Day 23: Seoul street noodles

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Are you a Russian? the waiter asked. (It was a novel experience having table service at a street food stall.)

No, I laughed, and realised I must look like some stereotypical caricature of what a Russian might wear in a cartoon: big brown coat, fluffy wool hat, wrapped up against the elements.

But my getup was justified: it was damn cold. And a steaming bowl of noodles was the best possible thing I could have had. Clear, light broth, thin wheat noodles, a bit of fishcake-like substance and a dab of chilli. Cheap, filling, good.

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Day 22: bibimbap (just kidding!)

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This blog is fast becoming a noodle-only blog, I’d better find some strangers, and soon. But it hasn’t been easy.

On the 22nd day I tried to talk to a lady gathering gingko berries along the footpath near Noksapyeong Station. It was a fresh autumn afternoon, the weakening sun illuminated the golden gingko trees and their wind-blown leaves dancing to the ground. The footpath was covered in bright yellow leaves and as I shuffled along I noticed a few crushed berry-like things and then, later on, a woman in a hat and gloves, doubled over picking up something from the ground which she quickly tossed into a plastic bag. She found more, again and again, and as I walked closer I could tell her bag was heavy with these somethings – whatever they were, fruits, or nuts, or what. She looked up. I smiled. Anyonghaseyo, I said. She huffed and scowled and, never once getting up from her squatting position, sort of half jump-shuffled so that she was crouching in the other direction. I stood there for a second but it was pretty clear she didn’t want to talk gingko nuts. Okay, then.

I went to a cafe full of Westerners thinking they might be easier, less of a language barrier. There were a couple people my age sitting at a big, long shared table with a few empty seats at one end. I went to ask if a seat might be free, thinking these people might be good to chat to. Oh, no, they said, there are some more people coming, so I ended up having my coffee at the only free seat left, in a corner facing the wall, while this group of Americans read out their short story ideas to each other in order, one by one.

After that I met up with my old flatmate Fiona who now lives in Seoul and, preoccupied with catch-ups and gossip and hangover-relieving Korean tacos (oh yeah, there was that hangover) I didn’t manage to flag down any strangers.

But after a big walk up a steep hill to look at the lit-up cityscape from Namsan Tower and a movie screening of sorts we were kind of hungry. Perfect. Noodle time.

We went to Hongdae, a neighbourhood swarming with students who were all (at 11 at night on a Saturday, at least) lining up to get into bars and clubs of some sort and holding impromptu street celebrations when a car crawled by blaring ‘Gangnam Style’. Also there were a fair few young types eating at a 24-hour noodle bar we passed by. So we went in too.

There was an illustrated menu of sorts on the wall of the restaurant, from which I could tell there were a few different noodle dishes available, one of which was like a noodle version of bibimbap, a rice dish with various vegetables and seaweed and egg and meat and sauce that you mix into the hot rice.

So we went up to the ticket-dispensing machine to order. The buttons were only in Korean, but had helpful pictures to show which button went with which dish. So far, so good. I found the button with a picture that looked like the noodle dish I’d seen on the wall. Then there was another button, with an almost-identical picture – only this one was a bit more expensive, and seemed to come with an egg. Sweet, I thought. I like eggs. I put in my money and pushed the button and handed my ticket to the guy behind the counter.

But when my food came, Fiona looked at me quizzically. Did you get noodles, she said, or is that rice? She was right. Underneath the colourfully-arranged meat and vegetables was not noodles, but rice. I’d ordered my old favourite, bibimbap, not its noodle equivalent. So much for confidently pushing buttons on a vending machine ordering system.

Anyway the bibimbap was delicious, and I’m glad I had it. And luckily Fiona had ordered some kind of noodle soup with twisted strands of fried tofu and nori and sesame seeds and little bite-sized mandu floating in the soup, and gave me a bit so I wouldn’t fail at this project (thanks, Fi!). The soup was refreshing and light – a seaweed-based broth, maybe? with a little bit of that ubiquitous red sauce – the noodles plain and pale, like Japanese somen in flavour but a little bit thicker. It was good, and cheap (about $4 NZ for a big bowl). And I’m a big fan of dumplings, so the little mandu were a plus.

