SEOUL – As I type this post from the Seoul airport, where the WiFi speed makes U.S. carriers look like dial-up circa 1998, I have dozens of images and flavors locked into my permanent taste memories. The fatty toro from Matsu, served at the counter inside a charming two-story home in Kyoto; the cacophony surrounding the immense Tsukiji Fish Market, juxtaposed against the delicate, serene sushi lunch a few minutes’ walk from there, at Dai Bekkan; the raging hot bowls of spicy tofu soup and funky kimchi from Seoul…all of these images – including the bowl of cold bibimbop you see above, have only solidified my love for Japanese and Korean food. I was also pleased to learn that some dishes – like the Korean street snack of rice cakes immersed in chili sauce (dokbokki) and the dolsot bibibimbop, served in piping hot stone bowls – are done just as well in Chicago and in the Northwestern suburbs, as they are prepared in some parts of Korea.
The best meal we had in Japan – by a longshot – was at the diminutive Tempura Matsu, in Kyoto. Thanks to a connection from Chicago’s own Takashi Yagihashi, this unassuming little home on the outskirts of town proved to be the diamond in the rough I had hoped to experience. The takeaway for me, truly experiencing omotenashi, or Japanese hospitality. You see it in spurts in Chicago – a series of nigiri at Mirai or the congenial nature of Katsu-san when you dine at the sushi bar at his namesake on Peterson Avenue – but I’ve never experienced it from the moment I walked in through the front door all the way through to the taxi pulling away from the front curb. It felt as if my long-lost Japanese family was welcoming me back from a long semester away overseas, and they had been prepping and cooking all day, just for me. The rush of warmth was immediate (and genuine) and the courses – each one more inspired than the next – were both simple and yet also complex. Part of the reason obviously stems from the fact Matsuno-san’s son, Toshio, spent three years working for Alain Ducasse in Tokyo. I know I’ll never forget the spiny lobster miso, or the nigiri made from crabs and tiger shrimp that were cooked and shelled before our eyes; even the fatty toro hand roll, combined with freshly-grated wasabi and perfectly seasoned rice, rolled up in lightly-toasted nori will haunt me for the rest of my life, beckoning me back like a mermaid calling out to a desperate sailor.
In Seoul, the vibrancy of pickled, fermented, chili-laden kimchi is everywhere – in market stalls, on restaurant menus, even in the Kimchi Field Museum downtown. I got a chance to make my own there, but the ubiquitous side dish – loaded with all sorts of good lactobacilli – is easy to find pretty much anywhere. One of my favorite items in Seoul, however, had nothing to do with chilies, and instead, dumplings. The mandu (stuffed dumplings) at Gung, in the Insa-dong neighborhood, were a revelation: baby fist-sized pockets jammed with cabbage, pork and crunchy bean sprouts, plus finely-shredded leeks and ground radish, assembled by a woman with the speed of Usain Bolt in the tiny, front window. The ones served at Gung are inspired by a North Korean grandmother’s recipe. They arrived in a wide-mouthed soup bowl, containing more leeks and beef broth, plus a host of free panchan (veggie side dishes) including, you guessed it, three types of kimchi.
There were so many other great tastes from this trip: eggy, puffy okonomiyaki in Kyoto, the best tonkatsu I’ve ever had (thanks, Yukari Sakamoto); a sushi lunch at Dai Bekkan in Tokyo that was revelatory, and made me forever worship the beauty that is kinmedai. I will be posting more material in the days and weeks ahead, but safe to say this trip was a life-changer.