thoughtful to us and didn’t want us to unknowingly get ripped off since to locals this was a lot of money for two diners. Not to Canadians.
That evening, we suspected half of the restaurant’s clientele were tourist groups where the restaurant was part of their package tour. Suddenly a whole group of Filipinos ate, rose and left on time. Same for the Mandarin speaking Chinese group beside us…they banged off their dinner in an hour and were out the door in a flash.
Foodie Alerts: Soy Doughnuts, Fried Glutinous Rice Balls and Luxury Gourmet Food Emporium
At Incheon Airport before flying from Seoul back to Canada, I bought a machta tea soy doughnut. It was small, dense but oddly light inside in taste. Before getting to the airport, I glimpsed fried glutinous rice doughnut –similar to Italian fried rice and cheese filled balls. I wasn’t motivated to try the heavyweights.
In Tokyo and Kyoto main train stations, there was each a large, luxury food emporium store with over 10 different brand counters, arranged similar to brand name cosmetic counters, each with their sales staff. There were gourmet food counters specializing in elegant cakes, cookies, some teas and even….packaged, processed snacks, all under one roof and elegantly presented. It was all Japanese products and to showcase it well.
Part of understanding a nugget of culture and tradition is to see and taste its iconic and common food –traditional as well as unexpected fusions.