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Day 21: ddeokbokki

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I went to Korea! And now I’m a few days behind in blog posts. So while I’m on a train for the next hour or so heading back into Tokyo I’m going to try and catch up.

I admit I’m pretty ignorant when it comes to Korean food – beyond galbi and bulgogi and bibimbap and kimchi-laden tofu soups I don’t really know what’s what. So, I don’t profess to know anything at all about what I’m talking about here (if you know more please enlighten me in the comments!). Without doing a bit more research I doubt I can accurately describe exactly what I had. It was all very good though.

But anyway, it had been 21 days since leaving New Zealand. I was with my friend Momoko who’s studying Korean in Seoul. She took me to this place to eat ddeokbokki, though I really had no idea what we were about to eat, or what any of the food was called. Nevermind. Momoko’s Korean is great. I followed her lead.

We scratched down our order on a little slip of paper and put on the aprons hanging on a hook behind our table. Not long after, a waiter came to our table with a big wide pan full of a fiery red stew-like concoction that we cooked over a little gas burner at our table.

The way it works is this: you sit down, there’s a little pad of paper with some optional ingredients, you tick what you want, they put it together in the kitchen, you cook it at your table. So we got a bunch of things: mussels, prawns, squid, cheese, these chewy, mochi-like rice sticks, cellophane noodles wrapped in nori and fried, and of course some noodles.

It was delicious. It wasn’t very spicy, despite the scorching shade of crimson, but it was full of flavour and probably salt and MSG. As the sauce bubbled away, everything took on that sort of warm, hearty stew-like flavour, strands of melted cheese worked their way into every mouthful. The seafood was succulent, the fried nori-noodle things a bit weird, the rice sticks indulgently chewy and wholly addictive.

And the noodles? I’m not sure what these are called. (I could look it up, but no internet access as I write this.) Clear and slightly chewy, slightly thicker than spaghetti, they started to get almost gluey towards the end when we’d overcooked everything a bit (forgot to turn off the burner), but they were really satisfying, absorbing the slight tingly heat from the sauce.

Success.

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Day 27: Spaghetti

Oops. I’ve been a little slack at uploading the last few posts – I have them typed up on my phone, just need to load them here! So, you know, technically I didn’t fail at the daily blogging thing… oh, who am I kidding!! Anyway, here’s what I wrote about spaghetti.

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One of the things I like a lot about Japan and Japanese cuisine in particular is the way they’ve adopted non-Japanese things as their own: hambaagu, for example, which bears little resemblance to what you or I would think of a hamburger, or kasutera (castella, a type of sponge cake that has its origins in sixteenth-century Portugal), or the ubiquitous Japanese karē-raisuwhich is about as far removed from Indian curry as you can get. This is yōshokuWestern-style Japanese food. If you’re not already familiar with it, you’ll surely be hearing more about it in the future. Get excited.

Since we’re talking noodles on this blog, today we’re talking spaghetti. Spaghetti in Japan is as old as – oh I don’t know. We’re probably talking sometime in the twentieth century (so maybe not that old). But the Japanese have taken spaghetti and given it a distinctly Japanese twist, with flavours such as mentaiko,  misonori, natto, shiso, shiitake, abura-age, negi, and so on. Japanese spaghetti can be a lot more sappari than some of its Western counterparts (though there are always exceptions) – lighter, cleaner flavours for the most part.

I was out with some old high school friends at a yōshoku restaurant in Kofu. It was very high-school-reunion-esque; I hadn’t seen any of these guys for nearly a decade. One’s a violin-maker now (didn’t see that coming at all!), another’s got two kids (ridiculously adorable), another’s working at this yōshoku restaurant, and so we met up there.

We each ordered our own thing, but got some Japanese-style spaghetti to share.

So. Here we’ve got spaghetti, which is Italian, with olive oil, also along the Italian theme, plus slippery little shimeji mushrooms, flecks of intensely salty-sour umeboshi (pickled plum, one of my favourite things in the world), spring onions, and a very light but satisfying buttery sauce. Or perhaps the sauce was olive oil. I was too busy talking to pay much attention. But I can say it was subtle, but delicious, and coated each strand of spaghetti making it ideal for slurping.

