Food Art, Tofu Doughnuts and Octopus Kimchi Pancake: Japan and Seoul, South Korea

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.

Side street away from main tourist street in Gion historic district, Kyoto, Japan 2018. Photo by J.Chong
Fresh wasabi root. Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo 2018. Photo by J.Chong

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.

Different lightly stir-fried rice varieties of choice for lunch or supper bento box meals on the run. Tokyo train station hub 2018. Photo by J.Chong
Intensive use of land for small farms and gardens. Taken during bullet train ride from Kyoto to Nara, Japan 2018. Photo by J.Chong.

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.

Dinner at Nishiki Market. Kyoto, Japan 2018. Photo by J.Chong.  Actually just right amount of food. Not too much.
BBQ eel and tempura meat. Nishiki Market, Kyoto 2018. Photo by J.Chong

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.

Seafood packing carts chugging across intersection a block away from Tsukiji Fish Market. Tokyo 2018. Photo by J.Chong
Having miso soup with very fresh sashimi and sushi at small restaurant. Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo 2018. Photo by J.Chong.
Small shrine by Tsujiki Fish Market. Tokyo 2018. Photo by J.Chong

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.

Packs of freshly hulled sea urchin. Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo 2018. Photo by J.Chong

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

Chawanmushi, Japanese savoury steamed egg custard, strained with mushroom and festooned with herbal flower. Kyoto, Japan 2018. Photo by J.Chong

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.

Dinner at one of many restaurants in downtown Tokyo Station, main train hub and shopping mall. 2018

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.

Handmade buckwheat noodles in shoyu soup (soy sauce) with light tempura veggies. Tokyo 2018.. PHoto by J. Chong. TEmpura leaf is shiso.

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.

All-male patron ramen restaurant for our delicious chicken ramen soup dinner. Several blocks from Tokyo train station hub. 2018. Photo by J.Chong
Flavourful chicken ramen soup garnished with an egg, wood ear fungus (easily found in North American Asian stores) and onions. Tokyo 2018. Photo by J.Chong

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.

Street scene with lots of male office workers dining and socializing in evening. Tokyo 2018. Photo by J.Chong
Baseball and fake donurbi dish grace restaurant. Tokyo 2018. Photo by J.Chong

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.

Shapely bushes and benches for smokers. Tokyo 2018. Photo by J.Chong

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.

Multi-course meal for Jack’s birthday. Smaller dishes were various bachan –Korean condiments, usually spicy or pickled. Insadong district. Seoul, South Korea 2018. Photo by J.Chong

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.

Korean foodie friend and film producer (on right), enjoy their dinner. Seoul, South Korea 2018. Photo by J.Chong.
Digging into octopus from pancake. In front of me, is my bimbap and bachan surrounding pancake.  Seoul, South Korea 2018. All delicious.

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.

Huge steamed shrimp dumplings to tempt people inside. Insadong district. Seoul, South Korea 2018. Photo by J.Chong

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.

Giant Korean kimchi and pork dumplings. Seoul, South Korea 2018. Photo J. Becker

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.

Our hotpot ingredients for dinner soup pot. Kyoto, Japan 2018. Photo by J.Chong. Yuzu fruit drink in background. Yuzu fruit is very difficult to find in North America.

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.

Small food stalls ring edge of Tsujiki Fish Market. Location of century old market will move to more modern location by end of 2018. Tokyo. Photo by J. Chong

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.

Glutinous rice doughnuts –I didn’t try them. Seoul, South Korea 2018. Photo by J.Chong.
Tofu doughnuts –slightly dense, yet light tasting.. Narita Airport. Tokyo 2018. Photo by J.Chong

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.

Luxury food emporium with different brand counters offering cakes, snacks, chocolates. Tokyo 2018. Photo by J.Chong
Artfully shaped glutinous rice pastries at food emporium. Tokyo 2018. Photo by J.Chong

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.

Endame –fresh soybean. Tsujiki Fish Market, Tokyo 2018. Photo by J.Chong
Tokyo 2018. Photo by J.Chong
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13 Comments Add yours

  1. Peter Klopp says:

    The sampling of the delicious and nutritious Asian food must have been a great experience for you. Best wishes! Peter

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      Certainly there were some unexpected surprises as noted in blog post.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Not gonna lie: I yelled out OH MY GOD WHY AM I NOT EATING THAT when I saw the Korean dishes. How were prices in Korea?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      Quite good, Wife of Bath. Abit cheaper than Canada for the food dishes.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Mabel Kwong says:

    A delightful gastronomic food post, Jean. Looks like you ate your way through Japan and Seoul. Japan sure know how to do presentation, and as you said, even if the food is mediocre, it looks good – and it’s probably good food for you. Don’t doubt you for leaving the eateries that all smoking. As a non-smoker, cigarette smoke is just not my thing, and although partitioned, I’m sure it fill filter all round. Dumplings the size of your hand are massive dumplings but sounds like you and Jack had no problem finishing everything you ordered 😁

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      We enjoyed ourselves. 🙂 The smoking ban in big city Japanese cities, will evolve hopefully to ban smoking in restaurants completely.

      Like

  4. twobrownfeet says:

    3 and half days is too less to explore Seoul! 🙂 Bibimbap is my favourite and pajeon too. Love the food pics around Japan.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      And Seoul had some heavy monsoon like rains for nearly 2 days when we were there. We didn’t get to walk nor bike the river bed area that runs through the city. My partner wanted to do this for his birthday. (He did it a few years ago when he was there.) Always interesting to try different variants of bimbap.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Lani says:

    How did I miss such a delicious post! Those dumplings look divine! Unfortunately when we stopped over in Japan all the food was GONE. It was like a huge tour group came through and emptied out the contents. To be fair, we arrived very late in the day, probably before food was restocked. So all we got to enjoy was cup of noodles. Sad.

    I’ve grown up with Japanese food as it is EVERYWHERE in Hawaii, and is quite popular in Thailand. We eat it at least once a week. Of course, I’ve got to get to the Motherland and try the real deal food myself! Happy eating!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      Once you get to Japan on your own again, I would be curious for your perspective. I see Japan as so different as a society compared to other Asian countries. Wouldn’t have thought Japanese food as popular in Thailand?! Perhaps easy to make with not necessarily a ton of ingredients?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Lani says:

        Back in the 90s, when the Japanese economy was strong they bought up property and opened up business in Thailand. So they established themselves here, and opened up restaurants and now they are by far the most popular kinds of restaurants you will see in shopping malls.

        And recently they’ve changed the visa policies so Thais can visit Japan without a visa.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ll be sharing this post with T who is studying Asian geography again this yr. He will drool! He’ll enjoy tapping the like button. That’s funny you ended up with Canadians; such a small world. I’ve never seen tofu donuts or fresh edamame, though I went Ah — at the sight of your opening photo. I’ve always admired the art in Japanese cuisine — in Japanese anything. Love the photo of you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      For sure, there is much to learn to see and learn over in Asia with countries that have diverse, contrasting histories, languages and cultures from one another. Well, yes Japanese aesthetics is to be greatly admired. Somehow the machta tea blog post is captivating to folks…it must different angles about it. We have fond memories of our trip in Japan and Seoul.

      Good to see you again, HW.

      Like

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