And oh yeah, and here we’ve also got Kraft grated parmesan and Tabasco, because, why not?

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Day 20: Koji

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This is Koji. I met him in his clothing shop in Daimyo, a neighbourhood of Fukuoka dotted with little boutiques and bars.

He says he was born in 1965 but I can’t really tell if he’s joking or for real. I spot one or two white strands hidden in his jet-black ponytail, so, who knows.

He likes rock climbing and has never been to New Zealand but he’d like to go. They have good rock climbing there, right? he asks. I think so, I reply (I hope I’m right?). Good surfing? I think so, I reply. Good snowboarding? When conditions are right, it can be very good, I say.

Koji’s shop is pretty cool, the kind of shop that can afford to space out the clothes hanging on its racks, the kind of place that makes you feel a bit special just looking around. Koji goes to London, Paris, New York for buying trips. (So lucky.) Paris is his favourite. At night, it’s a magical place, he says. I don’t disagree.

I ask Koji what his favourite food in Fukuoka is. He thinks for a moment:

In Fukuoka, everything is delicious. Fish, vegetable, rice, everything. Can you eat noodles?Then Ichiran. You write your order, and then, (he gestures handing a slip of paper over the counter). Everything you can choose: noodles hard or soft, soup strong or light, white or green sliced negi, how much garlic.

He tells me the name of a good cafe (do you prefer a cool place with not-so-good coffee, or a not-so-cool place with really good coffee, he asks; I pick the latter) and the name of his favourite restaurant and asks me to add him on facebook. If you weren’t flying off to Korea I’d say you should come out for dinner with some friends tonight, he says. Maybe next time.

Day 19: Nagahama ramen

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It’s Wednesday night, around 10pm. I’ve been walking around Fukuoka’s Nakasu area for a frustrating couple of hours in search of the famed yatai, or food stalls, that make this area one of the great street-food destinations of Japan. I’d read about the yatai on the internet but every guide on the subject has been irritatingly vague: just take the bus, said the most specific website. Great. So I did, not really knowing where to get off the bus.

Clearly I’ve missed something really obvious because these yatai are supposed to be easy to find and I’ve been wandering up and down narrow streets of what appears to be an incredibly bright, well-lit red light district, lined with seedy-looking men in suits guarding massage parlours with names like Bubble Love Jack and Erotic Trip. Nothing for me here. I walk on, hunger waxing, patience waning.

At an interminable wait at a crosswalk I can feel it: my forehead tightening, eyes fighting to stay open without realising it, I’m hungry but more tired and stubborn than anything else. I’m glad I’m travelling alone at this very moment because I wouldn’t want to be around me right now. I could just give up and go back. But not after I’ve come this far. I walk on.

And then, at the next corner, there’s someone playing the saxophone, a willow-lined canal, it’s pleasant. Okay. This is okay. I stop and listen. It’s not like I’m in a hurry. Okay this is actually quite nice. I can smell something good. There’s a ramen shop just there if I don’t find the yatai. I have options.

I stand there for a while, until the spell is broken. A man spits over my shoulder into the canal below. The saxophonist starts playing Stand By Me. Time to go! I’ll find these stalls! (I hope.)

I retrace my steps, back to where I started, look in the opposite direction, and there they are. A row of brightly-lit stalls, lanterns and flags reading ラーメン. There, across the river, some more. They were there all along, in the most obvious spot.

I pick the most popular-looking stall. I sit, wait. There’s a line, but I’m at the front of it. Soon a seat is free and the obachan running the show beckons me in, sorry to make you wait, she says. I sit, there’s only really one thing to order, ramen.

With a well-orchestrated clatter of pots and lids and condiments the obachan and her silent ojisan counterpart put together the dish: bowls out, tare poured in, pork bone broth ladled from a big, stinking, steaming pot and strained into the bowls, noodles cooked and drained, toppings arranged with a haphazard precision, hai dozo, omatase shimashita.

The style of ramen is Nagahama ramen and it’s popular among these yatai. It’s a milky but not too heavy tonkotsu soup, with thin straight noodles, negi, pork and kikurage mushrooms. It’s simple food, no unnecessary embellishments, just pure flavour. It’s addictive and before I know it I’ve finished the whole bowl, whoops, no broth left for a kaedama, though everyone around me is ordering a second helping of noodles.

When I’m done the obachan pulls up a stool and stops for a chat, where are you from, she says, and I explain there is no decent ramen in Wellington. I’ve always wanted to go to New Zealand, she says, come open a ramen shop, I beg. She laughs, pulls me behind the counter for a photo, and I’m on my way. Damn that was good. I’m happy now.

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Day 18: Yufuin jidori ramen

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I was in Yufuin, this onsen (hot spring) resort town in Oita prefecture that must be supremely popular with daytrippers and people who eat dinner at their ryokan because while during the day the main street was packed with people and shops and restaurants and little food stands, when I went out in search of dinner that night there was nothing. Everything shuttered and dark, no people on the streets, just the sound of my footsteps and the wind whistling. Yep. A veritable ghost town, Yufuin at night.

The only places that seemed to be open were a handful of ramen shops. Okay, fine. I had no problem with that. But how to tell which one to choose, when no one was in any of them? I couldn’t see any lines out any doors telling me this place is popular, this place is probably good. So I went for the one that had a lone diner in it the first time I walked past (but was totally empty by the time I went in around 8pm). Little place called Fukusuke. Turned out to be a good choice.

The specialty of this shop was local jidori ramen. In Yufuin probably 75% of restaurants had banners out the front advertising jidori – it’s a big thing there. I knew jidori was chicken but wasn’t sure what set it apart from normal chicken, so I asked the lady at the ramen shop. It’s a special breed of chicken, she said, and it has a bit more of a chicken flavour and is more lean and toothsome. And! Jidori makes an excellent stock, perfect for our ramen.

(After I got home I did some Wikipedia-ing, couldn’t find an article in English but there was a very helpful page in Japanese: in order to call chicken jidori in Japan, there are strict regulations: the chicken has to have at least 50% blood of one of the 38 breeds of chicken that were introduced to Japan up to the Meiji period (up to 1912), they have to be free-range with a regulated minimum amount of space per chicken, they’re raised to 80+ days (a lot longer than the normal lifespan of a commercially produced chicken), etc. They’re produced in various regions of Japan and are prized for their leaner meat and well-defined chicken flavour.)

The soup broth – clear, yellow, a little oily – tasted distinctly of chicken, an almost crisp savouriness in contrast to the rich, milky pork bone broth that is so common in this region. The bits of thinly sliced chicken atop the noodles almost reminded me of bacon: dark, slightly chewy, full of flavour. Just really very good.

The place was run by this lovely (I presumed) husband-and-wife duo. They worked seamlessly, without speaking much, but with a lot of smiles and small gestures that made it seem like they enjoyed making ramen together. I would’ve liked to talk to them more but I was sitting behind a rather tall counter not really conducive to over-the-counter chatting. The man did recommend I add some of the yuzu pepper (a salty-citrusy yellow paste) and black pepper to my ramen. I did; it created this bitter-tangy complexity that accentuated the chicken flavour of the soup, an experience very different from other ramen in these parts, but very good.

The noodles themselves were fine; I don’t think they were homemade, but pretty good nonetheless: yellow and thin and slightly wavy, slightly chewy.

After the noodles were all gone I tipped this little bowl of rice into the leftover chicken soup. A thing that’s popular in ramen shops in Kyushu (and seems to be popular in other parts) is kaedama, which is an extra helping of noodles you can order if you’ve got soup left over. This shop, though, had kaemeshi instead, a bowl of rice topped with shredded egg, nori, garlic chips, bits of peanut, and spring onion that you mix into your leftover soup, turning it into a slightly Japanese chicken soup with rice, an entirely different experience altogether. It was the perfect thing for a cold night in the mountains. Damn, I could get behind this.

The verdict? Jidori = good. Jidori ramen = excellent. Jidori ramen with kaemeshi = best ever. I went home very happy after this meal.
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